Although the timing of this controversial World Cup is unorthodox, it will arrive at the right moment for many players. They have not just experienced the fatigue of a 60-game season and will be helped by the intensity and freshness of recent league fixtures, so the pace and standard at the World Cup in Qatar, heat permitting, could be at their highest for some decades. An energetic, buoyant, on-form Lionel Messi, now 35, will be helped more than most, having struggled with tiredness in the last two tournaments. But he’s not the only Ligue 1 player who may benefit from a winter World Cup.
For France, the timing has aided Monaco midfielder Youssouf Fofana’s late charge into Didier Deschamps’ squad. He has been Ligue 1’s most improved player in 2022. Before Monaco sacked Niko Kovac a year ago, the manager had become frustrated with Fofana’s erratic form and laid-back, class-clown off-field persona, dropping the midfielder. New head coach Philippe Clement, however, has put his faith in Fofana and is helping him become one of France’s best midfielders.
Fofana is both a destroyer and a creator. There are few greater sights in Ligue 1 than seeing the physical-yet-elegant 22-year-old jinking away from an opponent in midfield before breaking lines to barrel towards the penalty area. With Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté injured, Fofana might even start for the world champions in Qatar. With Deschamps set to return to the asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 that proved successful four years ago, the Monaco man could partner his former teammate, Aurélien Tchouaméni, in the France engine room. The pair have a nuanced understanding, an underrated trait at international level, and that could be key for France.
Lille striker Jonathan David is always important for Canada and he is hitting form at the right moment before the tournament. Signing him from Gent for £25m in 2020 was a mammoth outlay for Lille and his time in Ligue 1 started glacially. He was close to being dropped after scoring just two goals in 25 games. However, David proved decisive as Lille became shock champions last year, scoring 13 goals, including pivotal winners against PSG. David then rattled home another dozen after the summer break, giving him a better league minutes-per-goal ratio than Cristiano Ronaldo, Mo Salah and Kylian Mbappé in 2021.
However, he started painfully slowly in 2022, scoring just one goal in 18 games and scaring off Europe’s leading clubs after he had signalled his intentions to leave Lille. David’s extended stay in France has, however, seen him return to his best just in time for Qatar, scoring nine goals in 15 games so far this season.
Often an intelligent and precise finisher, David grew up training in the tight spaces of Ottawa’s sports facilities, as youth clubs vied for space during the freezing winter. As a result, his close control and snappy interplay is some of the best in France. His record of 22 goals in 34 caps underlines his importance to Canada.
Perhaps no other player is more fortunate to travel to Qatar than Rennes’ Belgian winger Jérémy Doku. The £25m Rennes paid Anderlecht for the now 20-year-old in 2020 was a club record and, despite fluctuating end product, the prodigiously skilful winger made a late run into Roberto Martínez’s squad for the Euros last summer.
After impressing for Belgium, he was linked with Liverpool and expected to enjoy a breakthrough season. However, a catastrophic run of injuries meant last season was a non-event for Doku. He struggled through a depressingly persistent cycle of injury, recovery and relapse, suffering a new issue just a few weeks after the last, returning only to quickly break down again.
Doku is the league’s most exciting dribbler outside PSG, boasting the ability to present the ball to a defender before having it magically disappear like a sleight-of-hand magician. Doku has been sorely missed during his injuries. However, he has put together three substitute appearances since his last injury and his manager has continued to show confidence in him. Doku has managed to sneak into Belgium’s squad again and the World Cup could be perfectly timed for him.
Few players have made as big an impact in Ligue 1 this season as Rennes midfielder Lovro Majer. The graceful, creative midfielder effortlessly tore many a French team apart last season, most memorably Lyon on his debut. Bearing more than a striking resemblance to countryman Luka Modric, Majer is not the quickest but he is able to drop a shoulder nonchalantly and drift past opponents, orchestrate intricate interplay around the box and unpick deep-sitting defences with his innovative passing. Rennes have reportedly set a €60m asking price after Atlético Madrid showed interest in signing him this summer.
Majer led a riotous Rennes team to fourth place last season as Bruno Génésio’s side scored 82 goals (30 more than fifth-places Nice). Consistency has since become an issue for the 24-year-old, however, and he has often been sacrificed in the name of balance this season by Génésio. Nevertheless, Croatia may have a potential successor to Modric in their squad. Some good performances at the World Cup could re-establish him as Rennes’ creator-in-chief and attract the interest of sporting directors around Europe.
The Croatian is not alone in that regard. Poland’s flying, technical wing-back Przemyslaw Frankowski has produced some of his best form, helping Lens go into the the break second in the Ligue 1 table. Frankowski could be a World Cup breakthrough name. His Lens teammate, Silas Abdul Samed, has also ably replaced Cheick Doucouré – now at Crystal Palace – at the base of midfield and could be key to stabilising weak defensive lines in the Ghana squad.
Meanwhile, Marseille forward Bamba Dieng will be a threat for Senegal. France midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi, Reims’ Japanese attacker Junya Ito and the USA international Timothy Weah, currently playing right-back, have all turned heads in Ligue 1 of late and are set to do the same in Qatar. For all, like Messi, a winter World Cup could be perfectly timed.
Laurent Blanc’s tenure at Lyon continues to underwhelm. They needed a late penalty from Alexandre Lacazete – his ninth goal of the season – to rescue a point at home to a disjointed Nice team on Friday night. He was initially keen to partner Lacazette with fellow striker Moussa Dembélé, but Blanc has already given up on his 3-5-2 solution and shifted to a 4-2-3-1, dropping last season’s top scorer, Dembélé. With Houssem Aouar installed as the creative fulcrum but badly underperforming, and lacking options at centre-back, Blanc has much to do before Ligue 1 returns on 28 December.
Strasbourg’s 1-1 draw with Lorient this weekend means they enter the World Cup-imposed break with just one win in their 15 league games and sit second bottom. Having finished sixth last season, missing out on European football on the final day, Julien Stéphan’s team have struggled for the same ruthless intensity and boisterous physicality that made them both difficult to beat and an effective attacking unit last term. Injuries have been a constant caveat but, with four teams going down, Stéphan is under considerable pressure not to let his tenure fatally lose impetus as it did at Rennes.