On the fifth night of a tournament still finding its bearings, some genuine stardust and fireworks. It took a while to ignite and the deciding goal was ultimately a German disasterclass culminating in Mats Hummels smoothly finishing into his own net but the headline is that France are on the board.
Some of their usual suspects made key contributions without ever looking troubled enough to hit top gear. In reality they should have won by a couple more but there was a sense throughout that Didier Deschamps’ team, packed with knowhow, are biding their time.
Paul Pogba produced a virtuoso performance, encapsulated by that delicious outside of the boot pass in the lead up to Hummels’ own goal, Kylian Mbappe found the net and set up Karim Benzema to do the same for a pair ruled out by offside, while the defence was marshalled expertly by Raphael Varane.
Then, in front of the back four, there was N’Golo Kante. Surrounded by stars and ego, the Chelsea man dazzled once more. This performance was a continuation of his efforts in the Champions League final two and a half weeks ago. Keep it up between now and July 11 and the only man capable of stopping his charge to the Ballon d’Or may be Mbappe.
Germany, despite their insistence to carry a high line, will not be the only defence unable to keep up with the Paris Saint-Germain attacker. Jogi Low’s team, with three Chelsea players involved, displayed some signs of promise, and the format of this competition means there is still a rather high chance that they will progress.
As a consequence there was a feeling beforehand that this clash of the titans would not live up to previous encounters but, as Germany chased an equaliser only to find Les Bleus’ blockade impenetrable, there was at least an almost knockout intensity to proceedings.
It was an odd quirk of the draw to pair the past two World Cup winners together in the group stage, not least when the quality elsewhere is, to be kind, diluted. In every position there were honours: 19 of the 22 had won either the Jules Rimet or Champions League, two more – Ilkay Gundogan and Adrien Rabiot – had lost in finals but have a cabinet full of domestic honours to make most clubs envious.
Those records may last forever but in the present there could be little doubt over which side is better equipped to go deep in this competition and the heart of it all, to nobody’s surprise, was Kante.
No one covered more ground than the 30-year-old’s 11.76km, his only team-mate to make more passes was Pogba. He popped up out of seemingly nowhere on countless occasions to break up play and, most impressively, shielded a back four that kept yet another tournament clean sheet.
In past years Deschamps has tended to restrict Kante’s movement, the pragmatic head coach keeping the world’s best midfielder in a deeper role and restricting the freedom that has been offered by Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge. While out of possession he sat behind Pogba and Rabiot tonight, there were a few more forays forward than in Russia three years ago.
Early on he linked up sublimely with Benjamin Pavard, playing a series of one-twos in a move concluding with a corner kick. Then there was a moment four minutes before half time when a France attack broke down and Germany sought to push forward. But before Robin Gosens had an opportunity to move the ball on, Kante was on the scene to intercept – the definition of counterpressing.
Like everyone else in blue it felt like there was another gear available but as starts go in this tournament France’s opening was auspicious. The favourites, throughout history a tad flaky, appear to mean business.