A show of strength from France, even if it also brooked a glimmer of weakness. The defending champions are through to the second round: the first team to qualify for the knockout stages, and even if they are yet to dominate they have already shown more than enough to serve notice on the rest of the competition. You can match their effort. You can thwart their tactics. But they’ll still always have Kylian.
Yes: once again, it was the Mbappé show. The others tried their level best. In terms of influence, Antoine Griezmann may well have been the best player on the pitch. Ousmane Dembélé was sensational on the France right, showing why Mbappé has been so keen to lure him to Paris. Theo Hernández had a great game at left-back. And yet once again it was Mbappé who walked off as the star, gurning for the cameras, moving ominously to the top of the Golden Boot standings, just another highly lucrative day of business at Kylian Mbappé Inc.
You had to feel for Denmark, in a way. The European Championship semi-finalists came with a strong plan, defended brilliantly, attacked bravely, enjoyed long spells of meaningful possession. And yet here they simply ran into a player who even on his humdrum days is always the game’s unstable element: its unexploded bomb, the mystery box with a question mark on it. Their participation now hangs on a crucial game with Australia on Wednesday, which they must win.
Andreas Christensen’s headed goal appeared to have given them a foothold in the game. It seemed to hint at a potential frailty in France too, given that they have now kept just one clean sheet in their last eight games. But none of this is really a problem in itself. One of the lesser-known facts about that 2018 French team is that it conceded more goals (six) than any world champions since Italy in 1982. It didn’t matter.
And perhaps the most important aspect of this France team is that they can cut you in so many ways. Crosses from the full-backs, intricate triangles into the channels, the long ball for Griezmann or Olivier Giroud, the counter-attack, the diagonal run, the set piece, the bench. Perhaps one of the defining notes of the game came around 20 minutes in when Mbappé was dragged down by Christensen as he was just putting on the jet-burners. And although it resulted in nothing more than a yellow card, the mere whiff of Mbappé’s pace was enough to put the frighteners on Denmark, force them to step a little deeper, hand control of the territorial battle over to France.
And there it would stay until half-time, and what we can surmise was a frosty team talk from the Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand. For France really were sizzling in that opening period. Thirteen shots came in those first 45 minutes, and had Mbappé and Giroud been a little more clinical they might well have gone in ahead. Denmark stepped up a little more in the second half and Christian Eriksen began to create openings. But this simply renewed the threat of the France counter-attack, and after a scintillating burst out of defence Hernández set up Mbappé, who set up Hernández, who set up Mbappé for a slightly scruffy finish.
That was the cue for Didier Deschamps to make some changes. Giroud got a rest and Marcus Thuram came on. France’s intensity dropped a little, and they were punished when Eriksen’s corner was flicked on by Joachim Andersen and Christensen thumped home from six yards, a zone that really should have been patrolled by a French player. Briefly, Denmark threatened a famous steal. Hugo Lloris made a fine save from Jesper Lindstrøm. The substitute Martin Braithwaite clipped the post with a sharp first-time shot.
But ineluctably and inexorably, it would be Mbappé who had the final word. It was Griezmann with the cross from the right – and his left foot really is the most gorgeous thing – with Mbappé bundling in the swinging ball from close range. Game over. Thanks for playing.
France are not quite the finished team yet. But this was a big test of mettle against strong opponents who had beaten them twice this year, a test of their ability to find solutions against high-quality defences without getting countered. Denmark ran and hustled but couldn’t live with them here. On this evidence, there are very few teams in the world who can.