Kylian Mbappe is the talk of the town, understandably after another two goals on Saturday ensured France are through to the last 16 with a game to spare, but the virtues of teamwork should not be underestimated as the French aim to retain their title as world champions.
Mbappe emerged as the brightest young talent on the planet when Les Bleus lifted the trophy in Russia four years ago, and now he is an established superstar, rightly rubbing shoulders with Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar at the pinnacle of the game.
He shares a dressing room, if not always common ground, with the latter two at Paris St Germain, a club that represents the dysfunctional excesses of modern football. Yet while the Paris club has struggled for unity and purpose since its Qatari owners started buying superstars on multi-million Euro deals, the French national side has thrived on a team ethic that keeps Mbappe grounded and brings the best out of the 23-year-old.
His manager and team-mates are happy to lavish him with praise, but always add that football is a team game, and balance is essential. Didier Deschamps did exactly that in his press conference after Mbappe's double downed Denmark, who had beaten the French twice over the past year in the Nations League.
Mbappe opened the scoring in the 61st minute after an exchange of passes with Theo Hernandez, and after Andreas Christensen equalised soon afterwards, the France forward bundled home Antoine Griezmann's cross in the dying minutes to seal victory with his 14th goal in the past 12 games.
“He is an exceptional player, with the ability to be aggressive, to make a difference,” said Deschamps. “Opponents have to rethink their structure when coming up against Kylian but we have other players as well. He is an exceptional player but part of an exceptional team that is strong together. He has the objective of playing for France at the World Cup and France needs Kylian.” Deschamps also called him a leader on the pitch, with his actions rather than words.
“He is a leader. There are three types, a physical leader, a technical leader and a mental leader. There are other people that know how to raise their voice. Kylian is not very talkative but he is like a steam train on the pitch, he gets the crowd going and he wants to give his all.” His captain, Hugo Lloris, endorsed the view that Mbappe is something special, but also that the team means more than one man. “Killian can hurt (opponents) at any moment, with any openings. There is a kind of leadership from him on the field because he can decide when to hurt the opponent and when to make the difference. But we cannot forget the teamwork. It's all about balance.”
Lloris made the point that even without the injured Karim Benzema, France have many ways to score. Mbappe and a rejuvenated Ousmane Dembele are frighteningly fast on the flanks, Olivier Giroud is a target man for their crosses, and Antoine Griezmann and Adrien Rabiot provide attacking flair from midfield. It is a heady mix, difficult to defend against once the wide men get going and made more dangerous when the mercurial Griezmann moves between the lines, drifting from left to right, from midfield to attack and vice-versa. He has been a revelation since being asked to play differently to the way he does at Atletico Madrid, as Deschamps explained: “I am asking him for something different from his club. But the sacrifice is for one reason, he is so generous.
“I imagine in his new role he won’t score as many goals as he is used to but he is an intelligent player, he is able to make those sacrifices and he brings balance to the team. We have a lot attacking players but we need balance. I could have put him up front on the right instead of Dembele but thanks to his imagination and his creativity he is able to play for the others.
“He loves winning those balls back, he is able to work wonders with his left foot and he is great on set pieces as well if we need him.”
Lloris added: “We have different types of attacking players that can make a difference. On both sides (flanks) we have players that can go one-to-one and make huge difference. We also have strikers that can be in the box and can be dangerous. So it's a good mix but again, it's all about teamwork and managing game better in all aspects - physical, mental, tactical - because every team is ready to fight and it's always a big battle.”
Asked whether it is the same feeling in the camp as four years ago, Lloris said: “The spirit and the energy is good, but in this competition it is difficult to know what to expect. The only thing is to prepare yourself in the best way and take it game by game - if you start to look too far forward you can have an accident.
“So we must keep our energy and focus on every game. At the moment this is one competition, the group stage, and then it will be another one. So we will see who qualifies, but there is competitiveness in every group and there is no easy game. And that's why we can really be satisfied with this qualification now.”
Lloris 7; Kounde 7, Varane 6 (Konate 74), Upamecano 7, T Hernandez 7; Rabiot 7, Tchouameni 7; Dembele 7 (Coman 74) Griezmann 8, Mbappe 9; Giroud 6 (Thuram 62).
Schmeichel 7; Andersen 7, Christensen 7 (Bah 85), Nelsson 6; Kristensen 6, Hojbjerg 7, Eriksen 7, Maehle 6; Lindstrom 6 (Norgaard 85), Cornelius 5 (Braithwaite 46), Damsgaard 6 (Dolberg 74).
: Szymon Marciniak (Poland)