At the stinging end of this enthralling World Cup quarter-final, England’s players lay slumped on the floor, hands covering their faces, their hopes and dreams shattered for another four years. All losses hurt. But few will linger as much as this quarter-final defeat to France.
For 90 minutes, England went toe-to-toe with the world champions. They were bold, they were inventive. And, at times, it seemed that all sorts of enticing possibilities were opening up after a Harry Kane penalty equalised Aurélien Tchouaméni’s early thunderbolt.
But in a final 15 minutes of impossible tension, Oliver Giroud put France 2-1 ahead and then Kane blazed a second penalty over the bar. No wonder the England captain was the first to be comforted by England manager Gareth Southgate afterwards.
Since England’s sole World Cup triumph in 1966 their results in the knockout stages have followed a simple repetitive formula: they lose to the first powerhouse they face. And so it was this time. But there was no shame in this, given how they played.
Questions had lingered about Southgate’s conservatism in the biggest games, when the stakes are so high even a Vegas high-roller might blink. England had been one-nil up against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, and again against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, only to concede ground and, eventually, the game. Not this time.
It was a sign of his confidence that he kept the same team of players that beat Senegal in the last 16, lined up in a 4-3-3 formation.
Initially they were cautious and went behind after 17 minutes when Tchouaméni hit a thunderbolt that flew past Jordan Pickford from nearly 30 yards. It was what they deserved. But it shook up England too. They knew they had to push forward. And their play was far better for it.
As France sat back, England grew in confidence. France’s keeper, Hugo Lloris, had to be smart to push away a deflected Kane shot and England also had a penalty claim turned down by VAR when Kane hustled down the right and appeared to be tripped outside the penalty area.
But early in the second half, Tchouaméni hung out a leg and brought Saka down. Kane stepped up, shot hard and left, and England were level at 1-1.
The game was opening up, becoming looser and more ragged. But England were still giving at least as good as they got with Saka and Kane forcing Lloris into saves and Maguire shaving the outpost with a header.
As the match entered the final 15 minutes, though, France found a second wind. They were given ample warning when Giroud fired too close to Pickford from eight yards. Moments later, the striker smashed home.
At that point England had 12 minutes to save their World Cup. Yet almost immediately they were handed a reprieve when Lucas Hernandez unnecessarily barged into Mason Mount and VAR rightly ruled it was a penalty. If he had scored, Kane would not only have levelled the game at 2-2 but become the England national team’s sole all-time scorer.
This time, though, Kane could not maintain his composure and blasted over the bar.
Now French eyes turn to Morocco, whose manager Walid Regragui compared his team to Rocky Balboa after they stunned Portugal 1-0. “I think we are becoming the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we are showing the world that you can achieve even if you don’t have as much talent, as much quality, as much money,” he said.
That run here in Qatar is all the more remarkable as they were among the outsiders at the start of the tournament, while Regragui has only been in post since August.
England, meanwhile, will have to pick up the pieces again. It will be scant consolation that they pushed the world champions all the way.