The most important player in the French team – Kylian Mbappe

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Kylian Mbappe is the most important player in the France squad. He's scored 48 goals in 83 appearances for his country,

Kylian Mbappe is ‘slowing down’ France

Kylian Mbappe is the most important player in the France squad. He’s scored 48 goals in 83 appearances for his country, with 13 of those coming at major tournaments. In many people’s eyes, he is now the finest player in the world.

By the age of 25, he’s achieved more than most top players do in their entire careers. The best may still be yet to come, too, with Mbappe all set to complete his long-awaited move to 15-time European champions Real Madrid after Euro 2024.

Mbappe is, when firing on all cylinders, the ultimate big game player, as further underlined by his record of 20 Champions League knockout stage goals in a Paris Saint-Germain shirt. The problem is: he’s not been even close to 100 percent at this tournament. Spain certainly won’t be fearing this version of Mbappe, and France may have a better chance of upsetting Luis de la Fuente’s scintillating side if he’s sitting among the substitutes on Tuesday.

Cruel start

In fairness to Mbappe, his Euro 2024 campaign might have turned out differently had he not been dealt such a cruel blow in France’s opening group game against Austria. He took a shoulder to the face when challenging Austria defender Kevin Danso for a header in the closing minutes, and the top of his white France jersey quickly turned red as blood gushed from his nose.

Mbappe was taken to hospital after France’s narrow 1-0 win and received confirmation he’d suffered a broken nose. Questions were then raised over whether his tournament would be brought to a premature close, but Deschamps quelled them when revealing that his captain wouldn’t need immediate surgery, and he was cleared to continue playing with the aid of a custom mask.

France limped to a 0-0 draw against the Netherlands without Mbappe, but he returned with his new headgear against Poland, and opened his scoring account from the penalty spot. He was, however, also guilty of wasting a number of good chances in open play as the main issue with the mask quickly became apparent.

No longer feeling up to it

France went on to beat Belgium in the round of 16, despite another very underwhelming performance and Mbappe‘s wildly erratic shooting. He did provide a much-needed spark in attack with his dynamic dribbling, but still wasn’t quite his usual self, and Les Bleus didn’t have to do anything special to overcome Dominic Tedesco’s awful Belgium side.

However, Mbappe‘s most concerning performance so far came in the next round against Portugal, as the fifth – and potentially final – clash between him and Cristiano Ronaldo ended up being a damp squib. With nothing to separate the two sides after 120 minutes, penalties were needed to decide who would progress to the semi-finals, and France held their nerve to win 5-3.

Under normal circumstances, the fifth spot-kick probably would have gone to Mbappe, but Deschamps took the surprise decision to take off his talismanic forward at the extra-time interval. It wasn’t a tactical move, though, as Mbappe later admitted: “I told him that I was no longer feeling up to it, that I was too tired.”

Clearly not fit

In Mbappe‘s defence, he could have been withdrawn far earlier. The second half of the Portugal tie was paused for a lengthy period as Mbappe required treatment after being hit in the mask by a powerful Bernardo Silva header.

The Bleus captain was clearly in agony, and it was admirable that he played on through it. But there are plenty of elite players who have continued performing at a high level despite dealing with the discomfort of a mask; Mbappe‘s struggles actually stem from the fact he is clearly not fully fit.

Unleash Barcola

The 21-year-old started on the left against Poland in the group stage as Mbappe was moved into a No.9 role, and was a joy to watch. Everything good about France stemmed from his ingenuity and fearlessness on the ball, which more often than not, he matched with the right final pass, and Les Bleus would have walked away with a victory had Mbappe made more of the stellar service.

Deschamps was far too hasty in taking Barcola off on the hour, but he made his mark, and also impressed when coming on for Mbappe in extra-time against Portugal. France have seen their most potent weapon blunted, but Barcola is the next best thing, and it’s easy to imagine him tying 39-year-old Jesus Navas in knots if he gets the nod to face Spain.

Balance missing

It must also be noted that France’s disjointed displays at Euro 2024 are not solely down to Mbappe. Deschamps has failed to strike the right balance in midfield from minute one, opting for a dysfunctional diamond against Austria and the Netherlands before switching to a 4-3-3 formation, with Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann looking like a shadow of his former self.

It goes some way to explaining why Mbappe has been less effective, beyond his physical state. The Real Madrid new boy isn’t expending as much energy because he doesn’t trust his supporting cast, which no longer includes Paul Pogba – with the Juventus playmaker currently serving a four-year doping ban.

“Why do I not make runs in behind anymore? It depends on the team,” Mbappe conceded before the Portugal match. “When we had Pogba for example, I could just blindly make a run and he would find me. Now I have to adapt to a different situation.”

Wants to make more history

The only reason France are into the last four of another major tournament is because of their nigh impenetrable defence. William Saliba has unquestionably been their standout player, while AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan has been the epitome of cool and dependable between the sticks.

The likelihood is Deschamps will stick with Mbappe, and in that case France could still grind their way to the title. They’re on the verge of their third major tournament final out of four, which gives them the upper hand over Spain in the experience stakes, and that could be the decisive factor.

If France get the job done, that won’t matter. But if Spain get an early goal and smell blood, Deschamps may very well regret choosing a blunt tool to lead the line again.