Even with Kylian Mbappé, France just do enough to beat Austria

Ken Early: An own goal proves the difference for Didier Deschamps’ side as they overcome spirited Austria

France's Kylian Mbappe fights for the ball with Austria's defender Kevin Danso during the Uefa Euro 2024 Group D game between Austria and France at the Dusseldorf Arena on Monday. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images
Group D: Austria 0 France 1 (Wober og, 38)

France are off to a winning start to Euro 2024, in the time-honoured Didier Deschamps tournament style: doing just enough, and no more.

Ralf Rangnick’s spirited Austria side showed France zero respect, starting with their anthem. The Austrian fans booed the Marseillaise – it is literally an anti-Austrian war song, after all – and maybe some people at the Düsseldorf Arena hadn’t forgotten what the French did to Marie Antoinette. The French delivered a predictably furious riposte by drowning out the Austrian anthem with jeers and whistles.

But it’s been a good season for Austria in terms of avenging historic slights. Their recent scalps include Germany (2-0), Turkey (6-1), Serbia (2-1) ... Could the French become the latest old foe to be humbled?

Rangnick evidently believed so. His team were clearly outmatched man for man, but they refused to be intimidated, tackled and ran with intensity, and had more of the ball than France in the first half.

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Not that the French were too worried about that. No team at this Euros is more comfortable sitting in a disciplined defensive shape. It’s playing to their strengths – the goalkeeper and defenders are the pillars of this side. The midfielders and forwards all dig in too, except Kylian Mbappé, who hovers around halfway, waiting for a counter.

France’s best moments came on the break, with Peter Pentz saving at his near post from Mbappé after Rabiot had seized on a loose ball to put him through.

But it was the Austrians who created the first really clear scoring chance after 35 minutes. Michael Grigoritsch crossed from the left and William Saliba tried to clear at the edge of the box but missed his header. The ball fell for Marcel Sabitzer, who laid it neatly in the path of the unmarked Christoph Baumgartner. Baumgartner – scorer, in March, of the fastest international goal in history – seemed certain to finish, but Maignan dived at his feet and sent the shot spinning high and just wide.

It was clearly a corner but the referee must have thought the ball had taken a double deflection off Maignan and then Baumgartner, because he gave a goal kick, ignoring the indignant Austrians.

The injustice was compounded when France immediately went up the other end and scored via an actual double deflection. Mbappe lashed in a cross from the right which Kevin Danso headed against his unfortunate central defensive partner Max Wöber, and the ball arrowed cruelly across goal into the bottom corner.

Maximilian Woeber of Austria after scoring an own goal against France in the Uefa Euro 2024 game at the Düsseldorf Arena. Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images

The goal, though accidental, represented Mbappe’s first decisive intervention of the match. A player of his status always carries a special pressure on the field but that has gone to an entirely new level this week as he has been drawn into the drama of France’s fevered election campaign.

On Saturday, Mbappé's team-mate Marcus Thuram had denounced the National Rally, the party of Marine le Pen, which dominated the French European elections and continues to polling strongly in advance of the snap elections Emmanuel Macron called in response.

“It’s the sad reality of our society today,” Thuram said. “We all need to fight daily so that this doesn’t happen and that the National Rally does not succeed ... There is no doubt in my mind that everyone thinks like me in the France squad.”

Echoing Thuram’s sentiments, Mbappé added: “I hope I will still be proud to wear this shirt after July 7th.” Even those who disagree with the politics cannot deny the courage. Mbappé can see the polls. He knows that if the election is a victory for the Rally, there are a lot of people in France who will delight in reminding him that, according to himself, he is no longer proud to represent the country.

In the 55th minute he had the chance to preemptively shut a few of those people up. When Rabiot’s pass floated over the head of Danso, Mbappé pounced and accelerated smoothly away from Wöber. With Pentz at his mercy and the French fans behind the goal already jumping up to celebrate, the superstar took careful aim – and shot wide to the right. The miss, in Mbappe’s terms, was not far off one of those Rory McIlroy two-footers at the PGA on Sunday evening.

There was more pain to come as Danso’s shoulder crunched into Mbappé's nose as he headed a ball. He walked off the pitch with blood staining his white shirt, but then noticed that the referee had not stopped the game to allow France to bring on replacements. So Mbappé, with cunning gamesmanship, turned back on to the pitch and sat down to force a stoppage. The Austrian fans exploded in outrage, Mbappé earned a booking, and the match ended as it had begun, with both sets of supporters booing and whistling. Europe 2024: it’s the sound of the summer.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer