Everybody would have bet the house on Harry Kane. The England captain had already scored one equaliser from the penalty spot, which had brought him level with Wayne Rooney on 53 goals – the all-time record for his country. Now, with this World Cup thriller back in France’s control after Olivier Giroud’s header put them back in front, Kane stood over the spot once more.
The penalty had been conceded by Theo Hernandez. It was an extraordinary rush of blood from the full-back, who barged into the back of the England substitute Mason Mount as they chased a high ball that was going over both of them. But an even bigger one was to come.
Kane had the outright scoring record within his grasp. More importantly, he could reignite England’s belief, lighting a path to extra time – and, perhaps, a semi-final against Morocco. Yet Kane fell apart, blasting the kick high over the crossbar. It was the 84th minute. And that was pretty much that.
There would be no late sting and, for the umpteenth time, England were left to reflect upon a bitter hard-luck story. This was supposed to be the night when everything came together against the world champions, mentality aligning with quality, the lessons of the past helping England to a famous victory. It did not happen.
The focus will turn towards what Gareth Southgate does next. Will he continue into a fourth tournament campaign? More immediately and painfully for him and the country was the defeat. England matched France for long spells. They were denied on occasions by Hugo Lloris on the occasion of his record-breaking 143rd cap. And, at the very end, Marcus Rashford was narrowly off target with a free-kick. Kane looked broken at full time. So did everybody in England colours.
France had eased on to the front foot at the outset, working their patterns with no little slickness.
Antoine Griezmann was prominent, operating as a third midfielder on the right, drifting into the No 10 role. Drifting all over, really. France’s collective assurance in possession was pronounced. Griezmann was outstanding.
England had not been behind at the tournament, not previously experienced a real setback. Southgate and his coaches had discussed how they would react, the processes that needed to be followed. They had to put them into action after Aurélien Tchouaméni’s early breakthrough, which felt as though it was advertised. Giroud had almost got in for an 11th-minute header.
Kylian Mbappé radiated menace. Whenever he went near the ball, England were worried. They got men around him in the 17th minute – quickly – but he popped it inside and France worked it right and then back inside, Griezmann eventually laying off for Tchouaméni, who shot from distance with vicious swerve.
Jordan Pickford had plenty of time to see it. As it headed to his right-hand corner, he flung himself across. He was at full strength but it was not enough. It would be a sinking feeling for him and England.
Dayot Upamecano had started the move with a challenge on Bukayo Saka that England had insisted was a foul. The Brazilian referee, Wilton Sampaio, said no.
England stayed calm and Kane led the fightback, getting into a couple of physical duels with Upamecano and winning them. Kane cleverly rolled the centre-half after a Saka pass into him and he had a chance from an angle on the right. Lloris was out smartly to block.
There was also the moment on 25 minutes when Kane again got away from Upamecano and headed for the right-hand edge of the box. He felt his marker sweep his legs away from him as he entered it but neither Sampaio nor the VAR were moved by the penalty claim.
Luke Shaw had banged a free-kick straight at Lloris before the goalkeeper clawed away a deflected Kane effort from distance. From the corner there was an almighty scramble but France cleared.
England nursed a grievance with Sampaio, who looked to be guessing some of the time, but they retained their focus and their punch upon the second-half restart. It was an impressive show of character, of belief in their approach, and they deserved the equaliser.
Jude Bellingham exploded a shot from the edge of the area following a half-cleared corner that Lloris tipped over – another good save – and Saka began to make his mark, all quicksilver movement off the right.
It was Saka who won the first penalty after a give-and-go with Bellingham, Tchouaméni stretching in for the tackle but getting there too late. Saka was too quick. Mbappé had a rather showy word with Lloris as Kane prepared himself, trying to spook the England captain. It was never going to work.
It was set up for a classic now; for a hero to emerge. Adrien Rabiot almost restored France’s lead straight away – Southgate frantically pointed at his temples – and there was the foot race between Mbappé and Kyle Walker that everybody wanted to see. The French forward won it, finding an extra gear at the last, to pull back for Ousmane Dembélé, who could not react.
England had to take a chance. They continued to threaten. Harry Maguire kissed the outside of a post with a header from Jordan Henderson’s free-kick; Saka could not convert from a Shaw cross. It was so close.
It looked at that point as if England were the more likely scorers of the next goal. France had other ideas. Giroud should have scored from a Dembélé nod-back – Pickford saved well – and then he did find the net from Griezmann’s wonderful delivery, getting in between John Stones and Maguire to crash home. Kane had the chance to write a different story. Instead, there was only misery for him and England.