For the French national team, this was just about the perfect evening. A 3-1 victory over Poland sealed smooth passage into the quarter-final of the World Cup, Olivier Giroud became his country’s all-time men’s top scorer and Kylian Mbappe confirmed once again that he has arrived at this tournament in tip-top shape.
At the final whistle, members of the French backroom staff even formed a little tunnel of love for their players to walk through, as they left the pitch to a parade of backslapping and hair-ruffling.
Now, France go into a game on Saturday against England in confident fashion and dreaming of becoming the first nation to defend the World Cup for 60 years, when Brazil won the trophy both in 1958 and 1962. Didier Deschamps would be the first coach to do it since Vittorio Pozzo of Italy in both 1934 and 1938.
The vibes in the French camp are currently immaculate – here are the post-game dressing room celebrations after today’s win vs Poland. pic.twitter.com/48ODWiilta
— Get French Football News (@GFFN) December 4, 2022
For Deschamps, this must all be rather liberating after a European Championship campaign last year that descended into all sorts of rancour and discontent.
France exited the competition at the round-of-16 stage against Switzerland. Mbappe did not score a goal and missed the decisive penalty in the shootout against Switzerland. Giroud, meanwhile, was relegated to the substitutes’ bench to make way for Karim Benzema. In the stands, disputes broke out between the parents of French players, most notably between the mother of midfielder Adrien Rabiot and the parents of Mbappe. There were complaints about the location and quality of the French hotel base in Hungary and, on a far more serious note, Mbappe felt under-supported by the French Football Federation when he was subjected to foul racist abuse on social media for the crime of missing a penalty.
Deschamps, meanwhile, endured a torrent of speculation around his future. He has coached France since 2012 and despite World Cup success in 2018, not everybody has appreciated the team’s efficient approach to tournament football. Zinedine Zidane, the former Real Madrid coach, has long been expected to replace Deschamps after this competition in Qatar. In the months leading up to this tournament, it did not appear to be getting much easier for Deschamps. At one point Paul Pogba’s brother, Mathias, surreally claimed that Paul had asked a marabout — technically a Muslim holy man, but with connotations of a north African witch doctor — to inflict an injury on Mbappe. It was denied by Paul Pogba but created a slew of headlines around two of France’s most famous players. Deschamps’ problems appeared to multiply when injuries derailed his pre-tournament plans: Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku and Karim Benzema have all been forced out of the World Cup.
Yet the pool of French talent runs deep and the absence of senior players has presented opportunities for emerging ones such as Jules Kounde and Dayot Upamecano in defence and Aurelien Tchouameni in midfield. We say emerging, but these players play for Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively, which underlines the embarrassment of riches at Deschamps’ disposal.
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Perhaps, too, a slightly diminished selection has made the man-management of his squad that little bit easier. If there were any issues between Pogba and Mbappe, they have not been tested out in Qatar, while Giroud, even aged 36, has thrived after being restored to the No 9 position. Tchouameni, only 22, has formed a stylish partner to the conscientious Rabiot, who appears to have healed any prevailing wounds with other members of the squad. Antoine Griezmann, a different kind of player to the rapid forward of yesteryear, is working hard in an advanced central midfield position, while France still retain their explosive pace on the counter-attack with Ousmane Dembele and Mbappe.
Mbappe, for his part, appears liberated by the absence of other headline names and prepares to dovetail more neatly with Giroud than he has at times previously with Ballon d’Or winner Benzema. Not that it has always been straightforward between Giroud and Mbappe, with the former upsetting the latter before last year’s Euros by complaining in a press conference about the quality of the service. After this victory against Poland, Giroud actually referenced, in a positive manner, Mbappe’s passing and crossing when speaking to journalists.
When asked by The Athletic to explain the difference between this tournament and Euro 2020, Giroud said: “It was a weird game against Switzerland. We were 3-1 up and then we lost in a penalty shootout. If we went though we wouldn’t talk about (other things). With Covid-19 requirements (at the time), it was so unpleasant. It was the same for every team but we could not see our families. It was a weird time, it was not the best to play a competition. So I can say this World Cup, it’s more freedom, more fresh air.”
Mbappe, in particular, is standing out and scored two more stunning goals to reach four for the World Cup this year. Matty Cash, the Poland and Aston Villa full-back tasked with marking Mbappe on the night, said: “He is obviously unbelievable, my toughest opponent by far. I spent the afternoon watching his clips and knew it would be tough test. But when he gets the ball and then stops and moves, he is the quickest thing I’ve ever seen.” Cash may have endured a chastening evening but he did at least claim Mbappe’s shirt, which he will frame at his home back in England.
Mbappe, along with Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Griezmann and Giroud are the five French players who started both the World Cup final win over Croatia in 2018 and the victory over Poland on Sunday night.
Kounde, a relative newcomer to the starting line-up, says his team are dangerous opponents, because they can create chances both through built-up possession and on the counter-attack. He also explained the fresher atmosphere. “We have spent more time with each other, we have more experience and more games together,” he said. “It’s how you build a group. The spirit is really good, the mix of generations is going well.”
Lloris is now yearning after a second World Cup. He says: “When you arrive, you don’t want to fix a limit. You want to push as far as you can.”
(Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images)
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