The Story So Far
It’s been a near-flawless campaign so far from the Three Lions. The tournament started in impressive fashion as they smashed six goals past Iran in a sparkling attacking display. The only real blip came in an uninspiring goalless draw against the USA but they picked themselves up to dominate rivals Wales in their final group game and finish in top spot.
The last 16 brought a meeting with African champions Senegal and after a difficult opening half an hour, England took the lead and never looked back. A surprisingly comfortable win for a country that historically puts its supporters through the mill in almost every knockout match at a major tournament.
The most encouraging aspect of England’s stint in Qatar has been the squad depth and togetherness. Players who probably weren’t tipped to make an impact have contributed. Marcus Rashford has come into the side and scored three goals. Jordan Henderson hasn’t had the best season for Liverpool but has showed his character when called upon and even got on the scoresheet himself. Even the much-maligned Harry Maguire has been solid at the back, helping record three straight clean sheets in a row. England teams of the past have probably had better starting elevens and individuals, like the “Golden Generation” of 2004-2006, but they didn’t have the same spirit as this young squad.
The Star So Far
Picked out on FTN as the “One to Watch”, Jude Bellingham has taken his first international tournament by storm. The 19-year-old got the ball rolling with England’s first goal against Iran and has shown maturity beyond his years with some dynamic midfield displays. He adds a completely different dimension to the team with his skill, composure and ability to carry the ball forward. The Borussia Dortmund man also does the ugly side of the game – tracking back and never shirking a tackle. A complete player who has the world at his feet.
How England Can Win
There are intriguing battles all over the pitch in this game. Perhaps the most talked about is how England deal with Kylian Mbappé, who has been the most effective player at the World Cup so far with 5 goals and 2 assists. Kyle Walker is expected to be the man tasked with the job and the fact that he has been one of the fastest full-backs in the world for many years is a good starting point against someone as rapid as Mbappé.
Gareth Southgate has gone with a back-four throughout the tournament so far but there have been suggestions of Kieran Trippier coming in as a right-wingback and playing Walker as a third centre-back so the two of them can double up on Mbappé. Whatever the manager decides in terms of shape, stopping the PSG superstar will be pivotal because France are nowhere near as effective without his influence.
Harry Kane hasn’t lit up the tournament in terms of the goals but has been quietly efficient as a creative influence on the team. The England skipper has replicated his style of play from the Premier League by dropping into deeper positions and picking out passes for those that run beyond him. Kane has a goal and three assists to his name, with only Mbappé, Lionel Messi and Bruno Fernandes having more goal-involvements in Qatar. England will look to find him in space between the lines of Frances’s defence and midfield to make things happen.
While the world champions will have arguably the best player on the planet in Mbappé, man-for-man England may well have the better overall team and more avenues to hurt the French. They are the joint-highest scorers in the tournament and eight different players have found the net. The likes of Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka are all threats in their own unique ways, whilst the likes of Rashford, Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Raheem Sterling are all attacking options off the bench. The Three Lions have also looked more solid defensively, whilst France have conceded in every game so far.
England have yet to prove under Southgate that they can overcome elite opposition at a major international tournament. Despite reaching the World Cup semi-final in 2018 and last year’s Euros final, their biggest scalp on paper was a German side who have since gone on to prove how far away they are from their glory days. When it came down to crunch moments against Croatia in 2018 and Italy last year, England choked under the pressure and Southgate’s tactical decisions failed. This French team know what it takes to win a World Cup, whereas it’s been almost half a century of hurt for the Three Lions.
England have also taken a while to warm into games at this tournament, with no goals scored before the 35th minute. They were lucky not to fall behind early on against Senegal and France have players who can are much more deadly in the final third, so it will be a test of character if England were to concede first.
The Story So Far
The world champions have made relatively smooth progress to this stage. Australia gave them an early wake-up call by taking the lead in the group opener, but Les Bleus fought back and ran away with it in the end. A hard-fought Kylian Mbappe inspired victory over Denmark clinched qualification to the knockout stage, which meant a surprise defeat to Tunisia didn’t matter in the end.
The last 16 clash against an underwhelming Poland side brought out France’s best performance of the tournament so far. Olivier Giroud became his country’s all-time leading goalscorer but Mbappe was the star of the show again with an assist and two wonderfully taken goals.
It hasn’t been completely perfect from the French who have often played in spurts and showed flashes of brilliance rather than overall consistency. They have also had moments in games where they have switched off defensively and have yet to keep a clean sheet in the tournament, despite playing some fairly tame opposition. Nevertheless, they also deserve praise after losing some big players to injury – including Ballon D’or winner Karim Benzema on the eve of the tournament. He hasn’t been missed so far, which is credit to Didier Deschamps and his players.
The Star So Far
Giroud has stepped up to the plate in the absence of Benzema but there can be only one man who fits this billing. Mbappé had his breakout moment on the international stage when France won the World Cup in 2018 and four years later, he plays with the swagger of a fully established superstar. He has almost become what Lionel Messi is to Argentina and it’s no surprise that they have been the two most effective players at the tournament. France could be playing terribly, and he will always be capable of producing something out of nothing. Only the truly elite players have that ability and Mbappé has already shown it in Qatar.
How France Can Win
If their star-man Mbappé is on top form, then it’s hard to see anything but a French victory. His duel with Kyle Walker has been hyped up as the key head-to-head battle but Mbappé’s freedom to roam could see him take advantage of the slower John Stones or Harry Maguire.
Antoine Griezmann is a player who went under the radar before the tournament but is key to the way France set up. Much like Kane for England, he likes to drop into pockets of space between the lines and create chances. If defenders are too preoccupied with Mbappé, it could give the Atletico Madrid man more opportunities to cause problems. He will come up against his toughest direct opponent yet in Declan Rice, another intriguing individual clash.
On the flip side, an overreliance on Mbappé could lead to France’s downfall if England are able to shackle him. Deschamps will want his players to perform as a unit and not constantly look to him to make the difference.
Les Bleus have also looked vulnerable defensively. The full-back positions are of particular concern. Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez started the tournament, but Jules Koundé and Theo Hernandez now occupy those roles. Koundé isn’t a full-back by trade and could have trouble coming up against the talented Phil Foden, as well as Jude Bellingham's forward runs from that side of the pitch. Theo Hernandez is excellent going forward but he’ll have to be mindful of Bukayo Saka who has already struck three goals from the right flank.
England 1-2 France (A.E.T)
France’s weakness at the back means that a talented England side will be able get at them and score at least once, but Les Bleus experience of getting over the line at the World Cup will eventually see them through.
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