Sky Sports News senior reporter Rob Dorsett discusses England’s crunch World Cup quarter-final against France on Saturday and reveals the opinions of the French media ahead of the game at the Al Bayt Stadium.
England are poor in defence but strong in attack. Harry Maguire is England’s weakest link. Kyle Walker is arrogant, and he will not cope with Kylian Mbappe. This game will be decided in the midfield.
Not my views – these are the predominant opinions within France’s media, and the wider French public, I’m told.
But speaking with a number of French football reporters in recent days, it is clear there is also a real concern England can beat the reigning world champions, who French football fans feels are not as strong now as they have been in recent years.
Didier Deschamps’ squad is clearly depleted by injury absences. His midfield is missing two of the best players in the world in N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, although they still have the magical mastery of Antoine Griezmann, who is set to win his 72nd consecutive cap for France in the quarter-final.
Alongside Griezmann, the French engine room is not as powerful as in the past, with the inexperienced Aurelien Tchouameni and inconsistent Adrien Rabiot.
In defence, fans are astounded that Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard is being ignored by Didier Deschamps – he has played just once, against Australia in the group games. French journalists expect him to be overlooked again against England.
While Pavard is absent at right-back, Deschamps has stuck with Barcelona’s Jules Kounde at right-back, despite him not being in his best form, and the fans questioning his selection.
So all is not rosy in French football, as they take on England. There is a growing clamour for Zinedine Zidane to take over as manager, with Deschamps’ future up in the air, and his contract due to expire on New Year’s Eve.
Is Walker ready for Mbappe battle?
But where the French nation is united, is in their belief they have attacking players that can hurt any team in the world. Even without the man who won the Ballon d’Or in October, Karim Benzema, they have Olivier Giroud, who has become his nation’s all-time leading men’s scorer in Qatar.
They believe it is well-nigh impossible for England to keep a fourth consecutive clean sheet in this tournament.
Their argument is convincing. All the talk pre-match has been dominated by the form of Mbappe, whose stats say he is the best forward in the world right now.
Five goals in the World Cup so far, he is leading the race for the Golden Boot. France have never lost a match in a World Cup or Euros when Mbappe has started.
So, what does Gareth Southgate do to try to counteract the French threat?
First and foremost, even since before the tournament started, he had a plan for Mbappe. Walker was the man within that plan.
When Walker was selected for the World Cup squad ahead of another injured right-back, Reece James, it was with a view to have the Manchester City player fit and firing in time to do a job on Mbappe.
Walker has been nursed back to full fitness, after his groin operation at the start of October. A week of full training in the 32 degrees Celsius heat of Al Wakrah then 57 minutes on the pitch against Wales followed by 90 minutes against Senegal.
Walker is good to go, and is vowing he can keep up within the flying Frenchman, for whom he is promising he “won’t roll out the red carpet”.
Arrogance, as the French see it, or the confidence of a man who has held his own against Mbappe in four Champions League matches?
Will Southgate stick with 4-3-3?
As for England’s formation – traditionally, against the world’s better sides, Southgate has opted for five in defence and three centre backs. But that was England pre-Jude Bellingham, and the England boss has hinted he will stick with the 4-3-3 formation that has been so positive for his side in Qatar so far.
When Southgate was asked by ITV if he wants his side to maintain their attacking approach, he replied: “Yes, without a doubt. There is no point going into a game like this and just covering up and sitting on the ropes.
“We believe we can cause France problems, and we intend to do that. We’ve got to stick on the path we’ve been heading.”
That doesn’t sound like a manager about to change a winning formula.
England’s potential route to the World Cup final
Quarter-finals – Saturday
England vs France – Kick-off 7pm
Semi-finals – Wednesday December 14
England vs Morocco/Spain/Portugal/Switzerland – Kick-off 7pm
Final – Sunday December 18
England vs Croatia/Netherlands/Argentina – Kick-off 3pm