France look to cast aside doubts going into World Cup campaign

France head to Qatar as World Cup holders and with the newly-crowned Ballon d'Or winner in their ranks, so all should be rosy for coach Didier Deschamps.

But injuries, recent results and off-field matters have raised doubts about their prospects of becoming the first team to successfully defend the World Cup trophy since Brazil in 1962.

After the ups and downs of last year, when Didier Deschamps' team went out of the European Championship on penalties to Switzerland in the last 16 and then bounced back to win the UEFA Nations League, there has not been too much to shout about in 2022 for Les Bleus.

They have won just one of their last six games, a run that included two defeats against Denmark, one of their upcoming World Cup opponents.

France are not the only major European side to have struggled in these Nations League matches, but of greater concern is the fact that their two midfield pillars from the triumphant 2018 campaign in Russia will not be in the squad this time.

Chelsea's N'Golo Kante is out with a hamstring injury that required surgery, and earlier this week it was confirmed that Paul Pogba will also play no part.

The Juventus playmaker was clinging to the hope that he could recover from a knee injury in time to feature in the squad that Deschamps will name next week.

But he has not played for his club since signing from Manchester United in the close season and this week he admitted defeat in his battle to be fit for Qatar.

"There was still some hope that he would be back. He is such an important player for the team. He will be hugely missed," captain Hugo Lloris admitted.

Between them they have played 144 times for their country and their absence leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the park.

Real Madrid's Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot of Juventus appear the favourites to fill that hole, while Deschamps is hoping injuries elsewhere -- such as that suffered by centre-back Raphael Varane -- will clear up in time.

"When you start a competition you need to have confidence in all the players who are called up. Then it's up to those players to create a synergy and make us strong as a team," added Lloris.

- Fearsome attack -

Perhaps the absence of Pogba will be a blessing, especially given his personal issues -- he is also embroiled in an alleged extortion plot involving his own brother that has led to Mathias Pogba being charged along with four other people.

Pogba said he was being blackmailed for 13 million euros ($12.9m) and told investigators that his blackmailers wanted to discredit him by claiming he asked a witch doctor to cast a spell on Kylian Mbappe.

The last French team get-together was also overshadowed by a row between Mbappe and the French Football Federation over image rights that risked damaging squad morale.

On top of that, the FFF's veteran 80-year-old president, Noel Le Graet, has been in the firing line since So Foot magazine published accusations by some former employees of mistreatment during their time at the federation.

The French government also recently announced it was launching an audit of the federation.

"It's not the calmest atmosphere that I have known," admitted Deschamps a few weeks ago.

But his focus is now purely on the football, and for all their problems France still have a fearsome side.

Benzema, who will turn 35 the day after the final, is in the form of his life and his presence means France may not need Olivier Giroud even if he has also been performing well for AC Milan.

Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Kingsley Coman are all world-class attackers and Christopher Nkunku was the best player in the Bundesliga last season.

Then there is Mbappe, who in 2018 became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele.

Now approaching his 24th birthday, the Paris Saint-Germain superstar may be relieved to be away from the spotlight of his club for a few weeks after endless speculation about his future.

If Mbappe and Benzema click together, then that is likely to spell trouble for France's opponents.

as/mw