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Kylian Mbappé has eyes on the World Cup, Golden Boot and Golden Ball | World Cup 2022


It’s been some time since a player has taken a World Cup by the scruff of the neck and won the title. Luka Modric was the standout player in Russia four years ago, but his Croatia side fell at the final hurdle. The same happened to Lionel Messi in 2014, and the winner of the Golden Ball in 2010, Diego Forlán, didn’t even reach the final. In fact, one has to go back to Romário at USA 94 to find the last player to have taken home both the title and the award for best player.

The same is true of the Golden Boot. In the last 40 years, only Ronaldo in 2002 has finished top scorer while also winning the tournament. More recently, top scorers – such as James Rodríguez in 2014 and Harry Kane in 2018 – have played in sides who have left far less of an impression on the tournament. Not since Paolo Rossi at the 1982 World Cup has a player won the Golden Ball, Golden Boot and World Cup. Before that only Garrincha in 1962 and Mario Kempes had completed the trio.

Now, though, Kylian Mbappé is on course to upend the poor correlation between individual awards and team success. There has been little doubting his talent, especially after he played such an instrumental role in helping France secure the title in 2018, but this season has been tougher for Mbappé, with the sizzling form of Messi and Neymar leaving him a little in the shade.

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There have been rumours of infighting with Neymar at PSG and playing with France has not been the panacea some might have expected following the team’s win in 2018. At the Euros last summer, he struggled (by his lofty standards) to dovetail with Karim Benzema, and France faced further questions before this tournament given their callow defence and the absence of their first-choice midfield partnership of N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba.

These weaknesses have been on show to some degree in Qatar – it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Didier Deschamps’ side. There have been bumps along the road, whether it be the injuries to Lucas Hernandez and Benzema, the struggles of Benjamin Pavard against Australia, or the embarrassing defeat to Tunisia. But, with no other side looking entirely convincing – no team won all of their group games – France have as good a chance as anyone to win the World Cup and become the first team to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962.

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France took some time to get going against Poland on Sunday evening. Poland were somewhat lucky to scrape through their group after a muddling draw against Mexico and a win over Saudi Arabia, but they still have a decent collection of individuals, including Wojciech Szczesny, Robert Lewandowski and Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski. And, after an early barrage from France, the Poles came into the match, with Hugo Lloris making a vital save to deny Zielinski before blocks from Theo Hernandez and Raphaël Varane kept the match level.

But this smattering of chances was the beginning of the end for Czeslaw Michniewicz’s team, with Mbappé setting up Olivier Giroud for the opener moments later. Mbappé and Giroud have a strong relationship on and off the pitch for France. It’s no secret that Mbappé looks far more comfortable playing as an orthodox winger off an archetypal target man than he does while trying to navigate space around Benzema. Giroud became his country’s all-time top scorer when he gave France the lead but he was quickly outdone by Mbappé, who oozed class while scoring a second-half double.

Mbappé had looked threatening in the first half, dumping Matty Cash on his backside in one memorable sequence, and his through-ball for Giroud was a clever bit of skill, but both of his goals were exceedingly well taken. He is a more nuanced and well-rounded player than he was in 2018, when his effervescence and pace were so integral to his success.

Wojciech Szczesny dives in vain as Kylian Mbappé scores for France.
Wojciech Szczesny dives in vain as Kylian Mbappé scores for France. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

For his first goal, he took advantage of a pocket of space on the edge of the area before curling a finish into the top corner, almost in disbelief that the Poland defence had given him so much time on the ball. His second was even better. Mbappé received the ball in a similar position and, rather than trying to beat Szczesny at his near post – as he had the first time – he picked out the far corner perfectly, lacing the ball through a crowd of defenders to leave the goalkeeper no chance.

Football is a team sport but, when a player is in this sort of form, it’s hard to downplay the chances of his team’s success. Now on five goals for the tournament, to go along with two assists, he has gone from being a merely electric presence on the pitch to being an unquestioned leader, a footballing maverick who is the heartbeat of his side. What Lionel Messi does for Argentina, Mbappé does for France.

Basing a team on an individual is a risky proposition in football, but it does not seem to matter for France. Freed from the arduous schlep of playing second (or even third) fiddle at his club, or having to be crowbarred into a sometimes ill-fitting system that privileges Benzema, he has been pure joy in this tournament, showing the best form of his career.

After the match he said he was 100% concentrated and giving it all of his energy. Mbappé at 100% should now be talked about as one of the game’s greats, particularly if he helps France become the first country to retain the World Cup for 60 years. A lot of the focus beforehand was on Messi and Neymar as this may be their last tournament. If Mbappé came into Qatar 2022 a little under the radar that is no longer the case.

England will present the stiffest test yet for France come Saturday evening, but they simply lack a player operating on the kind of level Mbappé is. And, on the evidence we have seen so far, so does every other team in the competition. Overlooking Mbappé is now impossible.





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