France arrived in Qatar without three of its stars. Midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante had been left out before the squad was announced. A day before the defending champions were due to fly to Qatar, striker Christopher Nkunku injured his leg. As if that weren’t bad enough, Karim Benzema, who had won the Ballon d’Or just a month ago, was sidelined on the eve of the World Cup with a hamstring injury.
But all those setbacks didn’t matter as France topped Group D and secured a place in the last 16 with a game to go. This is the first time since 2010 that a defending champion has survived the preliminary round. Of course not many would have bet on an early elimination of the French given the strong side, despite the absence of some key figures.
FOLLOW OUR FIFA World Cup coverage
France opened their campaign with a stunning 4-1 win over Australia after giving up the lead. They then defeated Denmark, who should always be the strongest opponent in the group, 2-1. This win made Les Bleus the first team to reach the knockout stages in Qatar.
The question now was who would join them at this stage. The answer came from Mathew Leckie, who scored the winning goal with a brilliant individual performance against Denmark. The 1-0 win put Australia second in the league, ahead of Tunisia, who must have been unlucky to have missed out on, despite shocking a virtually second-placed France by the same margin and at the same time on the last matchday in group D. Denmark finished last in group. Who would have thought?
Best Goal – Mathew Leckie, Australia v Denmark
Riley McGree’s long pass – down the left and out of his own half on an Australian counterattack – was great. Mathew Leckie’s finish was spectacular.
Leckie, who was already heading through the middle towards the Danish goal, had to pass two Danish defenders, Joakim Maehle and Joachim Andersen. He took on Maehle from the edge of the box, beat him again and shot the ball into the bottom right corner, past goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who dived.
READ ALSO – Who is Dominik Livakovic, Croatia goalkeeper who featured in the FIFA World Cup?
Leckie’s goal wasn’t just a lucky strike for Australia, it was also historic. It put the Aussies in the last 16 for the first time since 2006. And it was Leckie’s first World Cup goal. Speaking of timing.
Goal winner: Mathew Leckie of Australia celebrates after scoring against Denmark. The decisive goal was also Leckie’s first at the World Cup. | Photo credit: Getty Images
Best Player – Antoine Griezmann
Kylian Mbappe may have been in the spotlight in Qatar, but Antoine Griezmann is probably the main reason France could put their title defense on the right track. The 31-year-old excelled against Australia and Denmark, both games won by France.
When he didn’t start in the last league game against Tunisia – Didier Deschamps made nine changes in total – it showed. When he came on late in the game it showed. In the last seconds of the game he even appeared with a skillful volley having equalized for France; It was of course ruled offside by the VAR.
It wasn’t the task of scoring goals that Deschamps entrusted to Griezmann, but of creating them. He did that wonderfully in the group stage. Check out just some of the stats from his side’s crucial match against Denmark: 100% dribbling and 5/6 long balls completed; 4/4 duels won; Numbers sometimes tell the story too.
Best match – France 2-1 Denmark
France were beaten twice by Denmark in the UEFA Nations League this year. To get revenge, you can’t dream of a bigger stage than the World Cup. the stage that Kylian Mbappe made his own four years ago as a 19-year-old. He was the star of France’s fine win at Doha’s Stadium 974. He scored both goals in a game that produced quality football. Denmark did well to keep France and Mbappe in particular calm in the first half where Les Bleus had 13 shots; it was the most they had scored in a World Cup or European Championship game without converting.
They finally took the lead in the 61st minute thanks to a glorious 2-1 draw between Theo Hernandez and Mbappe. Denmark, on the other hand, rebounded from a corner kick just seven minutes later from Christian Eriksen, the man who knows a thing or two about coming back from worse situations. Anders Christiansen’s header caused joy among the Danish fans but it wasn’t long before Mbappe scored the winning goal – with his thigh – after a superb Antoine Griezmann cross. Mbappe can do anything on a football field, right?