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Australia have started their 2018 World Cup with a 2-1 defeat against France, but Bert van Marwijk’s men proved they have what it takes to mix it with the best footballing nations on the sport’s biggest stage.
Despite looking like they’d done enough to secure a draw against one of the Russia 2018 favourites after Antoine Griezmann and Mile Jedinak traded second-half penalties, a looping, deflected strike from Paul Pogba which only just passed the goal-line was enough to consign Australia to a 2-1 loss.
The defeat is a bitter pill to swallow for Socceroos fans after an excellent, spirited performance from the side. Van Marwijk had his team well-structured in defence, constantly thwarting their high-profile opponents.
Aaron Mooy and Trent Sainsbury were immense in defeat, living up to their reputations as two of Australia’s best players, while N’Golo Kante was France’s top performer, defusing the bulk of the Socceroos’ drives into French territory.
The match started with a period of French dominance many Socceroos fans had feared was inevitable. Kylian Mbappe in particular was terribly threatening, and before too long Les Blues had registered four shots on target.
By that time, Australia had hardly touched the ball, let alone threatened Hugo Lloris’ goal, instead turning the ball over with a profligacy they could ill-afford. Such was the nature of the game then that some viewers might have been wishing the match was only being broadcast by Optus and not SBS, so that they were subjected to only an intermittent, stop-start stream of French attacks rather than the constant deluge actually happening on the pitch.
But some sharp work from Mat Ryan in goal kept the scoreboard unaltered.
While the Australian custodian was solid, the best save of the first half belonged to Lloris, the French skipper diving superbly to his left to turn a deflection from one of his teammates around the post following an Aaron Mooy free-kick.
The Socceroos made no more comparable attacks on the French goal in the half, but the same could not be said of their opponents, only a Mark Milligan clearance and some superb Trent Sainsbury defending keeping the match scoreless.
Despite France dominating the chances and field position, Australia had genuine reason for frustration at half-time, such was the frequency with which men in blue shirts threw themselves to the ground under minimal duress – none more so than Lucas Hernandez – only to be rewarded by referee Andres Cunha. Socceroos fans were no doubt reminded of the similarly infuriating adjudicating in 2006 against Brazil.
But the refereeing would come under the microscope far more in the second half, the VAR intervening after Antoine Griezmann was brought down by Josh Risdon with only Ryan to beat. Cunha had originally waved play on, but the use of technology saw a penalty awarded a minute later.
It is cruel yet fitting that Australia, whose fans have been so frustrated with the implementation of the VAR in the A-League, became the first side in Russia to be on the wrong end of a video intervention, but the fact is there could be no complaints about this decision. The contact was clear, and Risdon can be thankful that Griezmann’s heavy touched saved the right-back from receiving the tournament’s first red card.
France’s star man made no mistake from the spot, and when his side made another foray into the Australian area soon after, one got the impression the floodgates were on the verge of opening.
But the Socceroos got the ball up the other end of the field and earned a spot kick of their own, Samuel Umtiti inexplicably extending an arm above his head to handle a Mooy free-kick. If the first-half refereeing was reminiscent of Australia’s 2006 World Cup fixture against Brazil, this infringement recalled memories of the following fixture against Croatia.
Just like Craig Moore in Stuttgart, Mile Jedinak stepped up and finished with aplomb to bring the scoreboard back level, but unlike the events of 12 years ago, it wasn’t enough to earn a result.
Despite the eventual scoreline, the Socceroos had moments where they were the better of the two sides, particularly in the second half, although that was due in no small part to France losing their way.
Didier Deschamps is sure to face a mountain of pressure to get his side performing at a far higher standard after guiding his side to a one-goal win in a match from which many were expecting a rout.
As for the Socceroos, the single-goal margin could be a major boost in their quest to qualify for the round of 16, particularly if Les Blues are stung into putting in two far more commanding performances against Peru and Denamrk.
But France’s performances in the rest of the group stage will not be at the forefront of Bert van Marwijk’s mind; the next match against Denmark and following encounter against Peru are now the focus, and based on the evidence of tonight, Australia look to have what it takes to qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament.