PARIS (AP) — France coach Didier Deschamps picked central defenders Raphael Varane and Prensel Kimpembe, but left out standout goalkeeper Mike Maignan in a World Cup squad announced Wednesday amid injury concerns.
Deschamps announced his 25-man squad on national television. Defending champion France opens against Australia on Nov. 22, and the squad flies to Qatar next Wednesday.
“We have a huge challenge ahead of us. Nothing is bigger than the World Cup. But I have total faith in my players,” Deschamps said. “You can’t change the physical form players are in. We play on the 22nd, so at least we have one week to prepare.”
Veteran striker Olivier Giroud was selected after some fine performances for AC Milan this season. The 36-year-old striker needs three goals to beat Thierry Henry's national team record of 51.
“I think it’s better for the France team that he’s with us," said Deschamps, adding that Giroud remains second choice behind Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema. “He knows his status.”
But Maignan — Giroud's club teammate and the best goalkeeper in Serie A when Milan won the league last season — was left out as he recovers from an ongoing calf injury. The 37-year-old Steve Mandanda takes his place as backup for No. 1 Hugo Lloris.
Varane, who has 87 international caps, has not played since sustaining a hamstring injury with Manchester United on Oct. 11. He was a rock in France's defense when it won the 2018 World Cup.
Kimpembe, a PSG defender who has 28 caps, has been hampered by a six-week hamstring injury and a recent Achilles Tendon problem.
“Presnel will be ready (for PSG) on Sunday,” Deschamps said. “Raphael’s injury was a bit longer, but he could also be ready against Australia.”
William Saliba, who has excelled for Premier League leader Arsenal this season, and Bayern Munich's Dayot Upamecano provide good cover in central defense.
Marseille right back Jonathan Clauss was left out but teammate Jordan Veretout got the nod in a midfield lineup that includes Real Madrid pair Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni.
“I saw quite a few World Cups in front of the TV with my family," the 22-year-old Tchouameni said.. "So hearing my name in the list bings back memories, and now I’m part of it."
FIFA let teams add three players to the usual squads of 23 because of disruption to soccer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some players have looked tense in recent weeks amid the fear of getting injured close to the tournament.
“It hasn’t been the easiest choice. But my fellow coaches have faced the same problems during this period,” Deschamps said. “Players have been getting injured and may still get injured.”
The 34-year-old Benzema, who has been dealing with muscle fatigue and a bothersome thigh, will miss his sixth straight start when Madrid hosts Cádiz in the Spanish league on Thursday.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said Benzema was not trying to preserve himself for France. Deschamps said he's overplayed.
“He’s played an enormous amount, maybe too much at one point. Karim knows that the World Cup is very important for him," Deschamps said. "He hasn’t refused to play for Real Madrid, he just wasn’t in top form. He'll do everything to be ready for the 22nd.”
Deschamps has an attack packed with pace, skill and power.
PSG star Kylian Mbappe joins Benzema, along with Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) and Christopher Nkunku, who is enjoying another fine season with Leipzig.
France lost to Switzerland in the round of 16 at the European Championship last year but bounced back to win the Nations League a few months later.
But Deschamps thinks injury concerns could sharpen the focus.
“French teams are not at their best when they’re in a comfort zone,” he said. “We can’t say that we’re in one now.”
France plays Australia at Al Janoub Stadium, then faces Denmark at Stadium 974 before completing its Group D matches against Tunisia on Nov. 30 at Education City Stadium.
No team has successfully defended its World Cup title since Brazil in 1962.
“You’re not going to sap my morale," Deschamps told the television presenter when reminded. "Reaching the highest level is a difficult thing, staying there is even more difficult.”
Goalkeepers: Alphone Areola (West Ham), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Rennes).
Defenders: Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Theo Hernandez (AC Milan), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool), Jules Kounde (Barcelona), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), William Saliba (Arsenal), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Raphael Varane (Manchester United).
Midfielders: Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Youssouf Fofana (Monaco), Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid), Jordan Veretout (Marseille).
Forwards: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Olivier Giroud (AC Milan), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Kylian Mbappe (PSG), Christopher Nkunku (Leipzig).
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Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press