France were first at the last World Cup and they are first again. As they avoided the curse of the champions, becoming the first holders of the tournament to reach the knockout stages since Brazil in 2006, Didier Deschamps’ side became the first team to book their spot in the last 16. Italy, Spain and Germany had all mounted lamentable defences of their titles, but France advance with a game to spare.
They may yet become the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962. Certainly they possess a talent with the ability to be a multiple champion, whatever 2022 holds, and Kylian Mbappe broke Denmark’s resistance. His right thigh is celebrated more for the speed he generates when sprinting, but he bundled in the winner off his leg. His second goal of the game was his 14th in 12 matches for France. The golden boy may yet get the Golden Boot and, when the final whistle blew, he had joined Enner Valencia of Ecuador on top of the leaderboard.
He represents a threat to Olivier Giroud, too. It can often be the target man’s fate to be overshadowed and, while he will surely break Thierry Henry’s France scoring record, they remain level on 51, at least for another few days. More than 12 years Giroud’s junior, Mbappe is only 20 goals behind him. He does much quickly, and he is closing the gap fast.
He represented the difference between the two teams. Fifa has a habit of awarding man of the match to the most famous individual on show; this time, at least, there could be no question it was deserved. Denmark possess the class of Christian Eriksen but lack anyone as explosive or incisive. Instead, they have organisation and determination. They showed the resolve to equalise and threatened a winner, with Hugo Lloris producing arguably the game’s best save to repel Jesper Lindstrom’s shot and the substitute Martin Braithwaite firing just wide. Yet, rather than posting a third victory over France this year, the Euro 2020 semi-finalists need to beat Australia to ensure they do not make an early exit.
They found Mbappe unstoppable; by legal means, anyway. Andreas Christensen was cautioned for a desperate tug on Mbappe as he accelerated onto Antoine Griezmann’s pass; there were covering defenders, but none would have caught the Paris Saint-Germain man in full flight. Christensen stayed on the pitch to score Denmark’s equaliser, but it was sandwiched by Mbappe’s double.
The first came after an exchange of passes with Theo Hernandez, culminating in Mbappe finishing from the left-back’s cutback. It was a second assist of the tournament from Hernandez, who has added attacking incision since his brother Lucas’s tournament was curtailed after 10 minutes in the first game, against Australia. Then Mbappe applied the finishing touch to an inviting cross from Griezmann. As against Australia, he could have had a hat-trick had he shown a more clinical touch, skying a shot from Ousmane Dembele’s low cross. Once again, however, the pertinent part might be that defences seem incapable of keeping him quiet.
And France boast a host of potential scorers, with the increasingly ambitious Adrien Rabiot joining the list. Before Mbappe assumed centre stage, it felt as though France were configured to help Giroud overhaul Henry. He headed wide twice. Crossing has formed more of France’s gameplan. Dembele delivered a series of delightful balls from the right.
And yet profligacy threatened to be a problem for France; they amassed 20 shots, the most spectacular a bicycle kick from Rabiot that flew just wide, but Kasper Schmeichel arguably only had to make two fine saves: from Rabiot’s glancing header and when Mbappe showed his capacity to produce something from nothing with an explosion of pace. He span away from Joachim Andersen, surged from the halfway line and unleashed a shot Schmeichel tipped over. Meanwhile, the influential Griezmann blazed over after making a wonderful run from deep and beautifully chesting down Aurelien Tchouameni’s chipped pass.
All of which could have cost France when Eriksen whipped in a corner, Andersen got a flick-on and Christensen emerged to head in at the far post. The theory is that defence wins World Cups and, while France were denied a clean sheet, they at least regained one of their World Cup-winning rearguard. A few days after Lucas Hernandez’s tournament was ended abruptly, Raphael Varane made his first appearance in five weeks, since he was injured in Manchester United’s draw with Chelsea, in a smooth reintegration.
Yet if France’s fate rests with one of the heroes of 2018, it is probably Mbappe. At 23, he already has as many goals for France as Zinedine Zidane got in his career, and more than Just Fontaine did. It is remarkable, but there is much more to come; potentially quite a bit of it in Qatar.