The following sentences are all true. Denmark played a very good game. They attacked France bravely and intelligently. They controlled long periods. They defended their lines brilliantly at times. Kylian Mbappé had a curiously wayward night. France beat Denmark 2-1 with two scruffy second-half goals from Mbappé.
A show of strength from France, then, even if it also brooked a glimmer of weakness. They became the first team to qualify for the knockout stages, and even if they are yet to dominate they have already shown more than enough to serve notice on the rest of the competition. You can match their effort. You can thwart their tactics. But they’ll still always have Kylian.
The others tried their level best, of course. In terms of influence, Antoine Griezmann may well have been the best player on the pitch. Ousmane Dembélé was sensational on the France right, showing why Mbappé has been so keen to lure him to Paris. Theo Hernández had a great game at left-back. And yet once again it was their star who ended up as the star: gurning for the cameras, moving ominously to the top of the Golden Boot standings, just another highly lucrative day of business at Kylian Mbappé Inc.
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You had to feel for Denmark, in a way. After weathering a torrid first half, the European Championship semi-finalists came out stronger after the break, deservedly equalising through Andreas Christensen, hitting the post through Martin Braithwaite.
And yet here they simply ran into a player who even on his humdrum days is always the game’s unstable element: its unexploded bomb, the mystery box with a question mark on it. Their participation now hangs on a crucial game with Australia on Wednesday, which they must win.
And yes, you could pick holes in that French performance, particularly at the back. They have now kept just one clean sheet in their last eight games. But none of this is really a problem in itself.
One of the lesser-known facts about that 2018 team is that it conceded more goals (six) than any world champions since Italy in 1982. It didn’t matter. In a fair fight, they will always back themselves to score one more than you.
And perhaps the most chilling aspect of this France team is that they can cut you in so many ways. Crosses from the full-backs, intricate triangles into the channels, the long ball for Griezmann or Olivier Giroud, the counterattack, the diagonal run, the set piece, the bench.
“This group is strong and solid, with the desire to do great things,” Didier Deschamps told the media afterwards. “The first objective has been achieved.”
Perhaps one of the defining notes of the game came around 20 minutes in when Mbappé was dragged down by Christensen as he was just putting on the jet-burners. And although it resulted in nothing more than a yellow card, the mere whiff of Mbappé’s pace was enough to put the frighteners on Denmark, force them to step a little deeper, hand control of the territorial battle over to France.
And there it would stay until half-time, and what we can surmise was a frosty team talk from the Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand. For France really were sizzling in that opening period; 13 shots came in those first 45 minutes. Denmark stepped up a little more in the second half and Christian Eriksen began to create openings. But this simply renewed the threat of the France counterattack, and after a scintillating burst out of defence Hernández set up Mbappé, who set up Hernández, who set up Mbappé for a slightly scruffy finish.
That was the cue for Deschamps to make some changes. Giroud got a rest, Marcus Thuram came on and France’s intensity seemed to drop a little. A short period of Denmark pressure was rewarded when Eriksen’s corner was flicked on by Joachim Andersen and Christensen thumped home from six yards, a zone that really should have been patrolled by a French player.
Briefly, Denmark threatened a famous steal. Hugo Lloris made a fine save from Jesper Lindstrøm. The substitute Braithwaite clipped the post with a sharp first-time shot.
But ineluctably and inexorably, it would be Mbappé who had the final word. It was Griezmann with the cross from the right – and his left foot really is the most gorgeous thing – with Mbappé bundling in the swinging ball from close range. Game over. Thanks for playing. Press O to go back to the main menu.
France are not quite the finished team yet. But this was a big test of mettle against strong opponents who had beaten them twice this year, a test of their ability to find solutions against high-quality defences without getting countered. Denmark ran and hustled but couldn’t live with them here. On this evidence, there are very few teams in the world who can.