Kante embarrasses Henderson again with phenomenal performance for stuttering France

Matt Stead
Ajax midfielder Jordan Henderson, France midfielder N'Golo Kante and forward Kylian Mbappe
A Saudi penny for Jordan Henderson's thoughts

N’Golo Kante and Jordan Henderson essentially made the same career choice in summer 2023 but their paths since could not have been much more different. That was a true man-of-the-match display for France.

 

“My views changed in 2009 when I was watching France v Ireland, when Henry handled the ball and crossed for William Gallas to score. It was the crucial moment in the game and ultimately knocked Ireland out.”

Howard Webb went on to say that VAR “will only affect decisions in one game in three, and will add no more than a minute to any game,” but there is enough water under that particular bridge to drown the entire actual world.

There is nothing new that can ever be learned about the increased use of technology in football which has expanded to integrate something cricket implemented before this millennium. But there were lessons abound in a cagey, tense, anxious opening victory for France.

Gareth Southgate might point to both this and Belgium’s earlier shock defeat as proof that international management – never mind international tournament management – is not as easy as the critics might pretend. While there would be some merit in that, France were comfortably better against slightly more advanced opposition in Austria than England were in victory over Serbia.

Both teams did at least make their “crucial moment in the game” count, as Webb would term it. And how France might be thankful that VAR’s remit will never focus on such incidents as those which directly preceded their goal.

It came from the same place it usually does: the right boot of Kylian Mbappe, which sidestepped a recently-booked Phillipp Mwene before clipping a cross towards Antoine Griezmann. Max Wober wisely cut it out but rather less sensibly headed the ball into his own net in the process.

Two minutes prior, Austria had what would remain their best chance of the game. A clever move ended with Marcel Sabitzer’s intelligent touch playing in Christoph Baumgartner, whose attempted dink was thwarted by Mike Maignan. A goal kick was somehow awarded and France soon established a lead they would not relinquish.

Austria gave an excellent account of themselves and were predictably ferocious in the Ralf Rangnick press but with chances always likely to be at a premium, any they created were always going to assume increased importance. They actually had more possession but it does not feel as though Didier Deschamps will have been particularly upset about that outcome.

For France, it was just a matter of making one of many openings count. They only ever needed a slight touch on those Theo Hernandez cutbacks, for Griezmann to make better choices on the break, for Mbappe to not miss a one-on-one, for Olivier Giroud not to somehow shoot backwards when found unmarked near the penalty spot. Their threat is obvious and perennial but that makes it no easier to counter and the pressure tends to tell eventually.

The sense that they had been in a bit of a war was only magnified by the blood pouring from Mbappe’s broken nose just before stoppage-time. His unsanctioned return to the pitch incurred a booking but France knew they could not afford to defend for too long with 10 men, even if the old adage about N’Golo Kante being worth two players somehow remains true in big 2024 after an average season in Saudi Arabia.

These games are Kante’s first for France since leaving Chelsea and Europe altogether in summer 2023, but his impact on this team has not dulled. No player in that lovely kit made more tackles or interceptions and that just feels right.

It is interesting to juxtapose his rise with the plight of Jordan Henderson since both left trophy-filled legacies behind in England in their 30s for a Middle East pay day. While the former Liverpool captain torched his reputation, defaced his morals and torpedoed his professional career to the extent that his country would rather pick about two actual central midfielders for Euro 2024 instead of him, Kante has rolled back the years to make himself a Deschamps undroppable again.

There were brilliant moments scattered throughout this match but the sight of him racing back from behind Patrick Wimmer to catch and tackle the substitute in the 85th minute before he even came within 10 yards of the France penalty area after William Saliba’s mistake was ludicrous. Danny Drinkwater must have been feeling awfully nostalgic from whatever vantage point he enjoyed the game, as close to the England squad as Henderson.

Kante remains both brilliant and likeable in a way the Ajax midfielder must resent. But then the Frenchman never pledged allyship, actively revoked it and then insulted everyone’s intelligence before trying to undo the damage at the earliest possible opportunity. Kante broke no promises or bonds and, as a Muslim player, simply headed to a sensible destination on his career path. Money would have been a factor, but not nearly as reprehensibly or offensively.

The only surprise is that Kante has been able to have his cake and eat it while dispossessing anyone in the vicinity. Only 2.25% of those in the 24 squads for Euro 2024 ply their club trade in Saudi Arabia; just two players have ever represented France at a major tournament while playing for a club outside Europe. The first was Andre-Pierre Gignac at Euro 2016, when Kante was at the height of his ridiculous powers.

Deschamps explained the shock call-up by saying that Kante “has regained all his physical and athletic abilities” and that “the French team will be better with him”. It raised some eyebrows which were instantly lowered by this performance.

There are many more tests to come but the early signs are that Kante has inexplicably been able to restore those factory settings of inimitable brilliance, even if France themselves needed a slice of luck to make it count.

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