Before Gareth Southgate, England’s victory in a knockout match was cause for mass celebration, even national hysteria, but after sweeping Senegal last night the country seemed immediately focused on what’s to come.
England’s reward for a 3-0 win over the African champions is a meeting with world champions France and their wonder boy, Kylian Mbappe, in the World Cup quarter-final on Saturday.
Lionel Messi remains, almost, the star attraction in Qatar but, depending on which defender you ask, the Argentine is not necessarily the most feared forward left here. That honor is surely shared with the electric Mbappé, who has already scored five goals, including a brilliant brace in France’s 3-1 win over Poland yesterday.
Mbappé is a phenomenon and the fit player in a second successive World Cup, but if England are to reach another semi-final they must find a way to contain the 23-year-old.
For all their remarkable progress under Southgate – and last night was the manager’s sixth knockout victory since 2018 – the same number the country achieved between 1968 and 2016 – the fact remains that England have never beaten a heavyweight in a game. of life or death. on foreign soil.
The 52-year-old has led England to victory over Colombia, Sweden, Germany, Ukraine, Denmark and now Senegal in knockout matches, but France and Mbappé promise to finally offer evidence of just how good the Southgate team really is. Beat the headlines and the country will have the right to dream.
Southgate’s defense was the foundation of his team’s success in Russia four years ago and at last summer’s European Championship, and England have kept three straight clean sheets in Qatar after a shaky start in the 6-2 win about Iran. However, they have not been tested by anyone close to Mbappe’s quality in major tournaments, and Harry Maguire’s lack of pace against the Paris Saint-Germain striker is an area of particular concern, one that has already been gleefully highlighted by the French media.
Mbappe wreaked havoc on the left flank against Poland, and Southgate have the option to switch to a three-man defense to help contain him, with Kyle Walker able to join the centre-halves and Kieran Trippier at full-back.
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But the England manager will be reluctant to stray from the system that was so effective against Aliou Cissé’s side, and adopting a three-pointer would mean sacrificing a midfielder and potentially nullifying the impact of Jude Bellingham, who put on a superb display last night. .
This is Southgate’s dilemma for France: focus on stopping Mbappé or force the starters to worry about the myriad threats from England?
Certainly as Southgate prepares for Mbappé, France manager Didier Deschamps will spend the rest of the week assessing Bellingham, Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and, should he return in time , to Raheem Sterling.
While only three players have found the net for France here – Mbappe, Adrien Rabiot and Olivier Giroud, who became Les Bleus’ all-time top scorer last night – Kane was England’s eighth different scorer in four games (already a record in major tournaments) with his second goal against Senegal. No one calls them boring or negative about Southgate now.
The captain scored England’s 11th goal in Qatar and their 11th in major finals, surpassing Gary Lineker as the country’s top scorer in World Cups and European Championships.
The timing also belonged to Bellingham, who opened Senegal with a run up midfield before freeing Foden to play for Kane. It was the second time Bellingham had opened up a gap in Senegal, having broken in down the left and conceded for Jordan Henderson’s first-ever finish. The teenager ultimately felt like the difference between a potential effort and the final ride.
Foden was brilliant too, being involved in all three goals after Saka deftly finished off the third, resulting in a comfortable finish for England.
If there are any concerns, it was a nervous half-hour opening, with Senegal having two chances to take the lead.
Giving Walker a small taste of things to come from Mbappe, Ismaila Sarr fired from close range and Boulaye Dia forced an excellent save with a handball from Jordan Pickford.
You suspect France won’t be quite as wasteful if England start another game without energy, and Southgate’s holding strategy, punctuated with sudden flurries of quick passing, feels like a much more significant risk against Les Bleus.
When asked about Mbappe, Southgate was quick to point out that France have quality “everywhere you look.” The same goes for England, leaving Deschamps with as much to ponder as Southgate in the days ahead.