France squeeze past Austria in hectic finale

June 17 – In a test of character, France laboured past a stubborn Austria 1-0 to open their account at Euro 2024 with three points, but star player Kylian Mbappé left the play with blood streaming from his face. 

Ralf Rangnick and Austria were always facing an uphill battle against France but demonstrated great grit and discipline to stretch French resilience to the limit. Following in the footsteps of other powerhouses, Les Bleus ultimately notched up a victory and confirmed their credentials as title contenders.

Under Didier Deschamps, France had won all of their opening matches at major finals – against Honduras in 2014, Romania in 2016, Australia in both 2018 and 2022, and Germany in 2021 – and it was no different on Monday.

In the 8th minute, Mbappé, France’s lodestar, got in behind the Austrian defence, cutting in from the left wing, but failed to deceive Austrian goalkeeper Patrick Pentz from an acute angle.

Christoph Baumgartner of Austria  under pressure from N’Golo Kante 

On the eve of the game, the number ten had said the elections in France were more important than Les Bleus’ Euro 2024 opener, calling on the youth to vote against the far right. All eyes then were on Mbappé and his team.

If Mbappé had raced away early on, Les Bleus were not showing the same sense of urgency. In a slow start, the French offered enough pace and threat, but Austria, lining up in a 4-4-2 with Christoph Baumgartner in support of Michael Gregoritsch, were battle-hardened.

They kept their discipline and marked tightly. The Austrians had no intentions of simply rolling over for France’s ensemble of glamorous stars.

Antoine Griezmann challenged by Nicolas Seiwald 

Rangnick’s XI had an edge and, as the game became more cagey, even a bit bite. Baumgartner found himself face to face with Frence keeper Mike Maignan, who got a boot to the Austrian’s toe-poke. It was an unforgivable miss because France, then, almost predictably got their goal in the 38th minute – and predictably Mbappé had a hand in it, providing a low cross from the right that the unfortunate defender Max Wober headed into his own net.

On the right for the latter stages of the second half, Mbappé kept causing havoc and on the brink of half-time, Pentz smothered the ball just in time after the Real Madrid star had broken through.

Mbappé remained the protagonist. In the 55th minute, Adrien Rabiot sent him on his way and leaving both Kevin Danso and Wober for dead, Mbappé had all the time in the world to pick his spot and yet, like Baumgartner in the first half, missed. The Frenchman smiled and looked bemused.

Kylian Mbappe bloodied

At the other end, Austria and Marcel Sabitzer claimed a penalty, but the Spanish referee Jesus Manzano was not interested. Instead, France briefly stormed forward but Jules Koundé’s attempt lacked venom.

For all of France’s talent and interchange, Austria were still very much in the game. They dealt well with all of Les Bleus’s star power so it was perhaps no surprise then that they were being bossed by the understated N’Golo Kanté, who plays his club football in Saudi Arabia. In his first start in two years for the national team, he covered every inch of the pitch. When substitute Patrick Wimmer broke at pace in the 83rd minute, Kanté’s last-gasp intervention prevented grave danger.

Seconds earlier, Mbappé had taken a whack to his face as Danso beat him to the cross. Blood kept streaming from his nose, which looked broken. He staggered back to his feet, but Didier Deschamps and France failed to make the substitution as the referee waved play on. Manzano then booked Mbappé for illegally entering the field.

In a frantic and tense finale with nine minutes of injury time, Wimmer claimed another penalty, but Manzano was having none of it. Veteran Oliver Giroud, who had replaced Mbappé, squandered an opportunity inside the box to settle the game for his side.

France hung on, but only just. Their performance was neither vintage nor convincing, but Les Bleus are up and running.

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