The outcome of a World Cup is often decided before the Final. It is rarely the case that the best two teams in the tournament meet in the Final, so the final result of a World Cup is often determined in a semi-final, quarter-final or even earlier. That could be the case again in Qatar, where England and France, who have looked like the best two teams, meet in the last eight. Increasingly, the suspicion is that the winner of that match will win the World Cup.
England Have Shown Superb Teamwork
Gareth Southgate has achieved many firsts as an England manager, in particular taking England to successive quarter-finals at three successive major tournaments (World Cups or European Championships). If his England side can beat France in their Qatar quarter-final, he will extend that record further by reaching three successive major semi-finals, including two at successive World Cups. Given that England had only ever reached two World Cup semi-finals in their entire history before Southgate took over (in 1966 and 1990), that would be a truly historic achievement.
However, what is possibly even more impressive is the teamwork being displayed by Southgate’s England, which has been so impressive that the Three Lions have often looked like the best all-round team in the 2022 World Cup. That teamwork has been best demonstrated in the team goals they have scored, which have taken them from one end of the pitch to the other in a breath-taking, one and two-touch style that England have arguably never shown at a major tournament – not even in 1966 or 1990.
They Have Scored Some Great Team Goals
England had served notice of their all-round attacking ability against Wales, when their third goal took them from playing out at the back to Marcus Rashford smashing in from close range. Of course, playing out from the back is itself a relatively rare development for England, which Pep Guardiola must take huge credit for having encouraged his Manchester City sides to do so since he arrived in England. He has achieved such dominance through it that other Premier League teams have felt compelled to follow suit.
However, even that length-of-the-field move and goal against Wales was not as impressive as the two team goals that England scored against Senegal in their last 16 match. That is because they came while the game was still either goalless or in the balance, whereas the goal against Wales had come when England had already effectively won the game and taken the pressure off. Against Senegal, by contrast, the pressure was still on, especially after Senegal’s impressive opening. Nevertheless, led by Jude Bellingham on both occasions, England showed dazzling inter-passing ability to allow Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane to score twice in quick succession, which Senegal never looked like they could recover from.
But France Have Mbappé’s Individual Genius
However, what France have that England do not have (at least not yet) is the proven, tournament-winning genius of a player like Kylian Mbappe. Just as England have looked like the best team in Qatar so far, so Mbappe has looked like the best individual player so far – and by a distance. Leonel Messi has impressed for Argentina, especially with his goals against Mexico and Australia that broke down massed defences. However, Mbappe, who leads the race for the Golden Boot with five goals (not to mention two assists) has – unsurprisingly, given that he is a decade younger than Messi – looked fitter, faster and more lethal.
Indeed, it is arguable that the Frenchman has already played better in Qatar in 2022 than he did at the entire tournament in Russia in 2018, despite the fact that in Russia he emerged as the finest teenager to perform at a World Cup since Pele in Sweden in 1958, scoring twice against Argentina in the last 16 and then scoring two more goals in the final against Croatia. However, his all-around game has improved immeasurably over the last four and a half years. Indeed, it has improved to the extent that if he continues his current form he could come the closest since Diego Maradona in 1986 to being the one man who decides an entire World Cup.
France Are Not A One-Man Team
Of course, France are not a one-man team, any more than Argentina were in 1986, when they had superb deputies to Maradona in the two Jorges (Burruchaga and Valdano). Similarly, Les Bleus in 2022 can point to their other attacking talents, notably Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, who is now his country’s all-time leading goal scorer (with 52 goals) after scoring against Poland in the last 16. Incidentally, France’s already potent attack may be benefiting from the late injury to Karim Benzema that meant he missed the World Cup. As he did in Russia in 2018, Giroud is the ideal link-up man for Mbappé and Griezmann. Arguably, it was his absence in the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, when Benzema was chosen ahead of him, that ended up disrupting France’s attack and costing them the tournament.
Nevertheless, for all the superb support provided by Griezmann and Giroud, Mbappe stands apart. He has already contributed mightily to one World Cup win and may contribute even more mightily to another if France can see off England and go all the way in Qatar.
