Are France a better and happier side without Karim Benzema? Kylian Mbappe certainly shone alongside Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele.
It was a little mischievous of Diego Lugano to suggest that the rest of the France squad would be secretly pleased at the withdrawal of the injured Karim Benzema from this World Cup; the Uruguayan claimed he had played with enough French players to know that the Ballon d’Or winner is rather more popular with the football electorate than with his teammates.
“I am certain, because I was a team-mate to some [France players] that they are very happy with the departure of Benzema,” said Lugano. It was mischievous but the theory seemed sound – this squad still contains the bones of the team that won the World Cup in 2018 without Benzema and the early evidence suggests they absolutely could do it again. Without Benzema this is a unified France attack built around the effervescent and energetic Kylian Mbappe and that is a unified France attack that should be feared by every defence in Qatar.
Mbappe finished sixth in that Ballon d’Or vote but he will know that relatively lowly ranking owes more to his club and their travails in Europe than his own talent. Had the Frenchman moved to Real Madrid and won the Champions League there, he would likely be crowned the best player in the world. The next best thing would be to dazzle as France’s outstanding talent in another World Cup triumph and this time claim the Golden Ball rather than its younger brother.
This all seems possible while watching Mbappe help to destroy a game but limited Australia side, claiming a goal and an assist for the irrepressible Olivier Giroud (oh how we will miss him), an impressive double replicated by the rejuvenated Adrien Rabiot. The other two assists were claimed by Theo Hernandez and Ousmane Dembele, whose pace and delivery was devastating on the right of Giroud, who made history with his 51st France goal to draw level with Thierry Henry.
But we all know that Giroud is simply keeping the record warm for Mbappe, who has now scored 29 goals for France before the age of 24. For mind-blowing context, Giroud was in his 30s when he reached that particular number.
On the day that the last dance of Lionel Messi began with him falling over his own shoes, Mbappe issued a warning that this World Cup could belong to a different generation of superstar, who happens to be blessed with teammates worthy of the name. This France side is not just a chorus line in Mbappe’s shadow but a true supporting cast, with Giroud a natural in the role of the ageing but handsome neighbour with a twinkle in his eye.
Four years ago, France began their World Cup campaign with a 2-1 win over Australia. Six of that XI started against the same country in Qatar and won 4-1. When the opposition gets tougher, France might start to miss the crocked N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba – though Aurélien Tchouaméni looked more than comfortable on his major tournament debut – but they will not miss Benzema and the potential disruption of his presence on and off the field.
On it, France have made an excellent start and much of that can be attributed to Mbappe, who thrived in the position he is desperate to play for PSG – on the left with equal responsibility for tormenting the full-back and ghosting into the middle to finish. After two years experimenting with formations to get Benzema and Mbappe on the pitch at the same time, it might just turn out that the real quiz was how to create a Mbappe, Giroud and Dembele trident.
Astonishingly it’s been over five years since Didier Deschamps tried that combination. It will surely only be four days until we see it again.