Didier Deschamps paid tribute to Olivier Giroud after the forward broke France’s men’s goalscoring record in their 3-1 win against Poland. Giroud’s 52nd strike for Les Bleus eclipsed a milestone set by Thierry Henry and Deschamps said it was just reward for overcoming criticism at various points in his career, including when he drew a blank during their triumph at Russia 2018.
Giroud has scored three times at this tournament and France, the holders, look in menacing shape before the last eight. “Four years ago he didn’t score but he was still an important player,” Deschamps said. “He has had difficult periods in his career. He has often been criticised but people are now seeing his quality. He stayed strong mentally and has broken a very difficult record held by Henry.”
Sitting next to him was Kylian Mbappé, who brought his international tally to 33 with two goals in the last-16 victory and, at 23, is 12 years Giroud’s junior. “Another boy here might break it one day,” Deschamps joked. “To score so many goals at international level is a great achievement. [Giroud] was already there when I arrived.”
Mbappé leads the golden boot charts at Qatar 2022 with five goals but scotched any suggestion that pursuing the prize might distract him. “The only objective for me is to win the World Cup,” he said. “That’s my only dream. I didn’t come to win the golden boot. If I do win it I’ll be happy but that’s not what I am here for.”
Although Mbappé’s performance, particularly after half-time, appeared to be masterful it earned mixed reviews from his manager. “He speaks on the pitch,” Deschamps said. “He didn’t have his best match tonight. He knows that himself but he can change a match in just a moment. He always plays with joy and we all want to share those smiles. France needed a great Kylian Mbappé tonight and they got one.”
Deschamps praised the understanding Mbappé and Giroud have developed since 2018, when the former operated in a more orthodox right-sided role. “They are now closer together and technically, over the years, have developed an understanding,” he said. “But I don’t mind if it doesn’t work and we get the same result as in 2018.”
The Milan player Giroud said his record was a “childhood dream” and praised the “solidarity and unity” he believes has been critical to France’s progress. They will play England or Senegal in the last eight after winning three of their four matches, scoring nine goals.
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.
All is not well for Ronaldo at Manchester United after his scolding assessment of the club and its manager, yet he has the chance to write his name into the history books for Portugal in Qatar over the next month. He has won the European Championship, the Nations League and become the top scorer in men’s international football with 117 goals in 191 appearances for Portugal, but he has never played in a World Cup final. At 37 years of age, Ronaldo knows this is likely his final chance at World Cup glory and he will be determined to go out on a high. With his United career likely over, and his legacy at Old Trafford tarnished, his focus is now on firing Portugal to the first World Cup in their history, cementing his spot among the best footballers of all time.
Lionel Messi, Argentina
Messi has already confirmed that he will be retiring from international football after the World Cup. He will hope to do so with a first World Cup winners’ medal around his neck. The 35-year-old secured a first international trophy last year as he played a key role in helping Argentina to the 2021 Copa América and having come so close to World Cup glory in 2014, WhoScored.com’s highest-rated player is seeking to bow out from the international game on the highest of highs.
Olivier Giroud, France
France are blessed with incredibly talented frontmen in Giroud, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann but they are all coming towards the end of their international careers. Giroud, at 36 years of age, is unlikely to continue with the national team after the tournament in Qatar draws to a close. The Milan forward is not just chasing World Cup glory, but a spot in the national team’s history books. Giroud is now just two goals short of matching Thierry Henry’s 51 goals at the top of France’s all-time scoring charts, as he looks to play his part in helping the world champions retain their crown.
Karim Benzema, France
Another experienced forward in the France squad, Benzema returned to the national team for Euro 2020, earning his first call-up in over five years in the process. While France’s campaign at the Euros did not go according to plan as they were knocked out by Switzerland at the last-16 stage, Didier Deschamps is hoping the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner still has enough goals in the tank to ensure that France do not go the way of previous defending champions and crash out in the group stage. Injuries have restricted Benzema to just seven league appearances for Real Madrid this season but, with five goals to his name, a lack of regular minutes has not impacted the 34-year-old in front of goal, which bodes well for Deschamps.
Sergio Busquets, Spain
Busquets is still one of the most influential members of the Spain squad, which he underlined at the Euros last year. He was absent from the first two group games, both of which Spain failed to win. When he returned to the side, they went on to reach the semi-finals, only losing to Italy on penalties. Whether he still has the legs to play every three days remains to be seen, but he will be a handy option for Luis Enrique should Spain need to shut games down. With 139 caps, the Spain captain has seen it all, having already won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Spain face Germany, Japan and Costa Rica in a testing group, so will need his experience.
Manuel Neuer, Germany
Neuer has been Germany’s No 1 since he made his debut in 2009 and there are no suggestions he will be relinquishing his place anytime soon. Given the longevity of goalkeeping careers, the 36-year-old could still have plenty of gas left. A World Cup winner in 2014, he will be trying to banish the demons of 2018, when he was robbed of possession in the opposing half as Germany chased a late goal against South Korea, allowing Son Heung-min to score as Joachim Löw’s side crashed out at the group stage.
Luis Suárez, Uruguay
Back in July, Suárez returned to former club Nacional, who he left in 2006 to embark on what turned out to be a wholly successful spell in Europe. In his 14 league games, Suárez scored eight times as he played a key role in securing Nacional their 49th Uruguayan Primera División title. The 35-year-old is leaving the club after the World Cup and will do so a hero. His country is now looking to him, his experienced partner Edinson Cavani and the 23-year-old Darwin Núñe, as the men to help Uruguay live up to their billing as dark horses. He is already his country’s all-time top scorer with 66 goals in 133 games; he will hope to add a few more in Qatar.
Jan Vertonghen, Belgium
Belgium’s golden generation is drawing to a close with Vertonghen, at 35, the oldest member of their squad, pipping Dries Mertens by a few days. Now back in Belgium with Anderlecht after mutually terminating his Benfica contract, Vertonghen has not been playing as regularly as he may have wanted, featuring just six times in the league this season. Yet he is Roberto Martínez’s vice-captain for Belgium behind the perennially injured Eden Hazard, so expect the former Tottenham defender to start in Martínez’s favoured three-man backline in Qatar.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Will Poland go far at the World Cup? With Lewandowski leading the charge, anything is possible. He scored goals for fun in the Bundesliga while at Bayern Munich and has continued in the same vein at Barcelona, scoring 18 goals in 19 games this season. Poland have not made it past the group stage of the World Cup since Mexico 1986, two years before Lewandowski was born. The 34-year-old will be aiming to repeat that performance in what is likely to be his last World Cup.
Luka Modric, Croatia
There seems to be no stopping Modric. At 37, the Real Madrid midfielder is still dominating games for his club, and he will be aiming to do the same for Croatia this month. Modric won the Golden Ball in 2018 for his role in helping his country reach the final, where they were beaten 4-2 by France. He will be winning his 155th cap when he captains Croatia in their opening game against Morocco next week. If he can continue to prove that age is but a number, who knows how far Croatia will go in Qatar, particularly with the metronomic Modric pulling the strings in the middle of the park.
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.