Lucas Hernandez was on the ground, writhing in pain with a stretcher on the way. Hugo Lloris could at least get back up but was in another kind of agony entirely, having dived too low as the ball headed for the roof of the net.
Craig Goodwin took to the floor of his own accord, slipping to his knees in ecstasy as a 30-year-old South Australian journeyman had just scored nine minutes into his first world Cup. Ibrahima Konaté was stunned. Kylian Mbappé lowered his head. Was it the champion’s curse? Was Australia about to fire a Saudi Arabia?
That’s not how this story ended, but it did respond well to the story of France’s temperament. Zinedine Zidane was surely watching, from afar, plotting after reports that he has reached a preliminary agreement to succeed Didier Deschamps after the tournament.
The alternative narrative is that France are notoriously slow to start the World Cup finals and it took just 18 more minutes for Adrien Rabiot to equalize and another five after that for Olivier Giroud to score the first of his two goals. Giroud is now level with Thierry Henry’s all-time high of 51.
Mbappé added to the scoring after the break for a victory which, after Denmark’s previous stalemate with Tunisia, saw the defending champions top this group.
If the match didn’t explode more, it was partly thanks to the prodigality of France – they managed 23 shots against four for Australia – and partly to the tenacity of Australia against this team in exorbitant talent.
The chasm in class is undeniably vast, even when, at a brief moment in the second half, the Socceroos had 12 players on the pitch. Even without the injured Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Karim Benzema and others, the depth of France is scary. Their 38th-ranked counterparts are young and inexperienced – half the squad have 10 or fewer caps and just four over 50. They are seen internationally as little more than fodder for Golden Boot aspirants. .
And yet, like a similar opener four years ago, when France won by a hair’s breadth after a deflected own goal, Australia defended vigorously. Head coach Graham Arnold’s pre-game rhetoric about sending out “11 boxing kangaroos” worked like a charm. At one point in the first half, Jackson Irvine overwhelmed Aurélien Tchouaméni with a fierce sliding challenge. In the middle of the second, Kye Rowles did a number on Mbappé.
After the first exchanges, in which Ousmane Dembélé got by with Aziz Behich and Mbappé played with Nathaniel Atkinson, Australia cleared an inauspicious corner and then settled. Aaron Mooy recycled possession at the base of midfield as his teammates tried to break through France’s defensive block. The Blues simply looked at their opponents’ comfortable holding pattern, letting them play but offering no clear openings.
The first goal came out of nowhere. Stoke’s Harry Souttar unleashed a long diagonal ball which Mat Leckie deftly brought down, passed Lucas Hernandez and clipped a teasing cross which fizzled attractively across the face of goal until Goodwin leapt and the net swells as Lloris jumps in vain.
Shortly after, Mitchell Duke fired and narrowly missed at least 25 yards. An upheaval was brewing. Well, that might have been the case had it not been for the aforementioned talent at Deschamps’ disposal. Mbappé and Demebélé started making hay in the wide areas, pushing Australia deeper and deeper into their own half and then into their own third, using Antoine Griezmann to confuse the defence.
This was especially evident after Griezmann forced a corner kick, which didn’t clear the first defender. But when the ball landed at the feet of Theo Hernandez, he curled it brilliantly for the completely unmarked Rabiot to head home past Mat Ryan.
Giroud was on the hunt from the start. The 36-year-old striker endured a barren final in 2018 and the records awaited him. He headed a high attempt, but minutes later scored when Atkinson was taken out of possession.
Two quick second-half goals put the game to bed. France pushed in and Australia struggled to clear their lines. They failed completely in the 68th minute when Mbappé slipped between the two centre-backs just in time to head in Dembélé’s cross.
Mbappé then turned provider, dropping the shoulder and rushing inside for a cross that gave Giroud his tying record. He was substituted late to warm applause.
This display was not without hairy moments, most notably when Irvine hit the post while Lloris just stood there and watched, as if in slow motion. He had never been so lucky for that lick of paint.
The more useless moments will also be tested by stronger opposition. Griezmann fired wide, Mbappé hit the Z row in front of an open goal and an aerial effort from Giroud went sideways.
But it already looks likely that France will become the second champions of the last five World Cup tournaments to progress from the group stage.