France's injuries would have hobbled lesser teams at World Cup | Opinion

DOHA, Qatar — France just isn't fair.

The defending champions should be both down, their roster riddled by injury, and out, the last four European winners failing to make it out of the group stage at the next World Cup. Yet Les Bleus keep right on rolling, the first team in Qatar to reach the round of 16.

Of course, it helps when you have a player as special as Kylian Mbappe.

Mbappe scored twice in the second half against Denmark on Saturday night, giving the 23-year-old seven career goals at the World Cup. That's the same number Pele had before his 25th birthday.

"He's an exceptional player that is part of an exceptional team," France coach Didier Deschamps said after the 2-1 win.

One that very much looks as if it could be the first since Brazil in 1962 to repeat as World Cup champions.

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Though France's squad is deep, it has been wracked by injuries. Paul Pogba (knee) and N’golo Kante (hamstring) were out before Deschamps named his squad. Karim Benzema, who won the Ballon d'Or a month before the World Cup, was knocked out by a thigh injury after arriving in Qatar.

France still has Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Anton Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Hugo Lloris, but that's a lot of star power to be missing.

"I'm not saying I'm lucky, but I have a great pool of players," Deschamps said. "They don’t have the same experience. Most don’t have 50 caps, but they play on the best European clubs and are highly performing."

And having Mbappe takes the load off of everyone.

He is mesmerizing to watch, an incomparable combination of speed, smoothness and an exquisite finishing touch. And like Pele and Messi, he can conjure up goals seemingly at will.

France had dominated Denmark throughout the first half, but couldn't capitalize on its opportunities. That's largely a credit to Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who made several stops including a gorgeous kicksave on a shot by Griezmann.

Mbappe nearly scored in the 56th, but Schmeichel tipped the ball back and over the crossbar.

France celebrates after a goal by Kylian Mbappe against Denmark at the World Cup in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 26, 2022.
France celebrates after a goal by Kylian Mbappe against Denmark at the World Cup in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 26, 2022.

Finally, in the 61st, France -- and Mbappe -- broke through. He scored on a close-range strike off a give and go with Theo Hernandez, perfectly putting the ball beyond Schmeichel’s outstretched hands.

Denmark equalized in the 68th with a header by Andreas Christensen following a corner kick. But France, and Mbappe, were simply too good.

In the 86th, Griezmann delivered a cross from the edge of the box to Mbappe, who used his body to direct it past Schmeichel. The French supporters section, located directly behind the goal, erupted, and Mbappe went and stood before them, roaring.

"He’s like a steam train on the pitch," Deschamps said. "He's one who gets the crowd going and wants to give it his all for the French team."

Mbappe almost added another goal in the final minutes of the game, but Schmeichel plucked the ball out of the air.

"I don’t like to rate players -- best, second, third," Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand said. "He’s a fantastic player and that’s it."

But Mbappe is so much more than that. He's on a trajectory rarely seen in a player his age. He's stepping up in the absence of his injured teammates. He gives Les Bleus confidence that, even with all they have lost, they still have more than enough to win.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: France's hopes of World Cup repeat stay intact despite key injuries