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France’s forwards sparkle as they make case to be among World Cup favourites | Football

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It is difficult to draw too many conclusions from France’s two friendlies in the last few days given they were missing half of their team. Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Benjamin Mendy, Hugo Lloris are all but automatic first choices when fit, while Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembélé and Djibril Sidibé are also among the first names on Didier Deschamps’ team sheet. The manager will not have reached any earth-shattering revelations against a Wales side who were demoralised after their failure to qualify for the World Cup and a Germany side who were also missing key players (Manuel Neuer, Jérôme Boateng, Thomas Müller), but he was given a few surprises – and reasons to feel positive.

France played well enough as they beat a listless Wales team 2-0 and drew 2-2 in Cologne but they remain just below the three pre-tournament favourites: Brazil, Spain and Germany. The most striking thing about France’s two friendlies was the way Antoine Griezmann impressed against Wales. He has struggled badly with Atlético Madrid this season as they have drifted in La Liga and struggled in the Champions League. However, he sparkled on Friday night, finding the back of the net early on and working hard as a genuine creative presence.

Griezmann, playing off Olivier Giroud and using the Arsenal striker’s physicality to find space, was in a slightly different role to the one he adopted at Euro 2016. On Friday he dropped deeper and pulled wide, allowing Kylian Mbappé to cut inside as he played like a No10 in a 4-2-3-1. With Mbappé now learning how to play on the right at Paris Saint-Germain (after having played largely from the left at Monaco), Griezmann is finding more freedom and space.

Whether playing a 4-2-3-1 (as they did against Wales), a 4-3-3 (as they did against Germany) or a 4-4-2 (as they did in Euro 2016), France have often struggled to find the right balance on the right wing. Deschamps has varied his personnel from game to game, depending on form and injuries. Moussa Sissoko has played there with boundless energy but little attacking quality; Kingsley Coman is an archetypal if limited winger who has stuttered in recent months; Florian Thauvin only appears to be given a place to appease Marseille fans; and Ousmane Dembélé has not played since September and may not return until the end of the year.

Mbappé has been slightly off the pace since moving to Paris but he was probably France’s best player in this round of fixtures, at least among the group who started both matches. If he plays wide, he drags defenders with him and creates space for his team-mates. But he also creates confusion when he moves infield, as he did for Griezmann’s goal on Friday night. France were effectively playing with three narrow strikers but Wales struggled to cope, even with a back three.

Giroud scored the second goal on Friday night as he made his case to be involved next summer, despite rarely starting for Arsenal and facing a renewed challenge from Karim Benzema, is ramping up the pressure for a return with an aggressive media campaign. Again, Mbappé was involved. He burst down the right wing before neatly slipping the ball to Giroud, who doubled France’s lead. Deschamps will face a dilemma when Dembélé returns to full fitness but for now he can be happy with his forward line, not least because Griezmann and Mbappé will have gained confidence from how they performed in slightly new roles.

The two weren’t the only forwards who enjoyed these fixtures, though. Alexandre Lacazette scored a brace against Germany. The Arsenal striker is unlikely to start next summer but his finishing is as ruthless as ever and he seems assured a place in the squad, an unlikely turnaround given that Deschamps seemed to prefer the likes of Kévin Gameiro a year ago. Lacazette will need to continue scoring for Arsenal but, for the time being, his form is another pleasant surprise for France.

Lacazette’s former Lyon team-mates, Anthony Martial and Corentin Tolisso, also distinguished themselves in these two matches and have become genuine contenders for starting roles. Thomas Lemar’s creativity and prowess on the ball probably give him the edge over Martial but the Manchester United player, having been left out of the last squad, delivered a firm rebuttal in setting up Lacazette’s first goal against Germany. More impressive, however, is his improved decision-making with the ball at his feet.

When playing in Ligue 1, Martial relied on his pace. He found scoring all too easy at Monaco when playing alongside the creative nexus of João Moutinho, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Bernardo Silva. His first touch, however, was often lacking, a flaw that pace and acceleration cannot mask in the quicker Premier League. Two years on from his big-money move to Manchester, Martial now looks like a player worth his fee. His work ethic and overall intelligence are making him a more complete and creative player, while his pace remains a potent weapon.

Tolisso, though, may have given Deschamps the most food for thought of any player in the squad. He showcased his versatility on Friday against Wales, setting up Griezmann’s goal with a sparkling assist, affecting play with his passing, running with the ball at his feet and showing that he can play the box-to-box role usually taken by Paul Pogba. Against Germany he played on the right of a midfield three and looked equally at ease, comfortably going toe-to-toe with Julian Draxler and Toni Kroos. Kanté and Pogba will expect to be first choice in a midfield two but, if Deschamps choses to play a three, Tolisso looks ideal – especially given how weary Blaise Matuidi looked against Germany.

Benjamin Pavard and Steven N’Zonzi, who both made their international debuts over the weekend, also impressed. They looked well suited to international football. N’Zonzi’s maturity and composure was no surprise, but 21-year-old Pavard was equally assured. Sold by Lille to Stuttgart last summer, the lanky youngster has steadily improved in the Bundesliga. He is far from being an attack-minded full-back, but if he continues to progress, his defensive ability could come in handy against certain opponents, especially in light of Sidibé’s not infrequent lapses in concentration.

Both of the debutants have work to do if they are to make it to Russia but they, like many of their compatriots, seem eager to seize their chance, even if it comes as a result of injuries to others. These impressive individual performances leave Deschamps with increasingly tough choices to make. Given how doggedly he clung to players such as Dimitri Payet and Patrice Evra in recent years, these changes represent a near-seismic shift in his approach, and France, now seemingly spoiled for choice, seem an increasingly dangerous proposition.

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