Pyeongchang Men’s Matchup: France vs. Norway
Just as in the World Cup Total Score with France’s Martin Fourcade and Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe battling virtually alone at the top; the top men’s teams most likely to win medals are Norway and France. The individual matchup and the team matchup will likely be the story of the men’s competitions at next month’s Olympic Winter Games.
Looking at this matchup on paper, although Fourcade is atop the World Cup Total Score, the Norwegian team seems stronger. They have men ranked 2nd, 6th, 11th, 13th, 23rd, and 28th on their team. France has 1st, 7th, 15th, 21st, 34th and 37th. Both teams have multiple men with podiums this year, but Norway leads with four on the podium versus three for France. Interestingly, each team has only three men with OWG experience. France has the Fourcade brothers and Simon Desthieux. Norway has the Boe brothers and Svendsen. Age-wise, France’s team averages out at 25.6-years-old, with 22-year-old Emilien Jacquelin on the low end and 33-year-old Simon Fourcade at the top. Norway averages out at 29 years-old, with 24-year-old Johannes he youngest and 32-year-old Emil Hegle Svendsen the oldest. Only Martin and Emil own individual Olympic medals, with Tarjei having a Relay Gold from 2010.
The outcome of this battle of the two top teams in the Nations Cup will probably come down to the success or failure of their respective team leaders, Martin and Johannes. These two have dueled all season, with the French star holding the lead in the World Cup Total Score while on the podium in all 15 individual competitions this season. On the other hand, Johannes has eight victories over his French rival and prior to his sixth in the Antholz mass start, eleven straight podiums.
Consistency for Fourcade Equals Medals
Fourcade remains the model of consistency on the range and tracks, is the master tactician and rarely has a bad day. This is such a rare occurrence; the last time he finished below 8th place in an individual competition was the March 2016 Khanty Mansiysk sprint! He seldom goes to any extreme, unless he sees an opportunity to bury an opponent, which he will try to do. His biggest weakness currently is ski speed; just being a few clicks behind Johannes. Fourcade’s recent Championship track record shows three individual medals including one Gold last year and three titles and one Silver medal the previous year. Every indicator shows Fourcade in the medals, probably in all of the individual competitions and the relay.
Johannes: Upper Hand on the Tracks
Johannes prospects are similar. He definitely has the upper hand on the tracks right now, just plain faster than Fourcade. The Norwegian has been superb so far this season, shooting better and showing more patience to hit an extra target. Yet where he falls slightly is in consistency; 11th and 13th in the Östersund sprint/pursuit just days after winning the 20K individual; also six penalties in that pursuit, plus five in the Antholz mass start. Based on his Championship record; three times second place last year and one World Championship in each of the two previous years. Johannes will likely take three individual medals and a relay medal.
Beyond the two team leaders, it is the supporting cast that will decide which nation is strongest. Tarjei might be the pivot man for the Norwegians. He is healthy, shoots generally well (especially in prone) and is decently fast on the tracks these days. The older Boe brother has been on the podium three times this season and has a very good WCH record with two individual WCH titles among his sixteen medals. He knows how to win and only lacks an OWG individual medal on his resume. Tarjei’s healthy presence makes the Norwegians a much better team.
Svendsen; Flashes of Brilliance
Emil Hegle Svendsen continues to show flashes of brilliance like the clean-shooting 2nd place Oberhof sprint and the 20-for-20 in the Antholz pursuit, moving up from 32nd to 5th. He was sick with a cold in December, but has come back strong. Svendsen was the 2010 Olympic 20K individual Gold medalist, so he knows how to deal with the pressure. Look for one medal-winning individual competition from him and a steady relay performance.
Lars Helge Birkeland is 11th in the World Cup Total Score, with no podiums but consistent top twenty finishes. He is unlikely to win any individual medals, but is most likely the relay lead-off leg, with steady penalty-free shooting. Henrik L’ Abee Lund and Erlend Bjoentegaard are solid back-ups, should anyone get ill. Bjoentegaard had a good January and picked up his first podium; he has the most upside beyond the top four men.
Bottom line on Norway; multiple medals from Johannes, Tarjei and Emil could easily take individual medals; a strong, probably Gold or Silver relay team and if the ladies are just decent, a mixed relay medal. The Norwegians should fly home from Korea very happy.
Fillon Maillet: Experience and Results
The French youth may be either their strength or undoing. Unlike the Norwegian team, none of the French backups have an Olympic medal to their name. Only, Desthieux and reserve Simon Fourcade have been through the OWG grinder. The potential medalist based on experience/results has to fall to Fillon Maillet. He has seven World Cup podiums on his resume, including two this season in Östersund. This man who handcrafts his own rifle stocks has been an integral part of the French relays the past three seasons, with four IBU WCH medals to his credit. Still, shooting is his weakness, so the sprint is not his deal; most of Fillon Maillet’s success is in the pursuit and mass start, the head-to-head battles. He is a generally steady performer and could be the one to come through for his team to grab and individual medal.
Desthieux likewise has been steady all season, with four times in the top 10.His upside was most evident in Le Grand Bornand with a clean-shooting 5th in the sprint, followed by two penalties and 6th in the pursuit. The 26-year-old does not own an individual podium, but has contributed to numerous relay successes. His inconsistency on the shooting range has always been a drawback. Desthieux can and has to shoot well in Pyeongchang.
Wild Cards: Guigonnat and Jacquelin
The wild cards are Antonin Guigonnat and Emilien Jacquelin. Guigonnat is the IBU Cup veteran who at age 26 broke through with a surprising and clean-shooting third place in the Le Grand Bornand sprint. He performed superbly in the pressure cooker of the home country World Cup then reaffirmed his ability with another clean-shooting third in the Ruhpolding mass start. He has always been the promising athlete and now is ready for the big time. Guigonnat is just confident enough and at the same time naïve to the point that another individual podium is a possibility. He can shoot clean under pressure which could be the key to a medal. Jacquelin on the other hand, never expected to be in Korea, but a strong relay leg in Hochfilzen, good IBU Cup results and 5th and 6th in Antholz rushed his promotion to the Olympic squad. The 22-year-old Jacquelin is basically a sprinter; no medals but a relay candidate.
Martin Fourcade is the French men’s best hope (obviously) for individual medals; most likely every time he is in the start list. One of the others, most likely Fillon Maillet or Guigonnat could grab that surprise medal. The relay should be a battle; if Fourcade and Johannes are close enough to lock horns on the anchor, it will be a battle royale! The upside for France is the mixed relay, where Fourcade, Fillon Maillet and any of the young French women should easily get to the podium.
Advantage…Norway has Johannes, the experience and medal pedigree; France has you-know-who, hopefuls, and a better chance in both relays. Many medals for both nations; maybe more Gold for France but for Norway, the bigger total number of medals is probably theirs. Once again…stay tuned for further developments!