England 1–2 France
by Dom Smith
Kylian Mbappé received the ball on the left. He stopped it, tapped it forward, and ran at Kyle Walker. Then after two stepovers he tore straight past him. And so it had begun. After all the talking, the predicting, the top-speed comparisons, the deep dives into form and age and mindsets, finally the most talked-up one-on-one battle in modern football memory was upon us. And with it, so was England v France — the first ever meeting between the sides in a knockout match. The biggest challenge of Gareth Southgate’s tenure. Morocco awaited for the winner.
The tension was palpable. From the first minute it was open, stretched and crucially so evenly matched. Clairefontaine met St George’s Park. Southgate, the game-changing pragmatist, met Didier Deschamps — the pragmatist with two World Cup winner’s medals already safely in his pocket. One truly world-class side met another.
With Bukayo Saka attacking high up near the right corner flag, Dayot Upamecano lunged in. Was it a foul? Probably. But to disastrous effects, Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio said no. Upamecano cantered forward and those around him in blue sensed space to play with. Soon France were queuing up near England’s box. The English love a queue, but France weren’t waiting around. Real Madrid’s Aurélien Tchouaméni wound up and rifled home from outside the box. The ball flew off his right boot, through Jude Bellingham’s open legs and into the corner, dipping cruelly past Jordan Pickford on his 50th outing for his country.Embed from Getty Images
First blood to the holders; England behind after 17 minutes. They had started a little sheepishly and needed more courage going forward. To their credit, they found it. Luke Shaw struck a powerful free-kick right into Hugo Lloris’s gut, then Kane turned Upamecano smoothly but Lloris smothered his dinked finish.
24-year-old Upamecano has struggled for form at Bayern Munich this season and Kane sensed he was a weak link for the world champions and could have had a penalty when the defender clipped him on the edge of the area. VAR intervened but told Sampaio there was nothing untoward. England were left frustrated.
Kane rammed the ball towards the top corner as Southgate’s side ramped up the pressure late on in the first half. His Tottenham teammate Lloris knows all about him though and parried well.
England headed down the tunnel at the interval gesticulating and remonstrating at the referee but returned 15 minutes later ready to play their best football of this World Cup quarter-final. From Phil Foden’s 47th-minute corner, they were so nearly level. The ball reached the edge of the box where Bellingham struck an almighty volley towards the top corner. Lloris sprang up like a man possessed and tipped over. A startling save.
Without a doubt England were growing in belief in this tie. With France now playing strictly on the break, John Stones stepped out in front of Olivier Giroud and stormed forward. Before long it was Saka, Bellingham, Saka fouled by goalscorer Tchouaméni and a penalty to England. It felt like an age before Kane finally stepped up. When he did, he battered the ball into the top left corner to level for England. It was his 53rd England goal and saw him equal Wayne Rooney’s tally to become the nation’s all-time top scorer. When England need their captain, he always steps up.Embed from Getty Images
But they needed to calm themselves immediately because straight from the restart, Adrien Rabiot was exploiting a gaping hole in the England defence and forcing Pickford into a save.
France liked playing on the counter-attack. They sensed it would give them their best chance of victory. Giroud nearly reinstated their lead, but Pickford pushed his volley away. Harry Maguire struck the post from a Henderson free-kick. At 1–1, it really was on a knife edge.
Then, just like that, the French were ahead again and dancing towards the corner flag. Antoine Griezmann’s cross bent round England’s entire defence, and there to head home was Giroud, the glorious poacher. France’s leading scorer leading the line and leading their charge to the semi-finals. England needed to show character once more. They were playing an excellent side rarely threatening but now back in front.
Mason Mount came on for England and was immediately into the action. Mount watched a high ball in the box but Theo Hernández gave him a cynical nudge. The referee was unmoved again, but this time after checking the monitor he gave England another spot-kick.
A chance for England to level once more, now with just six minutes remaining. Kane back into his usual routine. Pull up the socks. Take a deep breath. A little shuffle before running up and… missing? Kane hammered over and everyone inside the Al Bayt Stadium was stunned. His 70th career penalty. Only his tenth miss. But a critical miss that left Mbappé laughing and France rejoicing and growing in confidence as the seconds ticked away into the ether. Kane had been up to the task once but not twice. England will have known it might well have been the final wound to kill them off in this World Cup.Embed from Getty Images
France defended dilligantly, defended like potential winners of this World Cup. England players looked this way and that, seeing few unmarked options. Then Maguire earned a free-kick on the edge of the D. His Manchester United teammate Marcus Rashford was on and loitering.
The clock read 100 minutes. The players were now ten minutes into stoppage time. Was it time for the greatest moment of Rashford’s career? It wasn’t. All there was time for was for Rashford to fire onto the roof of the net, leaving him screaming at himself. England were out. Out of a positive World Cup. Out of a World Cup that was starting to open up after Croatia and Morocco’s shock surprises. Out of what may well prove to have been Southgate’s final tournament as England manager. Time will tell.
It’s always penalties, one way or another. This time not in a shootout but through Kane’s hacked effort. They were the better side on the night, set up with a back four that rarely got exposed, and took on the world champions toe to toe. Still they came up short. England will rue this, of that there is no doubt. But they cannot beat themselves up. Southgate ultimately failed his biggest test in six years as manager. Will we ever see him manage England again? His future will become clear in the coming days.
But in the here and now, the die is cast. France are semi-finalists and England are out. Those years of hurt edge ever upwards.