Last Sunday, Kylian Mbappe put Paris Saint-Germain back on top of Ligue 1 with two goals against Lyon that showed why he is the most coveted forward in his sport.
A left-footed volley opened the scoring. A classic Mbappe strike, accelerating beyond the last Lyon defender and beating the goalkeeper with a precise right-footed finish, brought up PSG’s fourth of a 4-2 victory.
It also made Mbappe, 22, the youngest player to a century of French league goals.
Four nights later, Didier Deschamps, the France manager, observed that, with Mbappe, these performances have become so routine that the French public imagine they should happen each time he takes to the pitch.
“I know, obviously, how much is expected of him,” said Deschamps, admitting that the first match in France’s defence of a World Cup Mbappe won as a teenager, “was not his best game”. In fact, his 77 minutes against Ukraine ranks among the worst of his 40 appearances in the senior France jersey.
Les Bleus took the lead, at home, before dropping two points at the outset of a qualifying group they will still be confident of winning but which involves some long and potentially hazardous away trips.
The most distant is the expedition to Kazakhstan, where the world champions will today take on temperatures predicted to fall well below freezing and a synthetic pitch.
The journey to Nur-Sultan, some eight hours by plane, at least gave Deschamps ample chance to “talk calmly” with his prodigy, as the coach promised to do after the flat 1-1 draw against a Ukraine team who, by their coach Andrei Shevchenko’s admission, had designed a specific anti-Mbappe plan. “Our strategy was to cover the space where there might be one-on-one situations,” said Shevchenko.
By thwarting Mbappe, he had achieved something that, in the last two months, Barcelona – where Mbappe scored Champions League hat-trick – and Lyon – among several French clubs – have spectacularly failed to do.
If there was a hint of self-congratulation about the Ukraine head coach then he was entitled to it.
Back in October, Shevchenko’s Ukraine, albeit a squad weakened by withdrawals because of Covid-19 infections, came to Paris and lost 7-1 to France in a friendly. Mbappe scored and set up a goal in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch.
Deschamps' analysis of the contrasting performance last week centred on Mbappe’s isolation from team-mates, and his instinct to try to shake off the shackles of focussed man-marking all on his own.
“With the quality he has, I understand that opponents are going to make special provisions to limit his influence,” said the France manager. “It’s up to him sometimes to lean on others rather than set off on a dribble, to look for the pass so he can then get the ball back from a team-mate.”
There is no doubt of the range of different assets the attacking partners who line up with Mbappe can offer their star colleague, who likes to attack from wide positions.
Deschamps is dogmatically loyal to Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud, for his target-man qualities and hold-up play. Antoine Griezmann, the Barcelona forward cherished for his movement, is an automatic pick in Deschamps’s strongest XI.
No lack of options for pace on the opposite flank to Mbappe’s either: from Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, to Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, to Ousmane Dembele, now fit and in form at Barcelona.
But it is also easy to make a case that the Frenchman with the ideal all-round game to complement Mbappe’s skills, a centre-forward who is both devastating finisher and universally admired for his unselfishness and ability to make space for others, is the striker Deschamps has not selected since 2015.
He is Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, whose relationship with the France coach deteriorated irretrievably five years ago and whose reliably excellent club form – he has eight goals in his last six Madrid matches – apparently puts him no nearer to Deschamps’ thoughts, or to adding to the 81 caps he won between the age of 19 and 28.
“I don’t understand it and a lot of people don't understand it,” said the Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane of Benzema’s continued omission from the national team. And bear in mind Zidane and Deschamps are good friends, so close that Deschamps has identified Zidane as his potential successor as France coach.
Benzema might like the sound of that. But unless France stumble badly at this summer’s European championship – and they are in a tough group, with Germany and Portugal – it will not be happening imminently. Deschamps is contracted to be in the job until after the 2022 World Cup, by which time Benzema will be 35.