France head into Saturday’s heavyweight World Cup quarter-final clash with England well aware that their hopes of carrying on in Qatar and retaining the title rest on the shoulders of Kylian Mbappe.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward does not turn 24 until two days after the December 18 final but his brace in Sunday’s 3-1 defeat of Poland means he already has nine career World Cup goals, as many as giants of the game such as Eusebio and Jairzinho.
“God save our King” was the front-page headline in sports daily L’Equipe yesterday as the French turned their attentions towards England and acknowledged their reliance on the magic of Mbappe.
The youngest player since Pele to score in a World Cup
final when he did so as a teenager in the 2018 win over Croatia, Mbappe is now the leading marksman at this year’s tournament with five goals.
But he is also more generally the main threat for a team who are without a whole host of injured stars in Qatar, from Paul Pogba to N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema. His superb assist for Olivier Giroud’s opening goal against Poland was confirmation of that.
“Kylian speaks with his feet and he does so very well. He is an extraordinary player and is capable of changing a game at any moment,” said coach Didier Deschamps after Sunday’s victory in the last 16. “And he has such a beautiful smile that everyone wants to share it with him.”
At the helm of Les Bleus for a decade now, Deschamps has led France into a third successive World Cup quarter-final, something they had never achieved before.
England now stand in their way and look set to be a fearsome proposition, but the holders are full of confidence.
“We don’t want to stop here. We want to stretch our limits as far as possible,” said goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris, who on Sunday won his 142nd cap to equal Lilian Thuram’s French record.
“With each step forward we need to raise our level but I think this team is ready for that.”
Mbappe may be the main man, but Gareth Southgate’s England will know that there are other threats. Giroud, now France’s all-time top scorer, is enjoying a magnificent twilight to his career while Antoine Griezmann has been outstanding in a more withdrawn role. Ousmane Dembele is capable of moments of magic on the right wing too. However, there are areas that England will look to exploit.
In midfield Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot have so far ably plugged the gap left by Kante and Pogba but have yet to face world-class opposition.
England, with their own young prodigy in Jude Bellingham, will offer a different test. It also remains to be seen how the centre-back pairing of Raphael Varane and Dayot Upamecano will handle England’s potent attack, but France are optimistic and the mood in their camp is in stark contrast to Euro 2020. At last year’s delayed European Championship, Les Bleus were disappointing and went out in the last 16 to Switzerland. “It is a really different context. We are well settled in our base camp and there is a really good mix of young players for whom this is their first experience, and other more experienced ones,” said the 35-year-old Lloris.
“I think the word to sum it up is ‘respect’. There is respect between us. All you need to see is the joy at the end of the match when we all came together.”
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