France won 2018 World Cup, but now U-20s hoping to knock off U.S. in round of 16
Less than a year after France's World Cup triumph in Russia, this could prove to be another very successful summer for French football. It is for sure one in which there will be plenty of opportunities for France to establish itself on top of the world at pretty much every level.
While the Women's World Cup on home soil is huge, while the Under-21s' return to the European Championship for the first time since 2006 is massive, and while the U19s have an interesting generation ready for Euros of their own, all eyes on Tuesday will be on the U20s. The young Frenchmen face the U.S. in the U20 World Cup round of 16 (11:30 a.m. ET) in Poland after a perfect three wins from three in the group stage.
Managed by 1998 World Cup winner Bernard Diomede, les Bleuets know very well that the Americans will be much stronger opposition than any foe they've faced so far (Saudi Arabia, Panama and Mali). Konrad de la Fuente and his teammates have the ability to cause the French a few problems, but they will also face a lot of talent, especially from Moussa Diaby.
The Parisian has been the player of the tournament for France so far. He has scored only once, but he has been the leader going forward on the back of a convincing season with Paris Saint-Germain, where he made 25 appearances in Ligue 1, scored twice and added six assists. PSG manager Thomas Tuchel has a lot of faith in him and gave him an opportunity to prove what he could do with the first team. Diaby took it with both hands. He is small but quick and skillful, and he boasts versatility that can see him line up as a winger, a wing-back or a second striker. His confidence has been boosted by his domestic season, and now he wants to carry the U20s to the top.
It will be a strange game for him, though. He will face one of his best mates in football, Timothy Weah. The pair have played together for years in Paris, and they are very close, despite Weah's spending the past six months away from PSG on loan at Celtic. Weah will know too well that Diaby is France's primary threat up front.
In midfield, Mickael Cuisance will, once again, aim to run the show. Since a very young age, he has been the most promising player of his generation. He left the Nancy academy at 16 to join Borussia Monchengladbach and never looked back. He had a breakthrough season in 2017-18, making 24 Bundesliga appearances and contributing some stellar performances.
His profile is not dissimilar to Paul Pogba's, except that he is left-footed. He can do just about everything in midfield: defend, tackle, create, score (two goals in three matches in this World Cup), assist, dribble, play short and long passes. He is elegant and clever, and he possesses a good engine. He is the archetype of the modern midfielder: so gifted, so driven. Les Bleuets are very strong in midfield, but Cuisance is at the heart of everything.
However, the area in which this team is the strongest has to be in the centre of defence. The pool of players in this position available to France from U19s to the first team is breathtaking.
The U19s have the likes of William Saliba and Benoit Badiashile. The U20s can rely on Boubacar Kamara, Evan N'Dicka, Jean-Clair Todibo, Dan-Axel Zagadou and Thomas Basila. The U21s can count on Abdou Diallo, Ibrahima Konate, Dayot Upamecano, Moussa Niakhate and Malang Sarr. And then, of course, there's Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Clement Lenglet and Kurt Zouma, all part of the first-team squad, with the likes of Presnel Kimpembe and Aymeric Laporte missing out.
With the U20s, Zagadou wears the captain's armband, but he is much more than that. He is the boss on and off the field. He has accumulated a lot of experience since leaving PSG -- where he spent five years in the academy -- to join Borussia Dortmund, and he has been a key player this season for Lucien Favre. He can play centre-back or left-back and is very strong physically but good on the ball as a left-footer. He is also very mature for his age.
Diaby, Cuisance and Zagadou will be the leaders of this French team against the U.S. on Tuesday. In 2013, they and their teammates were 13 or 14 when they watched Pogba, Umtiti and the others win the U20 World Cup. As the designated heirs, they hope it is their turn now, and the serious business starts on Tuesday against the Americans.