France speed trap of Mbappe and Dembele set to test England at World Cup

Pace likely to play key role in deciding who wins on Saturday and seals semi-final spot in Qatar

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“Speed,” agreed Didier Deschamps, the most accomplished expert in winning World Cups of anybody taking part at Qatar 2022, “is important. It will not automatically give you goals, but it is the hardest thing to defend against. With pace, the opposition has less time to organise itself.”

Deschamps, whose France team take their defence of the World Cup into a quarter-final against England on Saturday, was speaking about a quality he sees as a forte of both sides, although naturally the acceleration of Kylian Mbappe, the tournament’s leading scorer, came into special focus in the manager's exchanges with reporters.

“England are strong in transition,” Deschamps was at pains to point out. “It’s how they score more than half their goals, it’s one of their many qualities.”

Both Deschamps and his counterpart, Gareth Southgate, who has guided England to a semi-final and a final in their last two major tournaments – the Russia World Cup and last year’s European Championship – expect a tight contest, of fine margins.

And one where the sudden bursts of Mbappe, the quick feet of Phil Foden, the darting runs of Bukayo Saka, or, for that matter the swift shifts up through the gears of Kyle Walker or Theo Hernandez at full-back, may be decisive.

Walker against Mbappe most readily grabs attention, but there are intriguing duels between sprinters and dribblers across the pitch. England’s conspicuous youth will, in key areas, meet pockets of French inexperience.

This is a France side whose many injuries, before and during the tournament, have left them with understudies at full-back, the younger Hernandez, who has eight competitive Bleus starts to his name, having replaced his brother Lucas, and Jules Kounde, at right-back, asked to fill a position he likes less than playing at centre-back.

There are two record-setting centre-forwards, finishers without, perhaps, the same jet heels as the players who flank them, but both with a place in the history books. Olivier Giroud has during this World Cup become his country’s all-time leading scorer, on 52; Kane’s 52nd international goal, against Senegal last weekend, left him one shy of Wayne Rooney’s top-of-the-list total for England.

An intimate understanding of one another’s game informs several of the key jousts. As Hugo Lloris, the France goalkeeper, pointed out, he and Kane, Tottenham Hotspur teammates for nine years, “know each other very well on and off the field – he’s a real leader and a decisive player.”

But for all their thousands of shared hours in training, Lloris says he will feel uncertain, in a face-to-face with Kane, where the striker is going to shoot: “Right, left, through the centre, Harry can aim everywhere.”

Lloris and Kane will be the night’s captains, long-term trusted lieutenants of Deschamps and Southgate. Elsewhere in the line-ups are footballers especially grateful for the belief shown in them by their national coaches after a challenging year when club allies abandoned them.

Among the duels which best gauges individual levels of confidence: Harry Maguire versus Ousmane Dembele, if and when the France winger successfully cuts in from the right to confront the England centre-back.

This time a year ago, Dembele, 25, was being told firmly by Barcelona executives that he should find a new club. Four and a half stop-start, injury-hampered seasons after his €117 million move from Borussia Dortmund, the club wanted him off the salary bill.

The message would be delivered to Dembele with cold certainty, and included a period of aggressive marginalisation from the first-team squad, against the better instincts of Barca’s manager, Xavi.

Dembele resisted leaving. His stubbornness, allied with an sharp rise in his consistency once Barcelona accepted he was staying, has earned him a higher place in Les Bleus’ hierarchy than he has ever known.

He was chiefly used from the bench, if at all, at the Russia World Cup. He has started each of France’s three victories in Qatar, setting up two goals. “He has an unusual capacity for making opposition defences uncomfortable,” said Deschamps, “and I see him maturing with the demands of being at Barcelona.”

Maguire effectively lost his place in Manchester United’s preferred XI this season under a new manager, Erik ten Hag. He has been booed by United supporters and jeered by England fans during 2022, caricatured as ponderous and slow on the turn.

Yet he remains a pillar of Southgate’s defence. In September, the manager explained his loyalty to Maguire as a fixture in the national team by saying, “Whatever reputation I have, I’m putting it there. He’s important to England.”

“I know how valued I am,” acknowledged Maguire in the lead-in to the meeting with France, “that gives me great belief.” He will need that confidence the first time Dembele zips in his direction, feinting and teasing.

He’ll need still more of it when Mbappe breaks towards the England penalty area, speed gathering, eyes on the prize of another World Cup gold medal.

Updated: December 10, 2022, 4:27 AM