France arrived in Qatar without three of its stars. Midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante had been ruled out before the squad was announced. A day before the defending champion was scheduled to fly to Qatar, striker Christopher Nkunku injured his leg. If all that wasn’t bad enough, then Karim Benzema, who had won the Ballon d’Or only a month ago, was ruled out with a thigh injury on the eve of the World Cup.
But all those setbacks didn’t matter much, as France topped Group D and ensured its place in the round of 16 with a game to spare. That meant a defending champion survived the preliminary league stage for the first time since 2010. Of course, not many would have betted on the French making an early exit, given the team’s depth, the absence of some key men notwithstanding.
France opened its campaign with a resounding 4-1 victory against Australia, after conceding the lead. It then overcame Denmark, which was always going to be its strongest opponent in the group, 2-1. That victory made Les Bleus the first team to advance to the knockout stage in Qatar.
Now, the question was who would join them in that phase. The answer was provided by Mathew Leckie, who scored the winner with a brilliant solo effort against Denmark. The 1-0 win took Australia to the second place in the league, ahead of the Tunisians, who must be considering themselves unlucky to have missed out, despite shocking a virtually second-string France by the same margin and at the same time on the last match-day in Group D. Denmark finished last in the group. Who would have imagined that?
Best Goal — Mathew Leckie, Australia vs Denmark
The long pass from Riley McGree — down the left and from his own half on an Australian counter-attack — was superb. The finish, by Mathew Leckie, was spectacular.
Leckie, already on his way towards the Denmark goal through the centre, had to go past two Danish defenders, Joakim Maehle and Joachim Andersen. He took on Maehle from the edge of the box, and got the better of him again before shooting the ball to the right bottom corner, past the diving goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Leckie’s goal was not just lucky for Australia, it was a historic one, too. It took the Aussies to the round of 16 for the first time since 2006. And it was Leckie’s first World Cup goal. Talk of timing.
Best Player — Antoine Griezmann
The spotlight may have been on Kylian Mbappe in Qatar, but Antoine Griezmann is probably the main reason why France could get its title defence on the right track. The 31-year-old was exceptional against Australia and Denmark, the two games France won.
When he didn’t start against Tunisia in the last league game — Didier Deschamps made nine changes in all — it showed. When he came on, late in the game as a substitute, it showed. He even appeared to have equalised for France in the dying seconds of the match with a smart volley; it, of course, was ruled off-side by the VAR.
It was not the task of scoring goals that Deschamps entrusted Griezmann with, but that of creating them. He did that job wonderfully well in the group stage. Just look at some of the stats from his team’s crucial match against Denmark: 100% dribbles and 5/6 long balls completed; 4/4 tackles won; Numbers also tell the story, sometimes.
Best Match — France 2-1 Denmark
France had been beaten twice by Denmark this year in the UEFA Nations League. For exacting revenge, you cannot dream of a bigger stage than the World Cup; the stage which Kylian Mbappe made his own four years ago as a 19-year-old. He was the star in France’s fine win at Doha’s Stadium 974. He scored both the goals in a match that produced quality football. Denmark did well to keep France, and Mbappe in particular, quiet in the opening half, in which Les Bleus had 13 shots; it was the most that they had had in a World Cup or a EURO game without converting.
They finally went ahead in the 61st minute thanks to a delightful 1-2 between Theo Hernandez and Mbappe. Denmark, however, bounced right back just seven minutes later, off a corner-kick taken by Christian Eriksen, the man who knows a thing or two about coming back from even more serious situations. Anders Christiansen’s header gave joy to the Danish fans, but it didn’t last long, as Mbappe, off a great cross from Antoine Griezmann, netted the winner — with his thigh. Mbappe can do anything on a football field, can’t he?
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