DOHA, Dec 09 (Reuters): All eyes will be on Kylian Mbappe once again as France take on England in a mouthwatering World Cup quarter-final clash but the defending champions must hope their lack of options from the bench will not be exposed on Saturday.
Les Bleus, who are looking to become the first team to retain the title since Brazil in 1958-1962, were hit hard by injuries ahead of the tournament with midfielders Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante, and forward Karim Benzema all ruled out.
Mbappe has been on fire in Qatar, with five goals and two assists, while Olivier Giroud has provided three goals, but they have yet to come up against a world-class team.
After wins over Australia and Denmark in their first two matches, France's fringe players did not cover themselves in glory in a 1-0 defeat to Tunisia to round out the group.
Didier Deschamps's starting 11 features some fearsome firepower up front with Mbappe, Giroud and Ousmane Dembele, while Adrien Rabiot and Aurelien Tchouameni have proved extremely reliable in midfield.
Antoine Griezmann has been the perfect link between the lines.
At the back, however, France have issues.
Jules Kounde is not a natural right back and left back Theo Hernandez is more forward-minded, which could present problems if he is pegged back by England's attacks.
Rabiot is well aware of England's danger in wide areas but predicted they may be more cautious than in previous games.
"They have players who are fast on the wings, fullbacks who are very offensive," he added.
"They won't take all the risks because we can also hurt them on the flanks."
One of the strengths that has emerged through the tournament is England's depth.
Manager Gareth Southgate has been able to shuffle his midfield and wide attackers more than in previous tournaments and just about all of them have delivered.
Their tally of 12 goals - equalling their World Cup best set from three more matches in 2018 - has been achieved via eight players.
Harry Kane, the tournament's top scorer in 2018, has scored only one goal in Qatar but he has turned into a dangerous provider with three assists and looked sharp in England's victory over Senegal in the round of 16.
Jude Bellingham has established himself as a driving force in midfield, playing with a confidence way beyond his 19 years.
Having proven Premier League performers like Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling to come on from the bench brings fresh legs and different challenges for tiring opposition defenders.
While the goalscorers grab the headlines, Southgate made sure he complimented his defenders after the last 16 match as his side chalked up a third successive World Cup clean sheet for the first time in 20 years.
Harry Maguire and John Stones will relish the more traditional challenge of Giroud but the key battle could be between one of the fastest defenders in the tournament and the fastest attacker - Kyle Walker v Mbappe.
The Frenchman has been in full flow in Qatar, while Walker is seemingly edging his way back to sharpness after undergoing surgery on a groin injury in October.
One thing that should be a given is that England will not be overawed by the occasion after their recent runs to the last four of the 2018 World Cup and final of Euro 2020.
"As a team in Russia, we were a little inexperienced in big matches. We got to the semi-final, we scored early and we didn't know how to handle that," said Walker. "We're more equipped now."
Meanwhile, England's Raheem Sterling will return to their World Cup base in time for the quarter-final clash with France, the FA said on Thursday, after the forward returned home following a robbery at his residence.
Sterling did not play a part in the 3-0 win over Senegal in the last 16, leaving Qatar last weekend to return to his family.
"The Chelsea forward temporarily left to attend to a family matter but is now expected to rejoin the squad in Al Wakrah on Friday ahead of the quarter-final with France," the FA said in a statement.
Sterling made two appearances in the group stages, grabbing a goal and assist in the 6-2 win over Iran in England's opener.
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