22.06.2024 03:50 h

Kante sparkles again but France lose shine without Mbappe magic

N'Golo Kante was the unlikely star of the show in the absence of a frustrated Kylian Mbappe as France and the Netherlands edged towards the last 16 of Euro 2024 after a 0-0 draw in Leipzig.

Recalled from a two-year international exile, Kante has rolled back the years in Germany with back-to-back man-of-the-match awards to become the fulcrum of Didier Deschamps' midfield once more.

A star of France's World Cup winning team in 2018, Kante's time with Les Bleus appeared spent after he departed Europe to join Saudi side Al-Ittihad 12 months ago.

Injuries had blighted the end of his spell at Chelsea and cost him a place at the World Cup two years ago.

Deschamps' decision to bring back the 33-year-old has proven inspired despite some initial scepticism.

"N'Golo is still out there running," Deschamps quipped in his post-match press conference on Friday.

"But he doesn't only run. He also has a capacity to carry the ball up the field, which is important to complement our other players in midfield so we have variety and we are not always predictable."

Questions have been raised over how big European names lured by the riches of the Saudi Pro League would fare when thrust back into the intensity of an international tournament.

But Kante has shown that a less demanding Saudi campaign could even be beneficial in comparison to those players worn out by gruelling seasons in Europe's top-five leagues.

"It's important (to make a good impression), especially when you come back to the national team," said Kante.

As impressive as his ball-winning and boundless energy has been against Austria and the Netherlands, the fact the diminutive midfielder has been France's star so far tells its own story.

The 2022 World Cup finalists have managed just one goal in their opening two games and even that came via Austria defender Maximilian Wober.

Mbappe's broken nose against Austria, which ruled him out on Friday, has not helped.

But more is expected of a forward line that also boasts Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Marcus Thuram, Ousmane Dembele and Kingsley Coman.

Thankfully for France's hopes of becoming European champions for a third time, Mbappe looks set to be able to return with the aid of a mask.

The Dutch stalemate continued a worrying trend for Deschamps without their star man.

Over the past two years, France have not won any of the seven games that Mbappe has not started.

"Obviously the team is on a different plane when Kylian is in it," added Deschamps.

The France boss conceded his caution with the Real Madrid forward would have been different had it been a knockout game.

The French have been here before under Deschamps and know underwhelming group games are easily forgotten -- as long as they click in time for tougher tests in the knockout stages.

France have reached three finals in their last four major tournaments.

The exception came at Euro 2020 when an out-of-sorts Mbappe failed to score and missed the crucial penalty in a shock last-16 exit to Switzerland.

This time it is injury that threatens to ruin his Euros and France can ill-afford for their masked captain to be under par when he does return.

Despite France having an abundance of talent, Mbappe remains the inspiration to complement Kante's perspiration that would make them the team to beat at Euro 2024.