DOHA: As Kylian Mbappe was being muzzled by the England defence, it was France’s old guard who took the defending champions through to the World Cup semi-finals in a nerve-racking 2-1 victory on Saturday.
Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, midfielder Antoine Griezmann and striker Olivier Giroud were all influential in a thrilling match, playing their roles close to perfection to see off an England team who were left thinking they deserved better.
Lloris, identified as the weak link by British media, pulled off superb saves to deny his Tottenham Hotspur team mate Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham either side of the interval.
The 35-year-old Lloris was celebrating a record 143rd cap and just like in 2018, he showed he was reliable in the big moments.
Against one of the top midfields in the tournament, France needed Griezmann to find the right balance between defence and attack and the Atletico Madrid player excelled.
His relentless harassment broke England’s fast transitions in the first half and his calm under pressure gave Les Bleus much-needed breathing space at times.
Griezmann capped his performance with two assists, the first for Aurelien Tchouameni’s first-half thunderbolt, and the second for Giroud’s 78th-minute winner.
Griezmann has now set up 28 France goals, more than any other player, on his record 72nd consecutive appearance.
The second goal came as Marc Thuram was about to replace Giroud, but he was left to jump into coach Didier Deschamps’s arms to celebrate his team mate’s winning header.
Giroud, who owes his place in the starting lineup to Karim Benzema being ruled out injured before the tournament, seized his chance, scoring four goals in Qatar after failing to manage a shot on target in Russia four years ago and being relegated to the bench at the European Championship.
Mbappe had stolen the limelight from him in France’s 3-1 win over Poland, adding a spectacular late double to Giroud’s opener, but on Saturday the 23-year-old happily took a back seat and was seen slapping his team mate’s face in sheer excitement after the decisive goal.
It was, possibly, the biggest takeaway from France’s victory. They can win when Mbappe does not shine or score, and his reaction to Giroud’s goal proved Deschamps’s point when he said he did not need to manage the Paris St Germain forward’s ego.
France next face Morocco, with Mbappe set to battle it out with club team mate and great friend Achraf Hakimi, as Les Bleus look to become the first team to retain their World Cup title since Brazil in 1962.
No team have reached two consecutive finals since Brazil in 2002.