The quarter-finals. It’s the time when the giants start locking horns. England and France eased to victories over inferior opposition in Poland and Senegal in the round of 16, but this will be a totally different encounter.
The French team is far more than just one man, but Gareth Southgate must work out how to contain the phenomenon that is Kylian Mbappe if England are to stay in Qatar and dash their opponents’ ambitions of back-to-back World Cup triumphs.
Telegraph Sport’s scouting report looks into what sort of threat the World Champions will pose England – and how to counter them.
How they play
With style. But also with pragmatism. They can defend as well as attack. They position their two lightning-quick wide men – Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele – either side of the seasoned veteran Olivier Giroud. Behind them Antoine Griezmann lurks, moving all over the place, constantly looking to prompt his forwards.
In front of the defence, Adrien Rabiot does clever things while Aurélien Tchouaméni is a fierce, committed shield; the centre-backs are a lovely combination of strength and guile; while Barcelona and AC Milan would not have paid considerable fees to recruit full-backs Jules Kounde and Theo Hernandez if they were duffers. Apart from that lot, though, they are rubbish.
Kylian Mbappe. Where to start? Poland’s Matty Cash is still trying to work that one out.
When Mbappe applied the afterburners to ease past the Aston Villa full-back during the French victory, on the stadium’s big screen they revealed that he had touched 37kph in his sprint. If he ran down half the streets of London at that pace he would be breaking the speed limit.
He is not just quick though. He has game intelligence, imagination and possesses a shot capable of demolishing a brick wall. It is by no means certain a combination of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker and The Roadrunner could stop him.
Who is the manager?
Didier Deschamps was centrally involved both times France won the World Cup: in 1998 he was a player, in 2018 he was the manager. Let’s just say he knows his way around this tournament. But then he is blessed with the biggest surfeit of talent in the game. Frankly, most of us could win the odd game with these players at our disposal.
Still, while he can be a touch snappy with the press, he is an impressive figure on the touchline, calm, rational and shrewd in his substitutions. Though the manner in which he insists on covering his mouth when talking to his colleagues suggests he may be inclined to the paranoid.
These things are relative in a side this good, but you suspect that if Deschamps could naturalise Wojciech Szczęsny in time to put him in goal for the England clash then he would.
As it happens, Tottenham’s veteran keeper Hugo Lloris, the team captain, produced a fine save when the scores were still level, using both his knees to keep out Piotr Zielinski’s effort. But as Deschamps admits, Lloris is not the best in the game at playing the ball out from the back.
“We have to improve there,” he said of his keeper’s tendency to play his defenders into trouble. It is a very small thing. But at this level, margins matter.
To a man the French play for the best teams in the world – Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United – oh all right not Manchester United. They are not exactly unused to big games freighted with meaning.
As well as a smattering of Champions League titles, more than half of them have already won the World Cup, so they know precisely what to do to win a competition game. The fact is, there is no side as experienced as this lot. If only England were not obliged to meet them in the quarter-final.
Will they fancy taking on England?
Lloris, Raphael Varane and Giroud are more than aware of their opponents, having played against and alongside them in the Premier League.
And like England they will know they have to beat the best to triumph in the tournament. Though unlike England, many of them did just that four years ago.
Besides, they are so good, so strong, so talented, they will not fear anyone, reckoning they have the wherewithal to beat all comers. As challenges go, England could not have a sterner one.