The Weaknesses of Both Teams
Of course for all their impressive displays so far in Qatar, both England and France have demonstrated that, like every other team in football history, they have weaknesses. England’s weakness is more obvious, in that it is undeniable that they do not have a goalkeeper and defence to match the outstanding quality of their midfield and attack.
Put simply, for all that they have played well in the tournament so far, it is hard to see Harry Maguire and John Stones stopping Mbappé from scoring. Consequently, there is huge pressure on Kyle Walker, who has only just returned from injury, to play at right-back and try to stop Mbappe virtually on his own. If any right-back in the world is capable of it, it might just be Walker, with his own considerable pace. However, it is arguable that no right-back in the world, not even Walker, can stop Mbappe when he is at his best.
Having said that, unlike Maradona at his imperious best in 1986, Mbappe will need service from midfield and that may be where England are able to stop him – at source. Adrien Rabiot and Aurélien Tchouaméni have been capable replacements for the injured midfield axis of Ngolo Kante and Paul Pogba that played for France in 2018. However, they may not only be outnumbered by England’s new trio of Rice, Henderson and Bellingham but could be outplayed, especially if Bellingham can continue his own excellent form in Qatar.
So, the stage is set for what could be a World Cup decider – a final before the final, between the two best teams in the tournament, that will ultimately decide the destination of the 2022 World Cup.
Five Previous World Cup Deciders
Here are five previous World Cup deciders, when arguably the two best teams at a World Cup met before the Final itself, with the winner going on to win the entire tournament.
Russia 2018: World Cup Semi-final – France 1, Belgium 0
As Kevin de Bruyne admitted at the start of this tournament, Belgium were at their best four years ago when they beat Brazil in the quarter-final and met France in the semi-final. Ultimately, however, France were able to resist the Belgian attackers and Samuel Umtiti (the forgotten man of French football, who has barely played since 2018) headed the winner early in the second half.
Italy 1990: World Cup Semi-final – West Germany 1, England 1 (West Germany win 4-3 on penalties)
After hosts Italy had lost the first semi-final on penalties to Maradona’s Argentina, both teams in the second semi-final strongly fancied their chances of beating an Argentina side who were a mere shadow of the one that had won the World Cup in Mexico four years earlier. Ultimately, after probably the best match of the tournament, West Germany won on penalties and went on to win the Final.
Mexico 1986: World Cup Quarter-final – Argentina 2, England 1
Many would scoff at the England 1986 team’s description of themselves as the second-best side in the tournament, especially after they lost their opening game to Portugal and nearly crashed out at the group stage. However, by the time they faced Maradona and Argentina in the last eight, they had beaten both Poland and Paraguay 3-0, and in Gary Lineker had the man who would go on to win the Golden Boot. Unfortunately for England, Maradona had two golden feet (and one golden hand), which allowed him to score twice, including the greatest individual goal ever scored.
Spain 1982: World Cup Second Round – Italy 3, Brazil 2
In 1982, the World Cup was decided even before the semi-final, as Italy and Brazil met in the second match of the second group stage, rather than in a straight “knockout” match; indeed, Brazil knew that a draw would be enough to see them through, after they had scored one more goal than Italy in beating Argentina (the other team in their second round group). However, what followed was perhaps the greatest match in World Cup history, as Paolo Rossi finally rediscovered his goal-scoring form (after nearly two years out of football because of a ban for involvement in a betting scandal) to get the hat-trick that defeated Brazil. Brazil 1982 may not be the greatest team never to win the World Cup (that is an honour shared by Hungary 1954 and Holland 1974), but they almost certainly had the best midfield ever, in Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Cerezo and Eder.
England 1966: World Cup Semi-final – England 2, Portugal 1
The greatest Portuguese footballer before Cristiano Ronaldo was Eusebio, the Mozambique-born striker who for most of the 1960s looked like Pele’s natural heir as the best player in the world. He was never better than at the World Cup in England in 1966, when he scored a remarkable nine goals. However, his eighth goal at the tournament was only a consolation, as Bobby Charlton had already scored twice for England to secure victory. Eusebio would score once more in the third-place play-off against the USSR to win the Golden Boot, but England, buoyed by the victory against Portugal, went on to win the Final against West Germany.
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