DOHA - An injury to Karim Benzema on the eve of the World Cup threatened to derail France’s title defence, but Kylian Mbappe again showed they have the attacking resources in reserve to get by without the Ballon d’Or winner in Qatar.
While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have one final shot at winning the World Cup, Mbappe is chasing his second title at just 23 – and is surely the player who will dominate the sport for years to come.
A World Cup winner in Russia, where he became the first teenager to score in the final since Pele in 1958, Mbappe now has seven goals in nine tournament games after his match-winning brace against Denmark.
“Kylian is an extraordinary player... he has that ability to be decisive and make the difference even when opponents try to stop him,” said France coach Didier Deschamps.
“The fact we have other players around him who are dangerous liberates him a bit more.”
The supporting cast has certainly played its part alongside Mbappe as France became the first team to qualify for the last 16 on Saturday with a 2-1 win over Denmark.
Mbappe’s excellent performance in the opening 4-1 win over Australia – in which he scored and grabbed an assist – was overshadowed by Olivier Giroud equalling Thierry Henry’s all-time goals record for France.
While the Danes largely coped well with Giroud for an hour, they struggled with the searing pace of Mbappe and the quicksilver Ousmane Dembele, who is finally free of the injury troubles that have plagued his career.
Dembele’s influence waned in the second half but there was no respite for the Danes once both he and Giroud were replaced.
Griezmann the ‘competitor’
Deschamps threw on Marcus Thuram – son of 1998 World Cup-winner Lilian Thuram, who was sat in the stands at Stadium 974, and the dangerous Kingsley Coman.
But it was one of the older heads in the squad, the ever-reliable Antoine Griezmann, who produced a moment of magic with a delightful cross that Mbappe forced home from point-blank range to sink the Danes.
Griezmann was largely reduced to a substitute role at Atletico Madrid this season because of a contract wrangle with Barcelona before a permanent deal was struck between the two clubs last month.
He has been deployed in advanced midfield role by Deschamps, who was quick to emphasise Griezmann’s enduring importance to the team.
“What happened to him at his club was not ideal but in terms of fitness he had played a lot of games. He is a competitor,” said Deschamps.
“I asked for different things from him. There is no sacrifice from him because he is such a team player.
“He might score fewer goals but he is so useful and intelligent that he allows the team, with a lot of attacking players, to have a good balance.”
As for Mbappe, in electrifying form for Paris Saint-Germain this season, he has struck 14 times in 13 games for France since his missed penalty at Euro 2020 saw them crash out to Switzerland in the last 16.
He also drew level with Zinedine Zidane on 31 goals for France and on the evidence of his first two matches in Qatar he looks the favourite for the Golden Boot.
“He was so clinical. He scored his chances and we didn’t so that was the difference today,” said Denmark defender Joachim Andersen. AFP