France’s routine victory over Honduras did not throw up too many moments of controversy, unless you’re one of the people out there that is yet to come to grips with goal-line technology, Jonathan Pearce I’m looking at you.
However, while it is understandable that manager Didier Deschamps chose to experiment with his side against a physical outfit that posed little threat to the Europeans, the most notable omission was Laurent Koscielny.
The Arsenal centre-back may well be carrying a knock, which has been cited as possible reason for his exclusion, but he should be restored to the side in favour of Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho, signed last summer for £18 million.
Meanwhile, expectation surrounding Les Bleus hopes in Brazil have slowly started to build following a generous draw that has paired them against a main threat of the surprisingly high seeds, Switzerland, who they face next, in a fixture that is likely who will secure top spot in World Cup Group E and avoid a round of 16 clash against a much-fancied Argentina side.
However, not long ago, their chances were at rock bottom. A defeat to Ukraine left the side described as the worst in the country’s history before they secured a dramatic comeback on home soil courtesy of a goal from none other than Sakho to send his side on their way. The defender had delivered when it mattered most for his country and helped to avoid a catastrophe. One player that was absent that night was Koscileny, sent off in the first leg a week earlier and subsequently banned.
But to opt for the former Paris Saint-Germain in favour of the north London defender could prove to be a costly decision. Although the Merseyside man’s performance could hardly be faulted against Honduras, with significantly tougher tests to come, it is the Gunner more likely to fire his side to success from the back.
While it is difficult to gauge how Sakho will perform against opposition of a higher level and possibly ungenerous to rule him out of the equation, it is his displays at club level that suggest Koscielny is the more obvious choice. Once regarded as a solid addition to Brendan Rodgers’ side, he has been widely criticised in the tail end of the season when Liverpool’s title bid unravelled in spectacular fashion.
Sakho is undoubtedly a physical presence, but in possession he is far from assured. In truth, he rarely seems to have the ball under complete control and has the appearance of a mistake waiting to unfold. To have such an unsteady presence in the heart of defence can unsettle those alongside him, especially Raphael Varane.
The Real Madrid defender is regarded as one of the best in the world and despite his tender years is worthy of his place in the side. Likely to be a lynch pin for France in years to come, an opportunity to give him experience at an international tournament should not be missed.
However, it is Koscielny that is most capable of leading the defensive line and marshalling his side with authority. He has secured a reputation as one of the Premier League’s best central defenders over the course of the season, with Per Mertesacker and himself representing a perfectly balanced partnership.
Despite boasting less than 20 caps for the senior side at 28 years of age he is approaching the peak of his powers. The French defence are lacking a natural presence to unite them in defence and Koscienly can provide it. While Sakho remains unsure of himself and often gets caught in two minds, Koscielny decisiveness is more clear cut.
Deschamps may well have wanted to test the water with Sakho against Honduras, but against Switzerland, they will face two very attacking full-backs in Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner. Clearly France’s own full-backs are vital to victory but Koscielny’s pace will allow him to get in behind to cover and his overall presence will lead to a better, more tight knit unit.
With Kurt Zouma and Eliaquim Mangala, along with Varane, quickly emerging, this World Cup could represent the Arsenal defender’s last chance to lead the line for his country on the international stage and one that he deserves.
A calm influence under pressure is invaluable and one that France will need if they are to reach the knock-out stages. Sakho at present is unable to provide it. However, this France side was once low on confidence too and the Liverpool defender could yet have a part to play.