France join England as statement makers
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The World Cup was waiting to see if any team could match England’s dismantling of Iran on the second day of the tournament. Reigning champions France have run them close at this early stage.
France had a shaky start by conceding early to Australia but the sign of champions is how you respond to setbacks. Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud turned on the style as they ran out 4-1 winners, but the whole team performance was equally impressive.
Theo Hernandez showed great efficiency off the bench and was France’s best attacker at times from left-back. Adrien Rabiot and Aurelien Tchouameni were an unstoppable pivot at times as they ran Australia ragged.
It was far from a perfect performance from France, but neither was England’s. In fact, there are very similar trends between the two teams so far in this tournament.
While England’s depth off the bench was noted by their substitutes, it was the replacements France did not use – the likes of Saliba, Raphael Varane and Eduardo Camavinga – which helps their case for back-to-back triumphs.
England will face France in the quarter-final should both teams win their group and their last-16 encounter. It is already a possible blockbuster clash to bookmark for December 10.
Is Mbappe the best in the world? It feels like it when you watch him…
The four World Cup games on Tuesday stretched across the day. In the morning, we saw one epic era beginning to fade. In the night, we saw the star of the next generation shining bright.
Lionel Messi is not done yet and it would be foolish to write off his Argentina. His country recovered from the shock of defeat to Cameroon back in 1990 to reach the World Cup final and, after the underwhelming afternoon fare between Mexico and Poland, there is a strong chance this group will still make it into the knockouts.
But the emphatic display from France, and Mbappe in particular, in the final match of the day was irresistible. Messi may be searching for one final triumph with Argentina but Mbappe is riding the rocket to the skies.
The flying forward gave his markers – and there were often two of them – a torrid time down that left flank.
A blur of brilliance, Mbappe fired off seven shots – the most by any player at this tournament so far – and sent in a game-high nine crosses, including the centre for Giroud’s second. His clever flick had already helped Rabiot set up the target man for his first.
Mbappe scored himself with a towering header and it seemed a good example of his completeness. Four years ago he was a remarkable but raw talent. Now he is the leader of this hugely-talented French side, knows his strengths and believes in his ability.
“Kylian has been one of the best players in the world for some time now,” said France boss Didier Deschamps afterwards. But when you see him play like this, it is hard to think Mbappe does not rank inside the top one.
Underrated Giroud takes his place in the record books
When Karim Benzema stated a few years ago he was a Formula One car and Giroud was a go-kart in comparison it highlighted a rather unfair perception of Giroud across football. Perhaps he is not in the absolute elite bracket of Ballon d’Or winners such as his compatriot but this is a player who has put together a formidable career.
A Champions League winner at Chelsea, where he also won a Europa League and FA Cup to go with the three FA Cups he won with Arsenal. League titles in France and Italy and of course that World Cup win with France four years ago. Individually there was the Puskas Award in 2017 for his iconic scorpion kick.
It is some CV and on Tuesday night Giroud added to it, with his two goals against Australia making him joint-top scorer in his country’s history, alongside Thierry Henry, with 51 strikes. He has a better strike-rate than Henry, too, and, for the record, is 14 clear of Benzema.
Perhaps a Premier League title would have elevated his status. And failing to score throughout Russia 2018 was an oddity. But those who watched him and certainly those who played with him will have appreciated his contribution in that competition, freeing up Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
The celebrations of the whole team when he headed in his record-equalling second against Australia underlined his popularity among Les Bleus.
At 36 years and 53 days he became the second oldest player to score a double at a World Cup. It follows a 2021/22 season where he helped fire AC Milan to their first title in over a decade.
In these final laps of his career, Giroud keeps on delivering. When the chequered flag waves on his career he will have a legacy which demands respect.
Fearless Green Falcons tear Group C wide open
Lionel Messi looked shell-shocked at the final whistle. This may not yet be a defining defeat for Argentina’s World Cup hopes but it was a humbling story to send shockwaves around the world.
The little magician did not know where to turn. Surrounded at one point in stoppage time deep in Saudi Arabia’s penalty box, Messi ran out of ideas.
Quite where the second half came from is anyone’s guess. Argentina looked in total control and appeared unaffected by the three disallowed goals during a one-sided opening period.
No matter, we will score again soon – that was the misplaced sentiment. But the chances dried up. The emboldened Yasser Al-Shahrani alongside the imperious Hassan Al-Tambakti formed a wall as tall as the Jabal Sawda. On one occasion, Al-Tambakti celebrated a sliding tackle on Messi as though he had won the World Cup.
This was their final, but no nation in Group C will now fancy facing them in the coming days. After just a second World Cup win in 28 years, head coach Herve Renard will be confident of masterminding more success against Poland and Mexico.
Defensively, this was as close to perfection as you are likely to see as Lionel Scaloni threw on Manchester City’s Julian Alvarez. It was some forward line by the end – garnishing players from Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Inter Milan – but the nation ranked outside of the world’s top 50 would not be beaten.
