Ken Early: France yet to find rhythm after Danish stalemate
Both sides went through the motions in Moscow but that could come to hurt French
France’s Ngolo Kante and Denmark’s Martin Braithwaite battle for the ball during their Group C clash in Moscow. Photo: Victor R. Caivano/AP Photo
France 0 Denmark 0
It was with a certain wistfulness that Irish supporters saw Denmark drawn in Group C of the 2018 World Cup along with France, Peru and Australia: in the playoff in Dublin, if things had gone just a little differently ... well, a lot differently ... that could have been us.
On a sunny evening in Moscow, Denmark played France before 78,000 people at the Luzhniki Stadium and Ireland can at least say with certainty that if we had been involved in the match, it could not have been any worse.
Group C has been one of the less dramatic sections and everyone knew that both France and Denmark were likely to qualify for the next round regardless of what happened on the pitch. For those arriving at the stadium there was still the prospect of seeing an interesting match: maybe with the pressure turned down a little, the teams would cut loose and play free.
There had also been a bit of needle in the build-up, as Denmark coach Age Hareide’s quotes from a couple of weeks ago were put to France’s Didier Deschamps in his pre-match press conference. Hareide had said France were “nothing special” - a claim he insisted had been taken out of context, he had merely meant they were nothing special compared to the 1998 World Cup winners - and channelling the spirit of the 1950s to ask of Paul Pogba: “Does he only think about his haircut?”
Didier Deschamps said that his players were aware of the comments and that they added not only spice, but “salt, vinegar, whatever you want to call it,” to this tie. Then he went ahead and dropped most of his first XI, including Haircut. So much for the revenge narrative.
The first half was a woeful anticlimax, especially coming so soon after the fever of Monday night’s Group B deciders between Portugal, Iran, Spain and Morocco. The news early on that Peru had gone 1-0 up against Australia - a scoreline that would put both France and Denmark through - did little to improve the intensity of the match. As the players went through the motions on the pitch, a glance around the stands revealed perhaps more spectators were looking at their phones than watching the game. By half-time it already felt destined to be the first 0-0 of this World Cup.
That the game was so bad was more the fault of France than of Denmark, who were at least recognisable as the tidy, diligent outfit that had proven too hot for Ireland to handle back in November. As for France - there was nothing there to recognise.
You wondered what Deschamps could have been thinking with this selection. His team had been cheered off to this World Cup by capacity crowds at the Stade de France, excited to see what the beaten finalists of Euro 2016 could achieve. Those French fans have seen nothing to excite them yet from their team in Russia.
While Brazil have had to battle pressure and self-doubt, Germany have been through angst and soul-searching and hair-raising late reprieves, England have been trying not to get carried away with the hype and Argentina have had a kind of national nervous breakdown, France’s progress to the knockout stage has been most notable for its dull featurelessness. They have done just enough and no more, which is actually nowhere near enough for a squad that contains perhaps more talented players than any other 23 in the tournament.
In the 77th and 78th minutes there was an extended spell of Danish possession in which the bored Russian fans in the Luzhniki began cheering every pass. There was no doubt where the neutral sympathies lay. At least the Danes were having a go. They just weren’t very good. Their problem is simple - like Ireland, and like most of the countries at the World Cup, they don’t have many great players. France have a more luxurious kind of problem - an abundance of brilliant footballers, but no team.
In Moscow they resembled nothing so much as an England World Cup team of Sven-Goran Eriksson or Fabio Capello - all the components seem to be there, the body parts have all been stitched together on Dr Deschamps laboratory slab, everything looks to be in order, and yet the creature stubbornly refuses to come to life.
If they are going to win this World Cup, a team is going to have to materialise at some point. Since Deschamps does not seem to have the vision of a team in his head, the team France needs will have to play its way into existence over the course of this tournament. But Deschamps selection turned the match against Denmark into a procedural formality. It allowed some of his players to save their energy, but it robbed them of the chance to find their rhythm.
The final whistle was drowned out by the far louder whistles of the Luzhniki crowd, irritated to have wasted an evening watching France. Deschamps’ players will go into their second-round match with fresh legs but clouded minds. There is a sense of drift about them, as though their tournament hasn’t really got going yet. If they are not careful it will be over sooner than they think. Playing with the slackness and staleness they showed against Denmark, France are vulnerable to anybody.
DENMARK (4-3-3): Schmeichel; Dalsgaard, Kjaer, Christensen, Larsen; Delaney (Lerager 90), Mathias Zanka Jorgensen, Eriksen; Sisto (Fischer 60), Cornelius (Dolberg 75), Braithwaite.
Booked: Mathias Zanka Jorgensen.
FRANCE (4-2-3-1): Mandanda; Sidibe, Varane, Kimpembe, Lucas (Mendy 50); Kante, Nzonzi; Lemar, Griezmann (Fekir 69), Dembele (Mbappe-Lottin 78); Giroud.
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Brazil).