Like so many times before but, really, in a totally different way. England were ultimately knocked out of an international tournament after missing a one-star penalty, but this wasn’t a shootout, and it wasn’t a case of Gareth Southgate’s side being outplayed in midfield. It wasn’t even a player of the stature of Kylian Mbappé who was embracing them.
Instead, England were arguably the superior team in this 2-1 loss to the French, who are still world champions. Southgate has had just as good a chance. They had some of the best games.
They just didn’t have a lot of luck or, if you want to be hard on the ref, which many will have, some of the pivotal decisions.
And that meant the biggest opportunity of all, the chance to knock out the highest-class side in a key game, was also missed.
Peace of mind will be that England made them look far inferior to that in a fine performance. The reality that matters most is that they came out again at the quarterfinal stage.
If you go back, it was just a 50-50 tie that was shaded by a good team. However, if you go back even further, the wait continues until age 58.
It’s cruel. It is also this level. It may have been an even better opportunity than the Euro 2020 final.
This time, however, Southgate hit the mark with his tactics.
That could be seen in one of the few moments when Mbappe really threatened, aside from that searing run past Kyle Walker in the second half.
In general, the winger directed it well, except for a slip that was not even his fault.
One of the most conspicuous moments of the game came in the early minutes, away from the ball, when most would have been looking to the other end of the pitch. He both set out what was to follow, but also just emphasized how courageous Southgate’s approach became. England were on the attack, but Walker did not even dream of joining. Instead, he stayed close to the midfield, but even closer to Mbappe. There was Walker, a few meters from the French striker. He stayed that way for most of the first half, but, more importantly, not all of it.
In the 16th minute, Jordan Henderson was forced out of position, forcing Walker to rush. It was only a moment, and the full-back is so fast that it was an instant, but it was enough.
Dayot Upamecano charged down the field before feeding Mbappe, who was finally free of the restraints. Walker had run back, but Mbappé had already played inside. I worked the ball back to Aurelien Tchouameni, who barely let it fly.
The long shot was too fast for Jordan Pickford.
England just needed to speed things up. This was the lesson. Initially they had gotten too stuck in midfield, Kane looking good around the box but not in that usual number 10 role.
France had the pace to dominate him there, but no longer the poise. This is not the defensive structure of 2018. There were a lot of loose and uneven moments, especially every time Saka took the ball.
The French were so visibly frightened by his vitality. He played in France showing a lot of respect to the Southgate side, especially going forward. England began to take command. They had the best shape.
It was only going to require the right move from England, the wrong decision from France.
That was what happened when Saka finally broke through and was clumsily hit by Tchouameni.
Kane stepped up to score.
It meant he was on the level of international goals with Wayne Rooney, but it would influence what followed.
This was the problem with France, and why the game had been there for England. France was clinical in one picture but clumsy in the other. How else to explain the three-minute period that changed the game again?
It was where the frustration should really lie: how easy they were getting it back to France and how easy they were opening them up.
In a sudden flurry, Olivier Giroud forced a brilliant save from Pickford before pulling past Harry Maguire on a thunderous mistake. He came from a simply perfect cross from Antoine Griezmann.
There was no such precision at the other end, no such judgment. Instead, dealing with what should have been the simplest clearance and little danger from replacement Mason Mount, Theo Hernandez inexplicably shoved the midfielder.
It was VAR but the decision seemed inevitable.
So did another Kane goal.
This was the chance to break the record. It was a simple shot against a goalkeeper that he knows very well and whom he had already beaten.
It was another one there for the taking. However, instead of simply scoring a penalty, Kane got into a game of poker. Lloris stood firm, then decided well. It looked like the goalkeeper went where Kane was running, leading the striker to opt to put more power into him. He put too much power into it.
The ball went over the top, and that was almost the end of the World Cup for England.
There was a last moment of World Cup tension. England won a free kick on the edge of the box. Marcus Rashford walked over.
This was. He had already scored one in the group stage from a similar position. You could feel that tension in the Al Bayt.
Rashford hit well…but too high.
The kick summed up the game. Conviction, quality, a real scare for the French… but not close enough, and an opportunity ultimately wasted.
Southgate and its players can be proud, but also frustrated. England again go out in the quarter-finals, but in a way unlike any previous tournament.
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