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World Cup 2022: Five key battles that will define England vs France
Which players will be the most influential in Saturday's quarter-final clash?
World Cup knockout games are often decided by fine margins.
And that seems almost certain to be the case when England play France in Saturday’s highly-anticipated quarter-final.
With talent all over the pitch on both sides, winning individual battles will be key, so we’ve taken a look at the most important of them ahead of this clash between two European heavyweights.
Kyle Walker vs Kylian Mbappe
This potential confrontation was discussed even before the World Cup began when it became clear England might play France in the last eight.
Now, though, it’s taken on even more importance given Kylian Mbappe’s form heading into the game. The Paris Saint-Germain superstar has five goals in four games in Qatar and looks on course to win the Golden Boot - and potentially a second World Cup - at the age of just 23.
France’s left-sided attacker is a frightening prospect, but England have a player capable of at least restricting his impact. Kyle Walker, though perhaps not as quick as he was a few years ago, is rapid and among the best in the world at defensive recovery runs.
That might mean Gareth Southgate doesn’t need to set his defensive line too deep in a bid to stop Mbappe running in behind.
Still, Mbappe is hardly reliant on pace, as he showed with two goals crafted from nothing in France’s last 16 win over Poland. Walker will need to defend well in one-on-one situations and will likely be dependent on the support of team-mates like Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice or John Stones to nullify the World Cup’s top scorer.
Harry Maguire vs Olivier Giroud
There were question marks over the inclusion of Harry Maguire in Gareth Southgate’s starting XI at the beginning of the tournament but so far, the Manchester United defender hasn’t put a foot wrong.
The caveat remains that the opposition have been at a lower standard than what’s to come.
After victories against Iran, Wales and Senegal - including a clean sheet in each of the last three matches - facing France feels like the first real test of a backline that had been porous leading up to the World Cup.
Maguire could be in for a difficult night, too, up against one of Europe’s most experienced, savvy strikers in Olivier Giroud.
The former Arsenal and Chelsea man has been excellent in Qatar, scoring three goals and overtaking Thierry Henry as France’s all-time top scorer. He’s the ideal facilitator for Mbappe to his left and Ousmane Dembele to his right, so winning aerial battles and denying Giroud space will be Maguire’s task.
Phil Foden vs Jules Kounde
Assuming both players start, which is far from certain, both Phil Foden and Jules Kounde could play a big part in the outcome of the game.
The former was superb in the win over Senegal, providing two assists and looking like a constant threat drifting in from the left flank.
If England can get the ball to the feet of the Manchester City man they might find some joy in attacking areas. Kounde, though a strong defender, is naturally a centre-back and could struggle to deal with Foden’s agility and sharpness in wide areas.
Poland had several opportunities in their defeat to France, particularly in the first half, so England will be aware that the world champions are far from invulnerable at the back.
Declan Rice vs Antoine Griezmann
Quietly, Antoine Griezmann has been one of the players of the tournament up until the quarter-final stage.
Typically a forward with an appetite only for sniffing out goals, the Atletico Madrid man has swallowed his pride and taken on a deeper midfield role in Didier Deschamps’ team.
And Griezmann looks like a player who has played in this unfamiliar position for his whole career. It’s a testament to his intelligence and adaptability, and another concern for Southgate before the quarter-final.
Preventing the former Barcelona player from drifting into areas of space and feeding the ball to Mbappe and Dembele will be crucial. To do that, Rice will need to be alert defensively, while ensuring he helps England retain possession as much as possible.
Griezmann has the most key passes (14) of any player at the World Cup, one more than Lionel Messi, so his threat can’t be understated.
Harry Kane vs Raphael Varane
Two players who have faced off in the Premier League, Harry Kane and Raphael Varane are hugely important for both teams.
The latter missed France’s first game having only recently recovered from injury, but looked assured in the win over Poland.
Kane, meanwhile, scored his first goal of the tournament in England’s victory against Senegal, adding to his three assists beforehand.
The Three Lions will need their captain on form if they are to advance into the semis and perhaps beyond, just as France will need an in-form Mbappe.
Varane, alongside Dayot Upemacano, will be the man tasked with stopping the Tottenham striker in a battle that could well decide the eventual outcome of the match.