Everybody would have bet the house on Harry Kane. The England captain had already scored one equaliser from the penalty spot, which had brought him level with Wayne Rooney on 53 goals for his country – the all-time record. Now, after Olivier Giroud had tilted this World Cup thriller back in the direction of France, Kane stood over the spot once more.
The penalty had been conceded by Theo Hernandez. It was an extraordinary rush of blood from the full-back, who barged into the back of the England substitute Mason Mount as they chased a high ball that was going over both of them. An even bigger one was to come.
Kane had the outright scoring record within his grasp. More importantly, he stood to reignite England’s belief, lighting a path to extra time – and, perhaps, a semi-final against Morocco. The pressure was excruciating. As he had done with the earlier penalty, Kane took his time. And yet he fell apart, blasting high over the crossbar in a moment that will live for ever in his nightmares. It was the 84th minute. And that was pretty much that.
There would be no late sting and, for the umpteenth time, England were left to reflect upon a bitter hard luck story. This was supposed to be the night when everything came together against world champion opposition, mentality aligning with quality, the brutal lessons of the recent past helping England to a famous victory.
Gareth Southgate and his players had made no secret of the target here – and it went beyond merely beating France. They were in Qatar to win the World Cup. “We didn’t come this far to just come this far,” read a banner in the gym at their training ground. Southgate had said that England simply had to “nail this type of game now”. They came up agonisingly short.
The focus will turn towards what Southgate does next. Will he continue into a fourth tournament campaign? The inquest will rage, as always. The manager had said before the game that the buck would stop with him.
But this was no rerun of the two defeats that have burned the holes in his England CV – against Croatia in the semi-finals of the last World Cup and then Italy in the Euro 2020 final, when caution and a lack of belief undermined him and the team. It was not a loss to chase him from his post.
England were the equals of France here, at the very least. They created chances. After another sticky start they played on the front foot and with aggression. They broadly kept Kylian Mbappé under control.
But when another substitute, Marcus Rashford, was narrowly off target with a last-gasp free-kick, England had to face up to a missed opportunity. Kane looked broken at full time. So did everybody in England’s colours.
England had not been behind at the tournament, had not previously experienced a real setback. Southgate and his coaches had discussed how they would react, the processes that needed to be followed. They had to put them into action after Aurélien Tchouaméni’s early breakthrough, which felt as though it was advertised. France had got quickly into their passing rhythms, the excellent Antoine Griezmann prominent. Giroud had almost got in for an 11th-minute header.
The breakthrough came when Griezmann laid off to Tchouaméni, who shot from distance with vicious swerve. Jordan Pickford had plenty of time to see it. As it headed to his right-hand corner he flung himself across. He was at full stretch but it was not enough. Dayot Upamecano had started the move with a challenge on Bukayo Saka that England had insisted was a foul. The Brazilian referee, Wilton Sampaio, said no. He would be erratic throughout. At times, it looked as if he was guessing.
England stayed calm and Kane led the fightback, getting into a couple of physical duels with Upamecano and winning them. Kane cleverly rolled the centre-half after a Saka pass into him and he had a chance from an angle on the right. Hugo Lloris, on the occasion of a record-breaking 143rd France men’s cap, was out smartly to block.
There was also the moment on 25 minutes when Kane again got away from Upamecano and headed for the right-hand edge of the box. He felt his marker sweep his legs away as he entered it but, after a VAR review, it appeared the contact had been made marginally outside. Luke Shaw banged a free-kick straight at Lloris before the goalkeeper clawed away a deflected Kane effort from distance.
England continued to push after the interval. Jude Bellingham exploded a shot from the edge of the area after a half-cleared corner that Lloris tipped over – another good save – and Saka began to push his influence, all quicksilver movement off the right.
It was Saka who won the first penalty after a give-and-go with Bellingham, Tchouaméni stretching for the tackle but getting there too late. Saka was too quick. Mbappé had a rather showy word with Lloris as Kane prepared himself, trying to spook the England captain. It did not work.
Adrien Rabiot almost restored France’s lead straight away – Southgate frantically pointed at his temples – and there was the foot race between Mbappé and Kyle Walker that everybody wanted to see. The French forward won it, finding an extra gear at the last to pull back for Ousmane Dembélé, who could not react.
England had to take a chance and they threatened. Harry Maguire kissed the outside of a post with a header from Jordan Henderson’s free-kick; Saka could not convert from a Shaw cross. It was so close.
It looked at that point as if England were the more likely scorers of the next goal. France had other ideas. Giroud should have scored from a Dembélé nod-back – Pickford saved well – and then he did find the net from Griezmann’s wonderful cross, getting in between John Stones and Maguire to crash home. Kane had the chance to write a different story. There would only be misery.