Al-Shahrani was forced off with a sickening head injury in stoppage time but his heroics had epitomised these fearless Falcons as a collective. The group has well and truly been ripped wide open.
‘Deserved’ defeat leaves Argentina’s World Cup hopes in the balance
Argentina were on the end of one of the greatest shocks in the history of the World Cup after losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia in their opening Group C clash on Tuesday, but perhaps the most worrying aspect of the defeat for one of the pre-tournament favourites was that it was no fluke by the underdogs.
Scaloni’s side arrived at Qatar 2022 unbeaten in their previous 36 matches, a run that included winning the 2021 Copa America, and with hopes high that Messi could finally get his hands on the Jules Rimet trophy.
Heading into half-time at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, everything was going according to plan as far as Messi and co were concerned, leading 1-0, and yet less than 10 minutes into the second half, they found themselves trailing.
But as much as they huffed and puffed, Argentina never really threatened to blow the opposition house down thereafter as they showed a worrying lack of invention and imagination when trying to break down the massed ranks of Saudi defenders.
“Argentina were very, very close to breaking the all-time record for the number of games unbeaten, 36, and no one in Argentina was expecting this result,” South American football expert Tim Vickery told Sky Sports News after the game.
There was a worry in Argentina that things had been going too well and that things would go wrong when they mattered most, but no one imagined it going wrong today.
“But it ended up being deserved, this is not one of those fluke underdog wins and it is one of the all-time great World Cup results. There was a worry in Argentina that things had been going too well and that things would go wrong when they mattered most, but no one imagined it going wrong today.”
The two-time winners are not out of the tournament by any stretch of the imagination, however, they cannot afford any more slip-ups in their remaining two group contests against Mexico and Poland.
Australia have enough heart to progress
Not many fancied Australia to produce a result against France. Pre-match, many analysts could only point to Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina as a reason why they could, without discussing the Socceroos’ own plus points.
But in the opening quarter, it looked like Graham Arnold’s side were set for another shock. France were rattled, Australia were comfortable and confident. It had all the makings of a positive outcome.
In the end, the quality came through. Arnold could only admit that France were “bigger, faster and stronger” than his side. While they dominated the opening exchanges, the overall momentum looked a lot more negative.
But the heart they showed in the first half shows they do have enough to get out of this group. Only the woodwork denied them, namely Jackson Irvine, an equaliser for 2-2. Harry Souttar, Nathaniel Atkinson and Riley McGree did not look out of place at this level, while Garang Kuol showed some nice touches after coming on.
Furthermore, Denmark and Tunisia showed earlier in the day that France are the standout team in this group.
Apply the same heart showed against France in their next two games, Australia could come away with six points and a spot in the knockout rounds.
Stars don’t win games, teams do
One of the tournament’s highly-rated teams Denmark failed to make a winning start due to a flat performance, which relied on star players, especially Christian Eriksen to save the day.
While Denmark edged possession, and had almost double the completed number of passes, Tunisia were dogged, staying in the game through tenacious pursuit of the ball and chances. No wonder Ellyes Skhiri ran the highest distance (13.16km) and the young Hannibal had the highest average speed (8kph). Tunisia had the ball in the back of the net at one point too.
Player-of-the-match, Tunisia’s Aissa Laidouni speaking after the game, demonstrated the proactive Tunisian mindset. He said: “We didn’t come to get a draw. We wanted to get the win, and I think we did have chances for that, but at the end of the day we’re happy with the draw.”
Tunisia’s performance, like Saudi Arabia, reflected the ever-emerging pattern in this World Cup so far, however obvious it might seem, that stars don’t win games, teams do.
Yes, Tunisia didn’t win this one, but a draw against Denmark will certainly feel like victory.
Toothless Mexico draw another blank
Argentina’s shock defeat to Saudi Arabia earlier on Tuesday blew Group C wide open but it was also a result that seemed to encourage Mexico and Poland to play it safe when they met in Doha.
Mexico had more possession and more shots but never truly threatened the scoresheet – something that has been a recurring theme in recent seasons.
Gerardo Martino’s side have only scored 18 goals in their 18 matches in 2022, while Alexis Vega – who started on the left of Mexico’s front three – is their top scorer this calendar year with just four goals.
Mexico did not set the world alight in CONCACAF qualifying either, coming through the eight-team section in second place after scoring 17 times and conceding only eight in 14 matches.
Their goalless draw with Poland has also extended an unwanted record at World Cups, with Mexico now failing to score in each of their last three matches at the tournament.
Saturday’s encounter with Argentina would be a perfect time for Mexico to find their shooting boots. If Martino can guide his side to victory against his former employers, they will not only give themselves an excellent chance of reaching the last 16, but also potentially eliminate one of the favourites from the tournament.