France's Ousmane Dembele (left) challenges for the ball with Denmark's Joakim Maehle during the World Cup group D soccer match between France and Denmark, at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, Nov 26, 2022. (CHRISTOPHE ENA / AP)
DOHA - Kylian Mbappe will grab the headlines after his second-half double sent France into the last 16 of the World Cup with a 2-1 victory over Denmark on Saturday, but Ousmane Dembele was the man who facilitated the defending champions' success.
Dembele was everywhere on the flank - close to Jules Kounde, who lacked experience at right back, and wreaking havoc further up the pitch in a tremendous two-man job that kept Denmark on their toes and repeatedly pegged them back
Dembele was everywhere on the flank - close to Jules Kounde, who lacked experience at right back, and wreaking havoc further up the pitch in a tremendous two-man job that kept Denmark on their toes and repeatedly pegged them back.
He started the Group D clash at the 974 Stadium deeper than usual after being asked to track back by coach Didier Deschamps, who was looking for safety on the right.
But the Barcelona thoroughbred brought danger time and time again with his dribbles and crosses, proving a nightmare for Denmark's Joakim Maehle with his stop-and-go dribbles.
Dembele had already been impressive in France's 4-1 victory against Australia in their opening game, but Saturday's display probably cemented his place in the starting lineup and gave Deschamps more tactical options.
While he still lacks the devastating scoring touch of Mbappe or Olivier Giroud, Dembele, along with Antoine Griezmann, played a selfless game that allowed Mbappe to do what he does best - find the net and take the limelight.
His cross for Adrien Rabiot's threatening header midway through the first half, after a brilliant counter-attacking run, was just one of many superb moves to pick from Dembele's match.
Another one came in the 38th minute when, near his own area, Dembele stole the ball from Maehle, his direct opponent who possibly ended the first half feeling dizzy.
In 2018, Dembele had lost his place in the starting XI after a poor performance in the first game of the group stage.
"In 2018, I was going through tough years," he said this week, admitting that he now had a healthier lifestyle.
"Well it's not like I was being crazy, but I'm watching myself much more now. I'm now on a year and a half without injuries. I'm 25 and more mature in my game."
Dembele was the first to bring danger in the second half with yet another dazzling run before setting up Mbappe for a potential opener with a silky pass from the penalty spot.
He then faded, exhausted, leaving it to Mbappe to finish the job with an 86th minute winner after his opener just past the hour before Andreas Christensen leveled for the Danes.
Dembele is likely to be on the bench against Tunisia on Wednesday in Les Bleus's final group game, getting a well-deserved rest ahead of the knockout stage where he undoubtedly will catch the eye again.
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