Everything was on the line – a World Cup semi-final against Morocco, the chance to dethrone champions France and England’s all-time goalscoring record.
Harry Kane, who had roused England after an early French opener, and already thumped home one spot-kick to equal Wayne Rooney’s 53 goals, took a deep breath, stepped up and ballooned it over the bar. England’s captain was devastated and England’s dreams turned to dust in this desert moonscape north of Doha.
And so Kane, such a phenomenal goalscorer, looks destined to end up as ‘nearly man’. Just as Gareth Southgate’s England team seem to be condemned to the same fate. After a World Cup semi-final in Russia in 2018, and a Euros final loss to Italy last year, this cruel quarter-final was technically a step backwards.
But England have been excellent in four of their five games in Qatar – including this one, where they outplayed France for long periods. After Aurelien Tchouameni’s early opener, they went for the French jugular and dominated until Kane’s spot-kick equaliser.
Then, a desperate late double blow – a headed winner from Olivier Giroud, followed Kane’s sky-high penalty. It was agony for Southgate and his team – especially with such an inviting semi-final opponent.
Yet this, like most elite games, was one of those ‘fine margins’ – first Harry Maguire allowing Giroud his close-range header, then Kane fluffing the biggest moment of his career.
In rugby they call this fixture ‘Le Crunch’ but this one had far higher stakes than any Six Nations match. And, if it was possible, then Morocco’s stunning victory over Portugal had cranked up the pressure even higher.
Draws have a habit of opening up alluringly for Southgate, over three tournaments, and here were a pack of rank underdogs waiting in the semis.
And while facing the world champions was a rare exception, France were without their Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema as well as Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
There had been no suggestion of any inferiority complex from England all week. Southgate had decided as early as last Monday to name an unchanged team – there was no thought about applying that infamous Southgate handbrake.
And Kyle Walker, the man who would mark Mbappe, was adamant that they wouldn’t “roll out the red carpet” and allow France “a night at the theatre”.
The pre-match atmosphere was subdued – as it so often is at this weird tournament where there have been so relatively few partisan travelling supporters from all but a handful of nations. Yet despite plenty of bravado in the build-up England began tentatively – both full-backs, Walker and Luke Shaw, looking especially vulnerable. And then Mbappe – speak of the devil, as we’d been doing all week got to work.
He turned Declan Rice, darted infield and when Antoine Griezmann laid it back, Tchouameni steered a low shot into the far corner from 20 yards. Jordan Pickford probably should have saved it, any number of England players might have prevented but the champions were swaggering and France were ahead.
It was the first time England had been behind this tournament but it jolted them into action – Kane in particular. A sweet Saka reverse-pass found Kane, who out-muscled Dayot Upamecano on the turn, and attempted to lift his shot over his Tottenham team-mate Hugo Lloris, who saved smartly with his body.
Kane, though, was in bull-in-china-shop mode and when he burst past Upamecano again, there was a tangle of legs and a VAR check. England were convinced but neither Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio nor his VAR were moved – it looked like a trip, but the contact may have started outside the area by a fag paper.
Kane, a wronged man desperate for payback, leathered one from 25 yards and Lloris flung himself to turn it wide. This was more like it from England, the French looked rattled. After the break, Southgate’s men were straight back at it.
Bellingham, who had just been the victim of a horrible lunge from Ousmane Dembele, fizzed a shot from 20 yards which Lloris tipped over.
The equaliser had been well signposted and it was England’s two youngest starters who engineered it – Saka playing a one-two with Bellingham drawing the foul from Tchouameni.
The referee did not hesitate and after Kane had re-spotted the ball, he thudded into the corner, sending Lloris the wrong way. But just as England has responded aggressively to France’s goal, the reverse was true now.
Suddenly Adrien Rabiot was clean through, the England defence caught with legs akimbo, but Pickford pushed away his fierce drive. Mbappe turned on the after-burners and out-paced Walker but Dembele couldn’t get a touch on his centre.
It was a wide-open, toe-to-toe slugfest now. Griezmann, already booked, was lucky to stay on after a tactical foul on a scurrying Phil Foden.
Saka was causing more mischief to France than Mbappe was to England. When the Arsenal man won a free-kick, Henderson delivered and Harry Maguire’s header brushed against the post. But when Shaw lost Dembele, he nodded down for Giroud to unleash a close-ramge volley which forced Pickford into a fine save.
England never fully cleared the resulting corner and when Griezmann delivered a wicked cross, Giroud got in front of Maguire to thud home a header which gave Pickford no chance.
Mason Mount arrived and almost immediately was barged over in the box by Theo Hernandez, the VAR sent Sampaio to his monitor. But Kane stepped up and blazed it into the Gods.
- The Sun report