France’s Kylian Mbappe in action with Germany’s Mats Hummels during the Group F match of Euro 2020 in Munich on Tuesday. (Reuters)
France’s Kylian Mbappe in action with Germany’s Mats Hummels during the Group F match of Euro 2020 in Munich on Tuesday. (Reuters)

Kylian Mbappe, a blur of blue and red

While others ran in the France vs Germany Group F game of the European Championships, Kylian Mbappe flew
PUBLISHED ON JUN 16, 2021 09:16 PM IST

During the very dregs of the first half and while Germany sustained their late press to try and get back on level terms before the break, a Toni Kroos pass into the France’s box was intercepted by left-back Lucas Hernandez. With literally seconds to go for the whistle, Hernandez would’ve run down the clock if he could’ve, but the interception had pinged high off his knee and the ball was thrust ahead to the clutches of Kylian Mbappe stood a few metres ahead and hugging the left sideline.

In one swift swirl, Mbappe was facing in his preferred direction and soon he was a blur of blue and red, this powerful and magnetic being attracting teammates in Karim Benzema down the middle and Antoine Griezmann further to the right of the arena in Munich. The two-man-one-haze of a French charge went unchecked past the half-line, ball still at the feet of Mbappe’s blur, when France’s No.10 aborted his run and passed the ball backwards to Paul Pogba.

This could well have been due to an on-the-spot and yelling instruction from coach Didier Deschamps on the sideline to hang on to both ball and the 1-0 lead (Mbappe was even looking in Deschamps’ direction when he returned from blur to human), but when the whistle blew a fraction later, Benzema pinched the bridge of his nose in disappointment, Germany’s right-back Matthias Ginter looked visibly relieved and Mbappe simply shrugged – neither here nor there about what could’ve been had he kept on running. He perhaps knew all along, but the 22-year-old Parisian would give everyone involved a real glimpse soon.

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The French newspaper Le Figaro recently published data to back their claim of Mbappe being the fastest footballer in the world today, with a recorded top speed of 36.2kmph (Bilbao’s Inaki Williams is not far behind with 35.7 kmph). That’s a way away from Usain Bolt’s average speed of 44.72 kmph during his Berlin run over 100 metres. Still, remember that Mbappe is not a trained runner but a footballer, one who has to make his runs while controlling a ball by his pedalling feet.

Yet, somehow, so fast does he tend to get that in matches against France and Paris Saint-Germain, the opposition’s right-back almost always needs full-time assistance from his centre-back as Ginter needed from Mats Hummels on Tuesday night. They could’ve had all of Munich on Mbappe in the 77th minute for all he cared and little would’ve changed. It began with a heavy scramble for the ball, by the half-line but well inside French territory, before Pogba booted the ball into the vast swathe of emptiness in the German half.

Hummels was straddling the half-line and was by far the closest player to the ball hurtling behind him, so he turned around to retrieve it. But Mbappe, well inside the crowd of legs in the French half and a good 10 metres or so behind Hummels, had the same idea. Mbappe released himself into space and first began his chase of Hummels, who in turn was chasing the ball. The afterburners came on, Mbappe took off by the half-line and about a third of the way into Germany’s half, he was neck and neck with a disbelieving Hummels. This, despite not running as the crow flies and having been forced to take a wide angle around Hummels.

Let’s pause there for a bit, with the two men sprinting abreast and the white ball a short distance ahead of them. As an experiment, type “Mbappe” on YouTube today and allow the auto-fill feature to do the rest. For a while on Wednesday in India, the top three options were “Mbappe run against Germany”, “Mbappe overtakes Hummels” and “Mbappe top speed fastest footballer”. It had to be a pretty spectacular run to befriend the algorithm on YouTube, especially since it didn’t end up at the back of the net and two other sprints by Mbappe in the match did (albeit off-side goals).

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Anyway, time to push play again. There they were in the 77th minute, after Mbappe had reeled Hummels in despite trailing him by 10 metres, slip-streaming from the shadow of the German defender with a quick leap to the left and momentarily running shoulder-to-shoulder with the hunted. Then came the hard break to the right, cutting well into Hummels’s lane as Mbappe pulled ahead, ball now at his feet and bursting towards Manuel Neuer in Germany’s goal.

The crowd was up on its feet and Hummels was down on his, a desperate and outstretched leg hoping to tackle the ball from between and behind Mbappe’s boots. Leather met leather and some leather also clipped the ball, Mbappe rolling into the box with great inertia. Play on, signalled the ref, and Hummels would’ve sighed if he could’ve caught his breath first. Spare a thought for him too, Hummels that is. When these two countries had met in the quarterfinal of the 2014 World Cup, it was his goal that proved to be decisive.

Seven years later, a Hummels goal would be the difference once again. But this time it was an own-goal, an error drawn as much by a lurking Mbappe. Mbappe would go on to humiliate him further in the second half, with wicked side-steps in the German box, which was eventually curved around the legs of Hummels and the hands of Neuer for the first of two off-side goals. But at least Hummels could see Mbappe dance from side to side then, unlike a few minutes later when he ran as fast as he could but somehow was made to feel like he wasn’t running at all.

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