Bucharest (AFP) – Euro 2020 was supposed to be the next step on Kylian Mbappe’s path to greatness and France’s golden chance to become world and European champions, only for their campaign to end with a painful failure in a penalty shoot-out.
A defeat on penalties by Switzerland, with Mbappe having the decisive spot-kick saved, after a remarkable 3-3 draw in the last 16 saw France become the first World Cup holders to fail to reach the Euro quarter-finals since Italy did not qualify for the tournament in 1984.
The recall of the exiled Karim Benzema had appeared to further strengthen the team who lifted football’s biggest prize three years ago, but Didier Deschamps’ men never managed to hit those heights again.
Questions will be asked in France of why a team boasting a plethora of attacking talent were unable to beat Hungary and Switzerland, with Deschamps’ tactics, Mbappe’s lack of goals and a shaky defence sure to be under the microscope.
“It’s very difficult to move on from this,” Mbappe said on social media. “There’s an immense sadness after this elimination.”
But France and Mbappe will have to quickly forget their defeat and ensure the mistakes which cost them in Bucharest are not repeated at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The pre-tournament favourites at Euro 2020 can claim they were still unbeaten, barring penalties, and their World Cup title defence is just 17 months away.
Mbappe burst onto the international scene in Russia in 2018, scoring four goals and becoming the first teenager to net in the World Cup final since Pele 60 years earlier.
But he endured a frustrating European championship, starting with a disallowed goal and ending with Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s save from what proved to be France’s last kick.
“I’m sorry for the penalty. I wanted to help the team but I failed,” said the 22-year-old.
“It will be difficult to find sleep tonight but unfortunately those are the risks of this sport that I love so much.”
– Wasteful Mbappe –
Despite going four games without a goal, Mbappe was a threat throughout the tournament, only to be let down by his finishing, usually so deadly.
A failure to stay onside denied him a brilliant individual goal in the opening 1-0 group phase win over Germany, before he missed two big chances in extra time against the Swiss.
Still hobbling after pulling up following a poor left-footed shot wide, the Paris Saint-Germain star then saw his spot-kick saved.
But Deschamps, whose contract runs until the end of the World Cup, was quick to defend his young striker.
“A lot was expected of Kylian,” he said. “Even though he didn’t score, he often played a decisive role.
“He took the responsibility to take the last penalty and no-one is angry at him.
“In the changing room, no one was more to blame than anyone else. Kylian has taken responsibility, he feels guilty but he shouldn’t.”
Although the spotlight will fall on Mbappe, the reality is that France had the game all but wrapped up when holding a 3-1 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Deschamps’ decision to revert to a back three due to the injuries to left-backs Lucas Hernandez and Lucas Digne gave Switzerland an early boost as France struggled for any rhythm in the first half.
They woke up after Hugo Lloris saved Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty in the second half but folded in the closing stages.
– France ‘less solid’ –
Presnel Kimpembe’s poor attempt at a tackle on Mario Gavranovic before the Swiss substitute’s dramatic equaliser will again raise the question why the Paris Saint-Germain man, and Barcelona centre-back Clement Lenglet, were starting for France just hours after Aymeric Laporte helped Spain into the last eight after switching allegiance.
“If we were less solid, it is due to many things and many of them are hard to put your finger on,” Deschamps insisted.
“Every team has its own difficulties. There were a lot of injuries at the end of the season. With such hot temperatures, the body is put under more strain.”
It will not be much cooler in the Gulf next year, though, and France will have to shore up a defence which conceded six goals in four Euro matches before they bid to become only the fourth nation to win three World Cups.
“The most important thing will be to pick ourselves up for the challenges to come,” Mbappe added.
For now, though, Les Bleus and their fans will find it tough to move away from the wreckage of their worst major tournament showing since the infamous players’ strike and subsequent group-stage embarrassment at the 2010 World Cup.
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