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Rock-star Kylian Mbappe powers defending champions France into Last 16 with double strike

France's finest Kylian Mbappe displays power, speed and precision to score a brace in France's 2-1 win over Denmark

France's Kylian Mbappe (10) celebrates with teammates beating Denmark 2-1 in a World Cup group D soccer match at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

At half time, the DJ at the 974 Stadium changed his tracks from soft rock to heavy metal. The stadium suddenly reverberated with Iron Maiden’s Trooper and Judas Priest’s Breaking The Law. Kylian Mbappe, the sweat on his face glistening in the bright floodlights, swung his hands, flexed his biceps and urged the crowd to sing along. The DJ increased the volume and the stadium was transformed to the raucous setting of a heavy metal band concert, with fans head-banging and jumping from their seats, triggering anxious faces from the security-men prowling the gallery.

The match had, in the goalless first half, flowed along more like a soft rock song. It was soon to acquire a heavy metal dimension, with Mbappe pulling the chords in one of his most electrifying World Cup performances. His brace made the decisive difference in France’s round-of-16 assuring 2-1 victory of a resilient Denmark who could commiserate believing that they were denied a point by a footballer vaulting into sporting immortality with every passing game.

It was a game where not just Mbappe’s supreme skills stood out, but his ruthlessness and desire reigned above all other gifts. The second goal captured the essence of Mbappe. The moment he saw Antoine Griezmann had snatched the ball from just outside the box, he knew he was in business. Even if Griezmann had other intentions, it was worth running for. So Mbappe slipped past Rasmus Kristensen and bullied and bulldozed into the heart of the box. The anticipation of a goal-sniffer, or intuition or footballing divinity.

The ball was not inch-perfect, rather a bit awkward; he could neither head nor toe-poke, so he leapt and mid-air thighed the ball from six yards past a bewildered Kasper Schmeichel, whose reflexes were too slow, and his hands too weak to thwart the power of the ball.

Mbappe, screaming and screeching, leapt over the advertisement board into the edge of the stands, gesturing to the crowd to celebrate. He then kissed the French badge—how silly the doubts that his heart was no longer with the country seemed. He scowled at the camera, flexed his biceps again and leapt back to the ground, basking in rock star-like adulation, his face twinkling under the light, amidst the rolls of drums and wave of French flags.

It was the concert of Kylian Mbappe.

It was not the greatest goal he has ever scored; it would not be the greatest goal he would ever score. But it was probably the goal that let loose his bottled-up emotions. In fact, the first goal was lovelier and classical.

When Mbappe received the ball mid-pitch on his half and sprinted down the inside left channel, Theo Hernandez had already begun his overlapping sprint. The Dane shirts teed off frantically to deny the invariable fate. Without even looking sideways he stroked the ball to Hernandez whose anticipation was telepathic and drifted in. Hernandez veered away, and then cut back like a drunk car, snaked into the edge of the box and served up a well-weighted, no-look ball towards Mbappe, who finished sumptuously, lashing a low diagonal past Schmeichel. It was simple, direct football, yet it was devastatingly beautiful.

The match immediately hit high attacking notes and resulted in a Denmark equaliser just seven minutes later. It was a goal that embodied the iron will of the Danes, as well as their hunger and purpose, as Andreas Christensen leapt above the French defenders and thundered a header past Hugo Lloris, en route a neat flick-on by Joachim Andersen from Christian Eriksen’s in-swinging corner.

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A goal was all that did not materialise for the French. France’s build-up play was exhilarating, no one was ponderous with the ball, everyone held the shape, filled up spaces, and threaded through the intricate defensive lines Denmark had knotted. The explosive speed they whipped exaggerated the lethargy of the Danish resistance. In particular, Ousmane Dembele, who in the sixth minute seized ball from his own half and ripped in, sprinting three-quarters of the length of the pitch like a prize horse, out-speeding all and sundry, He loop-lashed a delicious pass towards Adrien Rabiot on the left, who instead lined up Mbappe, who slapped the ball of Dembele. The final product was weak, but the sequence demonstrated the unnerving speed of body and thought the French possess.

Denmark were left with no other alternative but to launch a defiant rearguard, anchored by Andreas Christensen, who even risked a potential red card when he badgered Mbappe onto the ground. He escaped with a yellow. It, though, was merely a question of how long they could repel the relentless onslaught of the French, invigorated by the ‘ale le le’ chants from the blue-blanched stands. The particular stat captured their first half—11 attempts, but just two were on target, ruefully for the French. The goalless first-half owed much to the stoutness of the Danish defence. They deployed similar tactics to what they had in the Nation League victory over the world champions, defending the midfield third in a 5-4-1 strangulating the midfield. The flaw is that they leave space on the wings, which the marauding French wingers could harness devastatingly. The first goal was a classic example.

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The key to stopping the French, they realised, was to lock Antoine Griezmann, content in his playmaking role behind the attacking trident. Against Australia, several of France’s moves originated from the vision and imagination of Griezmann. The Danes held him on a leash, suffocated him for space and crowded him out. But none of it mattered in the heavy metal music that Mbappe whipped up.

First published on: 26-11-2022 at 23:46 IST
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