Salem Radio Network News Sunday, February 5, 2023

Sports

Varane’s return lifts French mood even higher at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Kylian Mbappe’s goals took defending champion France into the knockout round of the World Cup. Raphael Varane’s return gave the French camp an added reason to celebrate.

The pre-tournament injury blues are fading, Les Bleus are feeling upbeat again and looking like one of the tournament favorites.

Mbappe’s two goals in Saturday’s 2-1 win against Denmark helped the French become the first defending World Cup champions to reach the round of 16 since Brazil in 2006.

France’s night was made even better by the return of Varane to the center of defense. It was the elegant defender’s first game since limping off in tears after sustaining a hamstring injury playing for Manchester United on Oct. 11.

“That was a very difficult moment. At that point I really thought my World Cup was over,” Varane said Sunday. “As soon as I found out that I had a chance to be ready in time for the tournament, I went into overdrive. I made a lot of sacrifices.”

His 88th appearance for Les Bleus went smoothly.

“I didn’t feel any apprehension,” Varane said. “I’m not at 100 percent yet, but I’m working very hard to reach my full potential.”

His calming presence, exceptional reading of the game and strong heading ability were on display at Stadium 974, where he played alongside Dayot Upamecano.

“I’m here to guide players, encourage them. That’s part of my role and what others expect from me,” the 29-year-old Varane said. “It’s a natural process and the young players listen.”

Varane lasted 75 minutes without any apparent discomfort, before coach Didier Deschamps gave him a breather ahead of table-topping France’s final Group D game Wednesday against Tunisia.

With France already through, it’s a low-pressure match that gives Deschamps an opportunity to test another central defensive partnership with Varane alongside Ibrahima Konate — who played in the 4-1 win against Australia.

Then Deschamps can decide which pairing he prefers for the round of 16.

It was a relief for Deschamps to see Varane come through a physical encounter unscathed, even more so because he has so many stars missing.

Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema; key midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante; central defender Presnel Kimpembe, left back Lucas Hernandez, and forward Christopher Nkunku were all ruled out of the World Cup by injuries.

So it would have been a crushing blow for Deschamps to lose Varane, his best defender when France won the 2018 World Cup and a hugely-respected member of the squad.

Luck could be turning France’s way, with Theo Hernandez replacing his injured brother at left back and setting up Mbappe’s first goal against Denmark after a slick one-two with the PSG star, who has three goals in the tournament.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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