DOHA: Matty Cash had just witnessed up close the blinding pace and brilliant finishing of the sharpshooting, quick-footed Kylian Mbappe.
Poland had been floored 3-1 by holders France in their last-16 game at the Al Thumama Stadium and Cash, the England-born full-back who qualified to play for the Poles by virtue of his Polish grandparents, was swarmed by English reporters, who were expecting their side to go through to a tantalising quarter-final against cross-channel rivals France by beating Senegal in the later game on Sunday.
Naturally, all questions for Cash were about Mbappe, who set the game alight with two stunning right-foot finishes in the final 15 minutes having set up the opener for Olivier Giroud close to half-time. Aston Villa defender Cash was tasked with the task of stopping Mbappe’s raids from the left.
“I spent the afternoon watching his clips and I knew it was going to be a tough test but when he gets the ball, he’s the quickest thing I’ve ever seen,” Cash said in the mixed zone.
“He’s at a different level. I play in the Premier League week-in, week out and I play against top class wingers. But he’s easily going to be the best player in the world. Speed, movement, look at his finishing. He’s got everything. He put two in the top corner, one in the left and one in the right.”
England’s 3-0 win over Senegal at the Al Bayt Stadium set up a tie with France and now their young side comes up against Mbappe, who at just 23 years of age looks primed to win the World Cup for a second time. At this young age, he’s already France’s lodestar, an impeccably capable player who can change a game within a matter of minutes.
After their victory over Poland, all thoughts about France’s injury-marred buildup to the tournament, which sees them without Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba in Qatar, have been forgotten. Mbappe has firmly seized the spotlight and for all the stars at this World Cup — Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo potentially playing for the final time at world football’s grandest stage — all eyes are on Mbappe.
“I think it’s difficult to set a limit for Kylian … he’s capable of breaking all records,” France’s captain and custodian Hugo Lloris told reporters, referring to Mbappe already reaching 33 goals for Les Blues in a game where Giroud became their top-scorer with 52.
“It’s amazing to have a team-mate like him. He has a great connection with the team. We all work together but when you start to come close to titles, you need your main players.”
Defender Jules Kounde admitted Mbappe scored “two beautiful goals in important moments” but added that it was a collective win.
“It’s also a team effort when things aren’t going well. We all stuck together.” Mbappe and Giroud were involved in a rather public spat during last year’s European Championships where France came unstuck against Switzerland in the last 16. But as France evolve at the World Cup, everything seems to be falling in place.
“I think as we have spent more time together, played games together, the group has come together and the spirit is very good,” said Kounde, one of several new players in the squad who was not in the side when they triumphed in Russia four years ago.
“The mix of generations is going very well.”
England coach Gareth Southgate was concerned about Mbappe as he plots sending defending champions France home in the last eight but he also spoke about the other threats his side face.
“Mbappe is a world-class player. He has already delivered top performances in other tournaments at this level,” Southgate told a news conference after his side’s win over Senegal.
“But I think Antoine Griezmann has well over 100 caps and he is also phenomenal. We know Giroud very well. In the middle of the park, they have young players who are doing great things. If you study France closely, there is talent in every position. It’s a huge challenge that we look forward to taking on.”
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2022