DOHA, Qatar (AP) — With defending champion France missing so many big names through injury at the World Cup, there is even more of an onus on Kylian Mbappé to become the team’s leader in Qatar.
He was 19 years old when he took the last World Cup by storm, scoring in the final and becoming a superstar every team in the world would love to have.
Who could turn down 14-time Champions League winner Real Madrid? Well, Mbappé did, twice. The 23-year-old Mbappé already has a hefty total of 28 international goals and could add to that number against Australia on Tuesday in their Group D opener.
“Kylian’s still young, but he’s already done some great things. The four years since (the World Cup) have helped him gain in maturity and to gain even more recognition worldwide,” France coach Didier Deschamps said Monday. “He's always had the ability to make a difference and we’ll need it here. He's one of the few players who has that.”
Since joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 in a deal worth 180 million euros ($184.5 million), Mbappé has scored 190 goals, including 100 in his past 113 games for the French champion.
But goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who is playing in his fourth World Cup and stands to win his 148th cap, thinks Mbappé has yet to reach his peak.
“He confirmed all the expectations people had in him over the years. It's difficult to define the limits of a player like Kylian, because his potential is unbelievable," Lloris said. "He's committed, focused and relaxed and I think he can help us reach our objectives here.”
But to successfully defend its title, France must do so without leaders like Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante and Karim Benzema.
Pogba and Kante won the 2018 World Cup, while Benzema is arguably the world's most complete forward and had developed a great understanding up front with Mbappé.
Deschamps acknowledges they're difficult players to replace.
On the field, but also off it, because such leadership isn't something that comes easily.
“You think it’s a case of clicking your fingers? That a player thinks ‘I’m going to wake up and everyone’s going to listen to me?’" Deschamps said Monday. “Leadership isn’t a case of just talking and talking, especially if you can’t find the right words.”
While Deschamps has lost several big players, there is one piece of good news. He sounded optimistic that key defender Raphael Varane has fully recovered from a hamstring injury he sustained playing for Manchester United on Oct. 11.
“He’s doing well and he’s ready and available for tomorrow," said Deschamps, who also explained why he chose not to replace Benzema in the squad with another player. Teams are allowed 26 players in the squad.
“If I chose to keep 25 it’s that I consider our squad is strong enough to continue like this," Deschamps said. “We still have a lot of options.”
Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press