For a country that sent its king and queen to the guillotine France has an enduring and surprising fascination for the monarchy. So it is no surprise that Saturday’s quarter-final between England and France is being seen as a royal duel between King Kylian and Prince Harry.
After Sunday’s matches set the scene for a battle between the two countries – historic rivals on and off the pitch despite the Entente Cordiale – Eurosport carried a picture of Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappé and declared: “The quarter-final on Saturday will have an unusual flavour: for the first time in history the French team and the English team will cross swords in a direct elimination match”.
France Info headlined with France meeting its “best enemy” and “Prince Harry” referring to Kane making the “French kingdom tremble”.
No reference to the Anglo-French rivalry is complete without a reference to “perfidious Albion” and France Info did not disappoint. “Between France and England, [football] history dates back more than a century to the first match on 1 November 1906 [which England won 15-0],” it said.
“Since then, Perfidious Albion have won 23 of the 40 official duels, with 11 victories for the French and six draws. But 16 of these successes were achieved before the war … In the 21st century, Les Bleus have won four of the six encounters, with one defeat and one draw. And while this match has become a European classic, it will be the first time the two nations have faced each other in an international tournament’s decisive match.”
L’Équipe carried a photo of Mbappé with the headline: “God Save Notre [Our] King”. The French crown should have been shared with Olivier Giroud, who became France’s leading goalscorer after Sunday’s match against Poland when he recorded his 52nd and surpassed the 13-year-old record set by Thierry Henry.
The regional newspaper Sud-Ouest asked if Les Bleus were “prêts à manger du lion”, ready to eat the Lions, while Le Figaro said facing England could be France’s first serious challenge. “For those who thought that the French team’s journey so far was too easy, it is possible that they will change their minds next Saturday, on the occasion of a quarter-final between Les Bleus and England, which is as explosive as it is attractive .
“The two teams have not faced each other since 13 June 2017, when Didier Deschamps’ men got the better of the Three Lions in a friendly match at the Stade de France. But in five years, a lot of water has flowed under the bridges of the Seine and the Thames. Since the start of the competition, both teams have impressed … this means that both Les Bleus and the Three Lions will have plenty of confidence going into the quarter-final.”
Many French commentators relayed remarks from across the Channel indicating admiration – some saw fear – of Mbappé. The football website maxifoot.fr said he was “already causing “deep concern” in the England camp.
England’s Phil Foden told TF1 that Mbappé is “the player of the tournament until now” and his teammate Jordan Henderson told Belgian journalists he was “probably the best player in the world right now, with Messi”. French journalists relayed how Sky Sports had referred to “the Mbappé threat”.
King Mbappé, who has earned the French Football Federation a €10,000 fine from Fifa for refusing to speak to the press, broke his silence after Sunday’s victory to declare: “My sole aim is to win the World Cup … and the next match. It’s the only thing I dream about.”
In the other realm, Prince Harry has the same goal.
No Ballon d’Or winner, no problem. Despite Karim Benzema’s obvious talent, the Real Madrid striker’s absence may prove a blessing in disguise for France. The defending world champions cruised to a 4-1 win over a lacklustre Australia to kick off their tournament.
Australia offered far less than the side that France struggled to break down in the group stage in Russia four years ago, but the fact that Didier Deschamps’ team managed to score four goals while Kylian Mbappé was slightly off the boil shows how dangerous they will be in this tournament. True to form, it was Olivier Giroud – a player who was once mocked by Benzema as a “go kart” compared to his own Formula One car – who played the lead role in a rejigged 4-2-3-1. With a pair of well taken finishes, the Milan striker drew level with Thierry Henry as his country’s all-time leading scorer on 51 goals.
Once a doubt to even make the squad, Giroud showed why he is the ideal striker for France, at least in Deschamps’ system. He is physically imposing, eager to work hard and happy to sacrifice his individual numbers for the good of the team. If Giroud can maintain his fitness, France look a far more dangerous side with him as a lone striker – even if there are some caveats to consider.
First of all, Australia looked a shadow of the dynamic, obdurate unit that gave France and Denmark all they could handle in 2018. There are a smattering of familiar faces in Graham Arnold’s team, including the goalkeeper Mathew Ryan and Aaron Mooy, but they are far more callow than in previous tournaments. With Tim Cahill, Mark Milligan and Mile Jedinak all having moved on, this Australia team seem to be their poorest in a generation. Aside from their early goal, they looked nervy and offered little.
It also remains to be seen how strong France are at the back. Deschamps wanted to pair Raphaël Varane with Presnel Kimpembe in the centre of his defence, but the Paris Saint-Germain defender had to pull out of the squad due to injury and the Manchester United centre-back has not yet recovered to full fitness. Before the tournament, the manager said that any player who was good enough to be in his squad was good enough to play, and he put his money where his mouth was, taking a leap of faith in starting Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté in his back four.
Upamecano has been consistently excellent for RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich since he made his France debut, but his performances for his country have left much to be desired. Even when playing alongside more experienced heads, his nervous, coltish energy has hardly inspired confidence. Injuries have been a factor but, after an uneven debut in 2020, he was rarely picked for his country before coming on for an injured Varane in the Nations League final against Spain last year – a game that France won 2-1.
Against Australia, though, he was a picture of composure, crisp in his passing and elegant in the duel. Varane will probably be first choice once fit, but Upamecano has improved his standing in the squad no end. Next to him, Konaté was less assured, looking nervous in possession at times. Deschamps may go with Jules Koundé or William Saliba against Denmark on Saturday but, even if the Liverpool man and Hugo Lloris both looked a step off their best, it’s unlikely to be much of a challenge if the attackers remain as sharp as they were against Australia.
