England have proven themselves to be a threatening team over the duration of this tournament, but against Les Bleus they should expect their quarter-final to go the distance tonight, kick-off at 7pm, writes Rachel Roberts.
A 3-0 win over Senegal in the last 16 secured the Three Lions’ progression in the tournament, but after beating the Kings of Africa, they must now overcome World Cup holders France if they are to earn a place in the semi-finals. Undoubtedly, this is England’s biggest test so far, and they will need to utilise their in-form attacking abilities to keep themselves in the tie, at the Al Bayt stadium.
France’s journey to the quarter-finals has been relatively straightforward, topping Group D with a 4-1 win over Australia and beating Denmark 2-1, though their final group game saw a spirited Tunisia side hold on to condemn France to a 1-0 defeat. In the last 16, Les Bleus overcame Poland 3-1, in a fixture which saw Kylian Mbappe find the back of the net twice and Olivier Giroud once, the latter overtaking Thierry Henry to become France’s all-time men’s top scorer.
Therein lies two of many significant threats to England. This France squad is full of stars – behind Mbappe and Giroud, there is four-time Champions League winner Raphael Varane, Theo Hernandez – a key member of AC Milan’s title-winning squad last season – and Real Madrid’s summer signing, Aurelien Tchouameni. It will be England’s aim to break through this unit if they are to have attacking success.Embed from Getty Images
England’s better performances so far have come when playing on the front foot. Energetic displays have produced emphatic results – all three wins have been secured by three goals or more, with eight different scorers. In contrast, playing for the draw in their second group game against the USA saw a far more lethargic game with no end product.
Whereas England are more willing to adapt their game for their opponent, it seems the only way France can play is to be attacking-minded. Les Bleus have focused their play on delivering the ball to their glittering forwards, resulting in nine goals in the tournament so far: five for Mbappe, three for Giroud, and one coming from Adrien Rabiot. Any criticism of being over-reliant on Mbappe ignores the threat of record scorer Giroud, in strong form and high in confidence, and whilst the PSG star is renowned for his pace, Hernandez and Ousmane Dembele are equally as explosive.
It is clear that England’s only approach to this quarter-final is to be positive. Threatening from set-pieces and on the counter-attack, the Three Lions have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with France and set up, what should be, a highly exciting game.Embed from Getty Images
Mbappe v Walker:
The aura of Kylian Mbappe ensures a strong focus will be placed on trying him quiet. For Kyle Walker, his rapid pace means he is one of the only players who can match the French talisman in a foot race, though it will take a team effort to prevent the supply into the Golden Boot contender.
The midfield – Bellingham, Henderson, and Rice v Tchouameni, Rabiot, (and Griezmann):
This England trio are dynamic and energetic. The link-up between Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson for the Three Lions’ first goal against Senegal was a prime example of the effectiveness of their midfield when they drive forward. It will be the mission of Les Bleus to stop these late runs before they can take effect, whilst Declan Rice’s battle with Antoine Griezmann will be key to limiting France’s output to Mbappe and co.Embed from Getty Images
Bukayo Saka v Theo Hernandez:
Bukayo Saka is in fine form, as England’s joint stop scorer this tournament, tied on three goals with Marcus Rashford. Going up against France’s left-back Theo Hernandez should be a battle for him to relish; as Hernandez frequently moves forward up the pitch, there will be open spaces left for Saka to exploit.
France have no new injury concerns to their squad, after Lucas Hernandez ruptured his ACL during their opening game against Australia. There were fears when Mbappe missed a training session earlier in the week, but he has since returned to participating in the pre-match build-up with his team-mates.
There are also no fresh worries in the England camp, so expect both sides to remain unchanged and to benefit from the continuity. Declan Rice missed a training session through illness, but has now recovered. Raheem Sterling travelled back to England after a break-in in his family home, but has now returned to Qatar. His manager Southgate has stated that Sterling “will be involved [tonight]. What that looks like we’ll have to decide because I haven’t seen him on the training pitch. He’s an important player for us.”
England manager Gareth Southgate said: “We are aware of the quality of the whole [French] squad. That’s what’s made them cope with the loss of some key players. The big-match experiences for the [England] team are important reference points. They’ve had to come through many different ways of winning games. Some defeats which we’ve learned from. They prepare you for games like tomorrow. We’re ready to fight France for that place in the semi-final.”
France manager Didier Deschamps said: “[England] don’t have any [weaknesses]. All teams have strengths, not many of them have too many weaknesses, just some slightly less strong points.
On key man Mbappe, the French boss added: “I’m sure England will have prepared to face Kylian, as our previous opponents did, but he is in a position to make the difference. We have other players that can be dangerous as well and that helps us not to be over-dependent on Kylian.”
Prediction: England 2 France 2 aet (England win 4-3 on penalties)
This game is set up to be one of the most exciting of the World Cup so far. The quality and form of both teams means that either side is capable of producing a win, and with goals practically a certainty, it seems likely that it will require a penalty shootout to settle the result. I know the mere mention of penalties is enough to send shivers down some fans’ spines, but Southgate’s men are a different proposition now.
This is the third World Cup meeting between these nations, the previous two both happening in the group stages and both ending in England victories. In all competitions however, France have only lost one of their last eight matches against England – the most recent encounter in 2015 ended in a 3-2 victory for the French.
The Three Lions are looking to win their third consecutive game at a World Cup since achieving the feat in 1990, and to earn a win here would be one of the biggest in Southgate’s managerial reign. As current holders, Les Bleus have experience winning in this generation that England sorely lack, and ability within the squad that can’t fail to impress.
There have been many intriguing battles between these nations but as they embark on one on the biggest stage, England have grown to hold a strong belief that the time is now theirs. Rashford can complete his stunning revival by netting the winning penalty so long as they hold their nerve. It’s within England’s capabilities to keep the dream alive and get the job done against France, however long it takes.
Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts