One of the most mouth-watering aspects of Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final between England and France will be a head-to-head battle between Kylian Mbappe and Kyle Walker as the tournament’s most devastating forward faces its fastest defender.
Mbappe has been on fire in Qatar, scoring fabulous goals and playing with a freedom, zest and pure joy rarely seen at international level and particularly within the sometimes stultifying tension of a major tournament.
For all his skill and adventure, however, his ability is underpinned by the knowledge that he can beat his man simply by pushing the ball past him and exploding out of the blocks.
He did it twice in the win over Poland, giving his defender a metre start but turning it into a metre deficit within a second. For all football’s tactical developments in the last 150 years, explosive pace is a constant currency that trumps all.
On Saturday, however, Mbappe will come up against a man whose defensive prowess is built on the same foundation.
Walker’s ability to recover dangerous-looking situations simply by turning on the afterburners was one of the reasons Manchester City made him the then most expensive defender in the world when they signed him for 50 million pounds ($60.87 million) five years ago.
Both players have been timed among the fastest in the game, with top speeds of around 36.5kpm (22.6 mph), but it is how quickly they get there that makes them different.
Sheer explosiveness over five and 10 metres is a commodity infinitely more valuable than 100 metre speed, and both have it.
Mbappe is sleeker than muscular Walker, with the Frenchman describing his rival as a “tank once he gets going.”
While 23-year-old Mbappe is undoubtedly at the peak of his powers, it is still not clear whether Walker, 32, has fully recovered from the groin surgery he had in October that at one point put his World Cup participation in doubt.
He was twice bamboozled by Senegal winger Ismaila Sarr last weekend, though more by trickery than pace, and has yet to show, or been forced to show, whether he is back at 100%.
Speaking to the media ahead of the France game, Walker was in confident mood, pouring on the compliments to Mbappe but reminding everyone that he was not about to “roll out the red carpet” for him.
“I do understand what I need to do and that is to stop him,” he said.” “It’s probably easier said than done, but I don’t underestimate myself. I have played against a lot of great players at Man City and England.”
Walker has faced Mbappe four times in the Champions League, earning rave reviews for his performances, and his potential to blunt France’s most potent cutting edge might of course lead to coach Didier Deschamps asking Mbappe to operate on the right against the experienced but considerably slower Luke Shaw.
That, however, would involve shifting Ousmane Dembele, who has been not far behind Mbappe among France’s best performers in Qatar and is almost as fast, and upsetting a system that has been working smoothly.
As Walker said, eventually tiring of the focused line of questioning in his news conference. “The game isn’t England v Mbappe, it’s England v France.”
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