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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — England’s players have been asked one question on repeat as they prepare to face France in the World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday. How do you stop Kylian Mbappé?
Hardly surprising, given Mbappé is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals and is widely considered the man to succeed Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as soccer’s biggest star.
“I’m sure England will have prepared to face Kylian,” France coach Didier Deschamps said at a news conference Friday. “But Kylian is in the position to make a difference.
“Kylian is Kylian and he always will be.”
There is no sense of France trying manage expectations of its star player, even as the hype surrounding him grows with each stellar performance in Qatar.
He has already scored one more goal than the four he managed as his country won the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
In the round of 16, he struck twice as the defending champions beat Poland 3-1. His second goal was a thunderous shot into the top corner after wrong-footing goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
“He cannot be compared to other players,” said teammate Dayot Upamecano.
“We all believe in Kylian,” added Youssouf Fofana.
Mbappé is being depicted as an unstoppable force in Qatar – something England defender Kyle Walker pushed back against this week.
“I don’t know how to say it even more: I feel he is a top player. I’m not underestimating that one bit, but we are not playing tennis, it’s not a solo sport,” he said after being faced with a series of questions about the Paris Saint-Germain striker.
But France’s players seem happy to feed the narrative that Mbappé is simply unstoppable.
“If he (Walker) can stop Kylian Mbappé, good for him,” added Fofana. “But 19 other teams in Ligue 1 have been waiting for the solution. The truth will come from the pitch.”
Walker will have the job of trying to limit the damage Mbappé can inflict on England’s defense at Al Bayt Stadium. But rather than merely trying to contain France’s biggest threat, discussion this week has been about how bold Three Lions coach Gareth Southgate is prepared to be in response.
England reached the semifinals in 2018 and the final of last year’s European Championships.
On both occasions Southgate was criticized for a cautious approach, even though England only lost on a penalty shootout to Italy at the Euros.
“I very much like Gareth. If I understand correctly, not everyone appreciates him so much in his own country,” noted Deschamps.
England lost 2-1 to Croatia four years ago and the shootout loss to Italy came after a 1-1 draw at Wembley.
England had taken the lead in both matches, and Southgate was accused of adopting defensive tactics to try to protect the lead.
His team has played with more freedom at this World Cup, with a more attacking style leading to 12 goals in four games to tie Portugal as leading scorers.
Southgate has opted to play with a back four in the tournament so far, but could switch to a five-man defense to try to cope with Mbappé.
“Nobody was complaining about us playing a five before we reached the Euros final,” said Walker. “I think it’s a bit harsh to judge him on what we’ve done previously. I think at this tournament we have been playing good attacking football and scoring a lot of goals.”
After coming close in its last two major tournaments, Walker believes England is ready to win this time around. Beating France, he says, would be evidence of that.
“It’s a great opportunity to put a stamp down and to say that we are a good team and we can achieve great things, and give us the belief that we can win this,” he said. “I’m not saying we don’t believe, but to beat a big team like that in a quarter-final, they’re the reigning world champions, that will give us great confidence – not arrogance but confidence.”