France scored four goals but it could have been more, with Mbappé and Aurélien Tchouaméni both missing presentable chances. The late loss of Benzema forced Deschamps to abandon a 4-3-1-2, in which Antoine Griezmann would have played behind the Real Madrid striker and Mbappé. Instead, the manager deployed a far more attacking lineup, with Tchouaméni anchoring the midfield and Adrien Rabiot playing a box-to-box role to his left.
If Upamecano did the most to raise his standing as a key player, Rabiot was not far behind. The Juventus player – the most experienced of a talented but largely untested group of midfielders – refused to be included in Deschamps’ standby squad for Russia four years ago but, after two years in the wilderness, he has slowly worked himself back into his manager’s good graces and he was superb against Australia.
His goal was well taken but his assist was even more impressive. The way he pressurised the Australia defence created a loose ball and, after a clever exchange with Mbappé, he set up Giroud to score. His tireless running only added to a leather-lunged display that evoked Blaise Matuidi’s role in a similar position in 2018. His task was, again, made easier by the quality of the opposition, and the injury to Lucas Hernandez, which saw his brother Théo come on to provide more attacking thrust, but Rabiot rose to the occasion in a way he has not shown in any of his previous 28 caps.
He also, and perhaps most importantly in a side where only Giroud and Griezmann are older than 26, offered plenty of maturity, especially given the one-two blow of losing Lucas Hérnandez and conceding early doors. “There wasn’t a thought of panicking,” said Rabiot after the match. While there may be a bit of bravura in that statement, it proved to be the case – which was particularly impressive given the weight of expectations on Les Bleus.
Further forward Griezmann, as always the ideal combination of imagination and graft, linked the play well with midfield, as he and Giroud frequently dropped to receive the ball, allowing Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé to cut inside. Dembélé was enigmatic. His assist for Mbappé’s goal was impressive but he squandered possession frequently; his greatest asset – his unpredictability – was also his undoing at times.
What, then of Mbappé? With Benzema sidelined, the pressure on him was ratcheted up a notch. He went into the World Cup after a run of sparkling form for his country, scoring 12 goals in 11 matches even while France’s results had been uneven. He skied a shot over the crossbar early on and struggled to keep possession, but then, as if to offer an insouciant reminder of his ability, he produced a sublime backheel to Rabiot to help set up Giroud’s first goal.
His influence grew steadily in the second half and, by the time he set up Giroud to score France’s fourth and final goal, he looked back to his effervescent best. Easily toggling between creator and scorer, and ably supported by Théo Hernandez, Mbappé looked more eager and driven as the match wore on, seemingly coming to grips with the tactical nuances of France’s approach.
One would never associate Mbappé with the idea of a slow burn but, while he and his teammates readjust to life without Benzema, the best is definitely yet to come. This is a hungrier, more thrilling France team and they look a dangerous prospect indeed.
France kept their hopes of staying in the top tier of the Nations League alive as Olivier Giroud became the oldest scorer in their history in a 2-0 home defeat of Austria.
Kylian Mbappé broke the deadlock in the 56th minute with a cool finish after beating five defenders following a perfect pass from Giroud, before the Milan striker scored a header from a pinpoint Antoine Griezmann cross four minutes later.
Giroud, who once again proved to his manager, Didier Deschamps, that he is more than a third-choice centre-forward, is aged 35 years and 357 days – 70 days older than France’s previous oldest scorer, Roger Marche, was when he netted against Spain in December 1959.
Victory for France came at a price, however, as the defender Jules Koundé and the goalkeeper Mike Maignan sustained injuries. They could join Karim Benzema, Hugo Lloris and Paul Pogba on the sidelines.
France, who travel to Denmark on Sunday, climbed to third in League A Group 1 with five points from as many games as a result of the victory. Deschamps said: “We did what we had to do. Our intentions were good, everyone defended a lot, there are a lot of positives. The mindset was good, it was a very good performance.”
The Croatia substitute Lovro Majer’s late goal sealed a 2-1 win against Denmark in the group’s other game, with his winner coming just two minutes after the visiting captain, Christian Eriksen, had struck a superb equaliser.
Borna Sosa opened the scoring for the hosts with a fine finish four minutes after half-time, but a moment of magic from Eriksen looked set to secure a point as he fired home a brilliant dipping shot in the 77th minute.
The relief was short-lived, however, as Majer picked up the ball on the edge of the box and rattled it past Kasper Schmeichel. Croatia now lead the group on 10 points, one ahead of Denmark.
Cody Gakpo scored early and Steven Bergwijn added a second to earn the Netherlands a 2-0 win in Poland.
Gakpo’s 13th-minute opener at the Narodowy Stadium came at the end of a slick passing move as the striker tapped home Denzel Dumfries’ inch-perfect square pass after the Polish defence has been prised apart.
Bergwijn doubled the lead in the 60th minute, coming in off the left flank to play a clever one-two with the substitute Vincent Janssen and curling the ball expertly into the net. Louis van Gaal’s side have now won four of their five games in League A Group 4 and are three points ahead of Belgium, who beat Wales 2-1.
Turkey and Luxembourg played out a six-goal thriller in League C Group 1, with Ismail Yuksek scoring in the 87th minute to rescue a 3-3 draw for the hosts, while the group’s other game also ended in a stalemate as Lithuania held the Faroe Islands to a 1-1 draw.