France into Round of 16 in World Cup 2022

France's Kylian Mbappe
France's Kylian Mbappe

Today, France defeated Denmark 2-1 in Group D in Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. Danish coach Kasper Hjulmand decided on a modified line-up for his most important match and substituted the speedy and technical (6’2” 180 pounds) Kasper Dolberg for the stronger and taller Andreas Cornelius, perhaps looking forward to the clash of his 6’4” and 201-pound striker against the French central defender, Raphael Varane, who is 6’3” and 178 pounds and is coming back from injury and weeks without playing.

But in the first quarter hour the offensive opportunities that materialized for Denmark were two quick plays requiring the technical ability to control a ball on the fly between two defenders, which in this case would have resulted in a breakaway with only the keeper to beat, and a left-wing cross to the far post requiring a speedy center forward who could reach the ball on time to simply tap it in. On the first opportunity, Cornelius muffed his control and the French cleared, and in the second he simply did not react on time to make a run and was stuck yards away as the ball rolled past the far post. This should have been a warning sign for Hjulmand, but perhaps changing his game plan that early would have negated all of the prep work leading to the game and confused his team.

The match was intense and entertaining, having several well-wrought plays end in missed chances or great defensive blocks, and a few good saves per keeper, but it also had one major flaw. Unfortunately, referee Szymon Marciniak and his all-Polish crew, might not have officiated enough top-five European club matches to know of the stealth fouls that populate those domestic league games.

Marciniak and his crew seemed unable to decipher that every Danish player attempting to control a high ball was not so uncoordinated as to muff header, after pass, after clearance, and that the very close proximity of the usually smaller-framed Frenchman each and every time might have had something to do with the outcome of the contested ball that seemed to land France’s way the vast majority of the time. You see, stronger, taller men usually reach aerial balls easier and more often than shorter men, and if your game is based on controlling those types of balls, “officially” eliminating your advantage, well, is an unfair disadvantage.

Hint: the often relatively shorter Frenchmen were always pushing the taller, stronger Danes off balance!

And yet, the game was an even affair until Kylian Mbappe’s second goal of the cup saw France pull ahead in the sixty-first minute when a pretty play on the left wing saw Theo Hernandez feed Mbappe in the box and the striker’s first-time shot hit off the fanny and calf of Andreas Christensen and sent Kasper Schmeichel the wrong way. In the 68th minute, Christensen made amends by hitting a thunderous header off a bounce in the middle of the French box to bring the sides even.

At the 86th minute of a game that would go 99+ minutes with stoppage time added, a pretty Antoine Griezmann cross from the right side of the Danish penalty area to the far post on the left saw Mbappe leap to thigh-knee the ball past a Schmeichel who committed his one mistake of the game by not covering his post. Goal and game. France won 2-1 and became the first team to progress to the Round of 16.

And, frankly, this is what makes the World Cup special. It is always a game of moments, and it is those deciding moments that will remain in our memories forever, what are the odds that a keeper as good and experienced as Schmeichel will allow a goal scored on the post closest to him? On the other hand, how many ways can Mbappe score? He redirected that ball off his thigh, mostly.

But the officiating should not become a talking point in another cup or FIFA is simply not doing its job. It is unfortunate that the Spanish team, Serbian team, and now the French team, have been the beneficiaries of officiating largesse particularly when two of those teams are pre-tourney favorites. The calls missed in the Spain-Costa Rica game clearly cost the Central Americans at least a few goals. The calls missed in the Serbia-Brazil game cost Neymar his physical ability to play in the next two matches at least. The calls missed in the France-Denmark could have made a difference in the outcome and the fact that the Danes will likely beat the Australians, and thus progress, will mask the issue, as the two expected favorites will likely progress anyway.

But it behooves FIFA to do a quick review of their performance so far since the refereeing mistakes though seemingly few, have been important. Fundamentally, those missed calls or non-calls can easily be remedied. The concern is that if they are not addressed, they could become critical. No one wants a cup won or lost because of bad officiating, right?

 

Photo: France’s Kylian Mbappe, Dreamstime.com ID 183136307, by Cosmin Iftode

 

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