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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# the act of kylian
Kylian Mbappe renounces defending but dazzles in French win
The brilliant Mbappe scored both goals as France beat Denmark to qualify for the last-16.

LET’S START WITH a story from Kylian Mbappe’s youth. 

Misbehaving in class, a young Mbappe was sent outside to pick up 10 pieces of rubbish as punishment but when the disciplining teacher looked out the window, he saw Mbappe tear one sheet of paper into 10 separate strips, allowing them flutter to the ground before then picking them up. 

spqatar-doha-2022-world-cup-group-d-fra-vs-den Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Kylian Mbappe. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

The lesson: marvel at what this guy does rather than what he doesn’t. The same was true of France’s oddly jittery 2-1 win against Denmark. Here Mbappe scored both goals while simply renouncing defending, allowing Denmark to constantly exploit the space behind him.

It was from that side of the pitch that the Danes forced the corner from which they equalised and constantly exposed some in-built French frailty, but Mbappe more than compensated for his own tastes. 

Didier Deschamps seems to have struck an acceptable bargain with Mbappe’s ego at this World Cup, having lost the argument at the last European Championships. Mbappe is giving the impression he is sacrificing something for the collective: having sought to take set-pieces at the previous Euros, they are now once again Antoine Griezmann’s responsibility. Rightly so, as his delivery was generally sumptuous. 

With Karim Benzema injured, Mbappe has returned to the left of a trio of attackers behind Olivier Giroud, with Ousmane Dembele stretching opponents from the right touchline and Griezmann a beacon of humility behind Giroud, pressing hard and interrupting opponent counter-attacks. 

There is a wonderful balance to their attack, but Didier Deschamps hasn’t quite announced another French republic: Mbappe remains its regal figure. And if this World Cup is a twilight of the fading Gods, then this kind of Prince of Speed is impatiently waiting to seize the crown. 

He ignited in the first-half here with a breathtaking flourish of raw speed, less running onto Griezmann’s through ball than appearing to teleport to it, leaving a trail of zigzagged Danish defenders in his wake, their white-shirted bodies flailing about like the knots of a kite caught in the wind.

Andreas Christensen did what he could and what anyone could do: he snatched Mbappe’s jersey and pulled him down. France screamed for a red card but the referee showed yellow, pointing to two covering defenders who were allegedly going to catch Mbappe. They were not. 

Nonetheless, Mbappe continued his acts of shredding, with that same sly craft that is the hallmark of all the great players. Rasmus Kirstensen was the unfortunate soul tonight, his blood twisted as Mbappe glided past him, seeing his cross met by Dembele but cleared off the line by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. 

The slick machinery of the French attack was seen soon after but Mbappe inexplicably tarnished it. Dembele was sent scarpering down the right wing and when Giroud picked a clever run to the near post as Mbappe arced to the penalty spot, he skewed his shot into the stands. This felt like a glitch rather than an omen. You never got the sense that Mbappe wasn’t going to score. 

Kasper Schmeichel stood in the way shortly after half-time. Mbappe chopped the ball and spun away from Joachim Andersen in one liquid movement, skating into the penalty area, shimmying left, then right, and then left again before choosing to shoot with his left foot. 

imago-20221126 Imago / PA Images Mbappe is hauled down by Andreas Christensen. Imago / PA Images / PA Images

Soon Schmeichel was beaten. Mbappe – gliding forth as if he would traipse through puddles without making a splash – passed to the overlapping Theo Hernandez, whose pull-back was perfect, allowing Mbappe to side-foot first-time. Denmark’s equaliser came from a corner, as  Christensen hauled Denmark level (having already hauling down Mbappe) by headed in from close range after Andersen flicked on a corner. That corner was won from a move down the right flank, Mbappe leaving generous space into which Denmark broke all night.

It’s not that Mbappe didn’t defend it well. He simply didn’t defend it at all, showing no pretensions about so much as giving an impression he was defending. Instead he stood inert, feet planted in the ground, watching play go about around him with that insouciant, slightly-puzzled look of his. But even this has its own thrilling element: Mbappe’s speed from a standing start is dazzling, and you can’t deny his commitment to those standing starts. 

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Stephen Kenny and Keith Andrews were among the crowd and they will latch onto that flaw for comfort ahead of the Euro 2024 qualifier next March. There were moments when Denmark caused further alarm – Martin Braithwaite fired wide from a cross down, you guessed it, Mbappe’s wing – but rather than help France avoid losing the game, he won it. 

The winning goal owed much to Griezmann’s left foot: his delicious cross to the back post was met by Mbappe from a yard out. 

The win secured safe passage for France to the last-16, ending the ‘curse’ of defending champions: the last four European holders of the World Cup have gone out at the group stage. 

But such superstitions were always going to perish at the feet of France’s No.10.

There is nothing quite so bewitching as Kylian Mbappe. 

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