Gareth Southgate relishes England’s ‘biggest test’ against France

  • Head coach wary of threat posed by ‘world class’ Mbappé
  • Bellingham will be best midfielder in the world, says Foden

Gareth Southgate said he was excited about the “fantastic challenge” of taking on France after England reached the last eight of the World Cup with a comprehensive 3-0 victory against Senegal.

Goals from Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka were enough to take England past Senegal and into a daunting quarter-final with the world champions.

France maintained their progress with a 3-1 win against Poland on Sunday and Southgate said his side would relish testing themselves against “the very best” at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday, even though it will not be easy for his defence to find a way to deal with the speed and finishing of Kylian Mbappé.

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“In terms of France, it’s the biggest test that we face,” England’s head coach said. “They’re the world champions. They have incredible depth of talent. Outstanding individual players. They’re very difficult to play against and score goals against. It’s a fantastic challenge and a brilliant game for us to prepare for. It’s a brilliant game for us to be involved in and test ourselves against the very best.”

Kane, whose goal took him one behind Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 for England, echoed Southgate’s comments. “If you want to win the World Cup you have to play the best sides in the world,” the England captain said. “France are certainly one of those.”

Southgate is wary of the threat posed by Mbappé, who scored two brilliant goals against Poland. “He’s a world-class player who has already delivered big moments in this tournament and in previous tournaments,” he said. “But [Antoine] Griezmann is now over 70 consecutive games for France and he’s also a phenomenal player. We know Olivier Giroud so well and they have outstanding young midfield players as well, so everywhere you look when you’re studying France, they have an incredible depth in each position.”

England also have a wealth of attacking talent and Southgate was pleased to see Kane score his first goal of the tournament. “You could see the lift that gave him in the second half,” he said.

“For any striker when you haven’t scored it is there in the back of your mind and you get that lift of confidence when it comes. It was great. There’s nobody I’d rather have in that moment bearing down on goal and it was a really clinical finish.”

England face France next, in their sixth tournament meeting. How the previous five panned out: 

July 1966 World Cup, Group 1

England 2 France 0 

Two goals from Roger Hunt, one in each half, meant England topped the group at Wembley. Albert Barham in the Guardian wasn’t impressed, though - warning England needed to raise their game in the knockouts. “They made hard work of this robust encounter … there was no runaway victory fondly kindled in many hopeful hearts after the inept displays by France in their other two matches”. 

June 1982 World Cup, Group 4

England 3 France 1 

Two goals from Bryan Robson - the first after 27 seconds - and one from Paul Mariner gave Ron Greenwood’s side victory in their opener in Bilbao. But David Lacey warned in the Guardian how France had “often played with greater skill, imagination and wit”. England duly failed to make it beyond the second group stage, drawing 0-0 with both Spain and West Germany. 

June 1992 Euros, Group 1

France 0 England 0

After a second straight scoreless draw, Graham Taylor lost his cool with the media. “These young men get crucified, I get crucified and then people wonder why we can’t play. Whatever you do all you get is a barrow-full of bloody criticism.” His side then lost the crucial third game against Sweden, during which Taylor subbed off Gary Lineker - prompting the Sun’s: “Swedes 2 Turnips 1” headline.

June 2004 Euros, Group B

France 2 England 1

An electric finish at Estádio Da Luz: Zinedine Zidane scoring a free-kick and a penalty to seal a breathless comeback after Frank Lampard’s opener and David Beckham’s penalty miss. Sven-Göran Eriksson was left bewildered. “I do not think they created many chances. I was thinking we cannot lose. Obviously we did.” His side later lost to Portugal on penalties in the quarter-finals.

June 2012 Euros, Group D

France 1 England 1

A ponderously flat opener: Joleon Lescott giving England the lead before his Manchester City team-mate Samir Nasri levelled. “We were much better than them,” said France defender Patrice Evra. “At times it was like there were 15 bodies on the line.” Roy Hodgson’s side went on to win the group, then lost on penalties to Italy in the quarters.

Southgate could take satisfaction from his selection calls coming off. Saka scored after replacing Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden earned two assists and Henderson justified his place in the team by calming England’s nerves with the opening goal.

There was also another outstanding display from Jude Bellingham. The 19-year-old midfielder produced an excellent assist for Henderson’s goal.

“I think the biggest thing is the mentality,” Southgate said. “We’ve obviously done a lot of work over the years with young player development and the thing that makes the difference is the mindset, the drive, the desire to learn and improve. And he has all of that. Him, Phil and Bukayo tonight, it felt the right moment for them. They all stepped up.”

Foden was full of praise for Bellingham. “I don’t want to big up Jude Bellingham too much because he’s still young, but he’s one of the most gifted players I’ve ever seen,” the attacker said. “I don’t see a weakness in his game. He’s got everything, and he’s going to be the best midfielder in the world.”

• This article was amended on 5 December 2022. France beat Poland 3-1, not 3-0 as an earlier version said.


Jacob Steinberg at Al Bayt Stadium

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