England benefit from VAR decision but lose thanks to the attacking prowess of 10-man France
Gareth Southgate left the Stade de France still searching for a significant scalp on the international stage after falling to defeat 10-man France. His England side were spirited in Saint-Denis but ultimately and conclusively second-best, as Ousmane Dembele’s strike 12 minutes from time proved the difference.
The visitors had led through Harry Kane and, after falling behind through Samuel Umtiti and Djibril Sidibe’s first-half goals, were offered hope when Raphael Varane was controversially sent off, the decision influenced by video assistant.
Didier Deschamps’ side, however, were simply more fluid, more confident in their shape and style and this much told in dominant last 20 minutes.
Deschamps named an almost wholly changed line-up, with only Paul Pogba and Hugo Lloris retained from the 2-1 stoppage-time defeat against Sweden. It was Lloris’ error - a wayward backpass while far off his line - that led to the hosts’ winner, but he nevertheless captained a second-string side that still made up an intimidating teamsheet.
England, meanwhile, experimented. A back three that had been trialled against Germany and Lithuania returned, with John Stones at its centre in the hope that his composure on the ball could lead to openings going forward. Tom Heaton started in goal for his third cap and appeared nervous, failing to collect an early French cross at the first attempt.
Those in white shirts in front of him started much better, however, and soon made the most of their promising early running. Dele Alli found Raheem Sterling at the far post, where the winger stopped dead in his tracks, waited for the overlapping Ryan Bertrand, then slipped the full-back in with a delightful backheel. The subsequent cross from the byline and tap-in for Kane were routine, but it was all borne out of Sterling’s imagination.
France were hurt and looked to strike back immediately. Olivier Giroud, three days after scoring one spectacular volley in Stockholm, thought he had scored another, but it was met with the linesman’s flag. Ousmane Dembele should have scored two minutes later after Kylian Mbappe had exposed Phil Jones’ poor positioning, but the equaliser soon came. Heaton’s reaction save to deny Giroud again was superb, but he could do nothing to prevent Samuel Umtiti rifling in the follow-up. It had been coming.
Deschamps’ side dominated the ball in the remainder of the first period; they just required a bit of a guile or a slice of luck to penetrate. They found both, and a second goal, minutes before the break. After darting forward, Dembele saw his through ball to Mbappe blocked by a sliding Gary Cahill. The ball broke back to Dembele and he jinked past Stones before shooting low to Heaton’s right. Again, the Burnley goalkeeper saved but again, the rebound fell to a defender. Djibril Sidibe mirrored Umtiti’s earlier finish and sent the hosts ahead.
Their lead, excluding the interval, lasted barely five minutes. Shortly after both sides re-emerged for the second half, Alli was clumsily tripped by Varane in the area. After initially waving England’s protests away, referee Davide Massa consulted the video assistant, who recommended that he award the kick and dismiss Varane. A penalty it may have been, but but a red card? Have no fear defenders of ‘the argument down the pub’. For all the certainty that the addition of this technology is supposed to provide, this decision was debatable.
Kane made no mistake from the spot, scoring his 11th goal in his last five outings, and Southgate’s side were level in a game that had been edging away from them.
This time, France did not look for a quick response and the visitors enjoyed their best spell of possession, but this was an international friendly that would not wind down into numerous substitutions and safe play.
With twenty minutes remaining, Mbappé, an electric presence all evening, sent a shockwave through the Stade de France, rattling the the crossbar after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pass had allowed the hosts in. The much sought-after Monaco teenager should have regained the lead for his side a few minutes earlier after being slipped in behind Jones once again, but his shot was smothered by Heaton’s half-time replacement, Jack Butland.
Having seemed composed for some time, England’s defence briefly returned to how it had spent the majority of the first half - at breaking point. Every block was from an outstretched boot, every tackle just about on time, but their luck could not last. Mbappé collected the ball after hovering on Cahill’s shoulder, and the youngster had looked so threatening up to that point that Stones felt compelled to help his partner out. In doing so, the Manchester City defender failed to cover Dembele, who had the time and space required to angle a finish past Butland.
Independent News Service