19:45 KO (BST), Thursday 31st August; Stade de France (Saint-Denis)
France aren’t exactly where they’d like to be in Group A, sitting uncomfortably in second tied on points with group leaders Sweden after a shock 2-1 defeat to the Blue-Yellow in their previous fixture in June.
The Swedes are expected to beat Bulgaria without too much difficulty, so anything less than all three points would be deemed unacceptable by the ever-expectant Didier Deschamps.
Given this is the last time these two nations will meet in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, the Netherlands know that this is their chance to catch up with France and put a dent in their qualification hopes, boosting their own in the process.
Sitting in third, three points behind, a victory would put them in contention for a spot in the playoff round.
Last Time Out
France 3-2 England (Friendly)
The French hosted England in a post-season international friendly in June at the Stade de France and deservedly ended their international campaign on a high with a 3-2 victory over the Three Lions.
Harry Kane may have provided England with the perfect start after nine minutes, the French never once rested on their laurels and an inspired performance from Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba helped turn the game on its head.
Samuel Umtiti drew the game level in the first half before Djibril Sidibe put Les Bleus in front as defenders taught the forwards a lesson in how to finish. England captain Kane pulled England back on level pegging from the spot after Raphael Varane fouled Dele Alli, and was subsequently sent off by virtue of VAR, the biggest talking point of the game.
New Barcelona forward, Ousmane Dembele, proved to be the match winner after he was set up by Kylian Mbappe for a low, powerful finish. An encouraging performance from France, inspired by the younger generation and displaying a great deal of fight.
Netherlands 5-0 Luxembourg (World Cup Qualifier Group A)
The Netherlands continued their strong finish to the international campaign with a second consecutive 5-0 victory over minnows Luxembourg. Crucially, new Dutch boss Dick Advocaat got his third spell in charge of the national team off to a winning start, and in some style.
Legendary Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder scored on the night he won a record 131st cap for his country, whilst unsettled Tottenham striker Vincent Janssen added a penalty late on to continue his international goal-scoring form.
Liverpool midfielder Gini Wijnaldum, Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben and Quincy Promes also added their own names to the scoresheet to ensure a resounding win, though in truth it’s nothing less than expected against a national as small as Luxembourg.
The win ensured the Netherlands still have a chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, sitting in third and three points behind both France and Sweden, though only the top two will earn a right to play in Russia.
France are missing a big presence in Raphael Varane in the centre of defence, whilst new Barcelona signing Ousmane Dembele is left out after refusing to train with former club Borussia Dortmund as he attempted to force through his move. There’s also no place for Anthony Martial, despite his blistering start to the season.
The Dutch have a problem in defence and remain without a key quartet of Virgil van Dijk, who is yet to play for Southampton this season as he attempts to force through a move to Liverpool, Nathan Ake, Daryl Janmaat and Jeffrey Bruma, too. It means Advocaat will likely stick with the four-man unit that kept a clean sheet against Luxembourg. Robin van Persie has earned a recall, but Vincent Janssen’s scoring record with the national team means he’s likely to keep his place.
Key Battle: Paul Pogba vs Gini Wijnaldum
The last time these two nations met, Paul Pogba was the difference-maker with a spectacular long-range effort to give Les Bleus a narrow 1-0 victory which put them in control of Group A.
Back in October 2016, Pogba was still settling into his role in Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, but his influence has grown exponentially since then and almost a year later, he’s arguably the most important player on the pitch for both club and country.
Dominating the midfield battle and pulling the strings for the Red Devils in their 100% start to the Premier League season, with two goals, one assist and six chances created, he’ll be hoping to transfer his impressive displays onto the international stage.
The key to stopping France, therefore, is shutting down Pogba and hence their line of distribution to the forwards. Tasked with doing so is industrious box-to-box midfielder Gini Wijnaldum.
A Premier League rival with Liverpool, the Dutchman is familiar with Pogba’s game and is well-versed in high-intensity pressing under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp. It’s an aspect of his club game he needs to bring to the Netherlands to help secure a positive result.
A winning formula
Didier Deschamps has such strength in depth in the national squad that often his selection choices provoke debate over who has missed out rather than those that have actually earned a call-up.
For instance, six of the players involved in the final of the 2016 European Championships -four starters and two substitutes- have missed out during this international break. France are primed for a Spain-like dominance of the international scene.
However, unlike the Spanish, the French don’t have a particularly discernible style of football or a formation consistently used by the manager. In his attempts to include all of his best players in the first team, Deschamps has been guilty of chopping and changing the starting XI. Given the lack of time national teams have to train together in the first place, it hurts team cohesion to constantly unsettle his starting XI.
The key for Deschamps is to fit all of his stars into one XI without compromising tactical structure and balance within the team, whilst ensuring the conveyor belt of young talent continues to move. These next few games will be crucial in doing so as the World Cup looms.
Everything to play for
This game will have major implications on the outcome of Group A, both nations having a huge motivation to emerge victorious at the final whistle. As a result, it’ll be a game of passion, determination and fight, which may prove the decisive influence in the final result.
For France, they absolutely must beat whoever lies in their path to keep pace with leaders Sweden and ensure they finish in top spot and avoid a playoff. Given that they’re not playing Sweden again in the campaign, it’s imperative they keep winning and hope the Swedes slip-up.
From the Dutch’s perspective, top spot is perhaps a little out of reach, but second isn’t at all. Only three points behind France, a win draws them level and boosts their chances of reaching Russia, especially since they host the current leaders in the final fixture of the qualifying campaign.
There’s everything to play for at the Stade de France and the result could have big implications on the final Group A standings.
PREDICTION: France 2-0 Netherlands
The Netherlands don’t have a bad squad by any means, but it’s still early into Dick Advocaat’s reign and he has had little time with the squad to impart his beliefs, tactics and instructions to the players. This is the first real test he will face and the Dutch will find it undoubtedly tough.
I don’t believe they’re strong enough to match the French strength in depth and the gulf in quality is too vast, heralding a big victory for France.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?