'Strong in the storm': France victory over England down to mental strength

AL KHOR, Qatar -- A game of football can sometimes be decided in a matter of seconds. On Saturday night, in the freshness of the Al-Bayt stadium, their 2022 World Cup quarterfinal was tied at 1-1 after goals from Aurelien Tchouameni and Harry Kane. Marcus Thuram was about to come on for France with roughly 10 minutes still to play against an England side who had been on top; Olivier Giroud was about to come off.

France coach Didier Deschamps had made up his mind, yet he felt something and decided to wait a little longer before making the substitution. A few seconds later, Giroud's volley was denied by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, before the No. 9 scored almost straight afterwards in the 78th minute with a powerful header from a peach of a cross by Antoine Griezmann.

After celebrating the goal with his fellow subs by running onto the pitch to join Giroud in front of the French fans, Thuram sat back down on the bench with a massive smile on his face. He would not be coming on now, but it didn't matter.

At that time in the game, France were under pressure. England were the better team, playing on the front foot and creating chances but failing to kill France off. But this France squad are all about resilience and mental strength. And when Kane had the chance to level the score -- and become England's outright record goal scorer -- from the spot in the 84th minute, he blazed his penalty over the bar after a foul from Theo Hernandez on Mason Mount.

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"The difference between the two teams was the mental strength," goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said after the game. "It was a tough game against a very good England team, and they deserve a lot of praise because they made it a big battle. But we were solid in the important moments. We hurt them when needed."

It was an emotional night for Lloris as he became the most-capped France player ever with his 143rd appearance, overtaking defender Lilian Thuram who was watching in the stands. But there were no emotions on the pitch; France took that out of the game. To have this kind of killer instinct and toughness, you have to do it. The England players were too emotional at times, with what was happening on the pitch, with the referee, with the importance of the quarterfinal.

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"In games like this, you have to be ruthless in every way," Lloris added. "The more you advance in the tournament, the more you have to raise your game and have that mentality. There are no emotions. They can't be part of your game. Today we played to the level. We were strong in the storm."

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Strong in the storm sums up France's performance very well.

"Sometimes, the winner is not the best team but the team that deals with all the elements of the game the most and has that killer instinct," Giroud said. "You have to put us down when you can because if you don't, we will put you down. We knew we will get one more chance at some point. We took it. To win a big World Cup game, you have to be clinical, and we were. England were not enough."

Les Bleus have been in this situation before: when you have to grin and bear it because you are under pressure so you can come back stronger after. Deschamps knew it.

"Talent is not enough in a squad," he said "You need the mental strength and also some experience. At this level, it's won or lost on thin margins. In a World Cup, you need to fight for results and change the dynamic of a game. There is a collective force in this team. Something is clearly happening here, but we have to stay humble."

France are into their seventh World Cup semifinal -- only Germany have more (12). Deschamps has now won his 13th World Cup game and only Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari (14) and West Germany's Helmut Schon (16) have done better than him in World Cup history.

Deschamps knew how difficult it would be to beat England. He told his players before the game to expect a big battle. He told them that they were going to be under pressure at times and that they had to fight. He also told them that whatever happened during the game, they would have a chance to win it at some point and would have to take it. He was right.

When Giroud missed the first chance before the winning goal, all he thought was to pray for another opportunity. "I was praying in my head for God to give me another chance," he said. "And he did."

Moments later, Giroud took it, and France's celebrations after the final whistle were wild. Like four years ago, when it mattered the most and they claimed the World Cup trophy at Russia 2018, France showed their resilience, collective strength and experience. They will need every ounce of that again in the semifinal against underdogs Morocco.