France back on track as Netherlands close on Nations League finals

Published September 24, 2022
PARIS: France’s Kylian Mbappe (second R) scores during the Nations League match against Austria at Stade de France.—AFP
PARIS: France’s Kylian Mbappe (second R) scores during the Nations League match against Austria at Stade de France.—AFP

PARIS: Kylian Mbappe starred as world champions France shrugged off injuries and off-field problems to beat Austria on Thursday, while the Netherlands won in Poland to close in on a place in next year’s UEFA Nations League finals.

France’s build-up to their defence of the World Cup in Qatar in November and December has been marred by fitness issues surrounding a host of key players as well as other worries, but Les Bleus did not appear distracted as they outclassed the Austrians in Paris, winning 2-0.

Mbappe showcased his phenomenal pace and strength on the way before finishing emphatically to put the hosts ahead in the 56th minute at the Stade de France.

“I play differently here. I am asked to do different things than with my club. I have much more freedom,” Mbappe said after the game, where victory for Les Bleus allowed them to stave off the threat of relegation from the top tier of the UEFA Nations League.

Mbappe’s opener was followed by a second goal from recalled Olivier Giroud nine minutes later.

The 23-year-old PSG superstar has to share the limelight at his club with both Lionel Messi and Neymar, with the Brazilian currently their top scorer.

“The coach knows we have a number nine in ‘Olive’ who keeps the defences occupied. I can run about, find space and look for the ball,” added Mbappe. “With Paris it’s different. I can’t do that. I am asked to be more of a pivot for the others.”

Giroud headed in Antoine Griezmann’s cross to score his 49th international goal — he is now just two goals short of Thierry Henry’s French record.

Injuries had deprived French coach Didier Deschamps of a whole team, when both Barcelona defender Jules Kounde and AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan had to come off hurt. Goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris, midfield duo N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, and Karim Benzema are already among the missing players.

Meanwhile this week began with Paris Saint-Germain superstar Mbappe refusing to take part in a photo shoot in a row with the French Football Federation over image rights.

Mbappe celebrated his goal by mimicking a photographer in an apparent nod to that row.

Just eight days shy of his 36th birthday, Giroud became France’s oldest ever goal-scorer.

Coming exactly two months before they begin their World Cup defence against Australia in Qatar.

Deschamps’ side still need to win their last Group A1 game away in Denmark on Sunday to be certain of avoiding relegation, while qualification for the four-team finals next June is already out of reach.

CROATIA SEE OFF DENMARK

Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runners-up, are on course to top the section after beating Denmark 2-1 in Zagreb.

Borna Sosa’s 49th-minute opener for the hosts was cancelled out by a magnificent Christian Eriksen strike in the 77th minute.

However, Croatia’s winner came just two minutes later through Lovro Majer.

Croatia are a point clear of the Danes before going to Vienna to play bottom side Austria on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands are well placed to advance to the finals from Group A4 after a 2-0 win away to Robert Lewandowski’s Poland in Warsaw.

Cody Gakpo turned in a Denzel Dumfries centre at the end of a superb move to put the Dutch in front early on, while Steven Bergwijn made it 2-0 on the hour mark after a one-two with Vincent Janssen.

“It was a big test for us. I am very satisfied with how we played,” said Dutch coach Louis van Gaal.

Group rivals Belgium beat Wales 2-1 in Brussels, with Kevin De Bruyne and Michy Batshuayi scoring first-half goals before Kieffer Moore pulled one back.

The Netherlands are three points clear of Belgium before the sides meet in Amsterdam on Sunday.

However, having won 4-1 in Belgium in their last meeting, even a two-goal defeat would be enough for Van Gaal’s side to qualify for the four-team finals.

In contrast Wales — who had no Gareth Bale in their starting line-up — must now beat Poland in Cardiff on Sunday to stay in League A.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2022

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