Kyle Walker dropped his head, opened his lungs and ran. This was exactly the type of run he was in the team to make, a fast-twitch surge the length of the field to recover his position, and yet he knew this was a race already lost. Kylian Mbappe hadn’t followed him back into deep French territory, and now Mbappe had the ball, and he was dribbling, and Walker had left his station unattended.
It hadn’t started this way. France kicked off and immediately switched the ball to Mbappe advancing down the wing where Walker met him with a crunch. As France settled on the ball in the opening forays, Mbappe lurked on the fringes, flitting in and out with little steps of deception as Walker stood warily a few yards inside, glancing coquettishly over his shoulder, the two of them conducting their own dance away from the rest.
Mbappe stayed in Walker’s sights right up to the moment he stopped looking. England advanced down the right and Walker went on a jaunt. He passed to Bukayo Saka and went on further, into the French box, looking for the return. It never came, and by the time he’d made that long sprint back to his defensive mark, Mbappe had already travelled across the pitch shrugging off Declan Rice’s lunge as he went. There he took up the attention of England’s defenders on the edge of the box as Antoine Griezmann teed up Aurelien Tchouameni to fire in France’s first goal.
This was the sub-plot within the game itself, England’s supersonic defender against France’s hypersonic star, and every time it threatened to break out into a straight duel between the pair, a fizz of electricity jolted the Al Bayt Stadium from its slumber. Twice later in the first half, Mbappe ran at Walker, who directed the traffic around him, pointing at the runners for his teammates to follow before snuffing out the threat himself.
For the most part, Walker kept Mbappe relatively quiet. But Mbappe deals in moments, flashes of influence, and so it was with France’s opening goal. “He has the ability to make a difference,” Didier Deschamps had said in the build-up. “Even in the last game [beating Poland in the last 16], when he wasn’t in his best form in comparison to the first two games, he was still decisive.” And so he was here.
As Walker joined in England’s celebrations of Harry Kane’s second-half equaliser, Mbappe marched back to the halfway line and beckoned his teammates to follow with a dismissive flap of the wrist. He looked put out, jarred, determined. And so perhaps it was no coincidence that moments later, with the score 1-1 and the game in the balance, we got the drag race we’d been hoping for: 60 yards, a level start, no back-up or support.
In an interview for France Football last year, Mbappe had described Walker as “less explosive when he starts” when asked about pacy opponents. “He is like a tank that gains speed once launched,” Mbappe explained of his experience playing against Manchester City’s full-back. Perhaps that explains why he started and then stopped this race so abruptly, bringing Walker almost to a standstill, before accelerating away down the wing. Walker was on the back foot from there but did just enough to disrupt, if not dispossess, as they hurtled towards the box.
Walker passed the test, but the problem for England was that France carry multiple threats. The argument was always that Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud are the perfect foils for Mbappe’s genius, with the pace to stretch and make space, the vision to pick out runs, the physicality to hold the ball and offer a target. But as Griezmann picked up his second assist of the match, crossing precisely for Giroud to score the goal that broke England’s resistance, it was tempting to wonder if Mbappe was the decoy all along.
After the final whistle, England slumped to their knees. Walker was the first player to walk towards the French celebrations, offering handshakes, and when he reached Mbappe they embraced, a long and hearty hug, an acknowledgement of a battle shared within the war. Finally, they were still.
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