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Andrew got Pogačar Week started in fine form by taking stock of the fan experience in the early days of this brave new era that the young Slovenian Tour de France champion is suddenly stamping his authority all over. Tadej the Great is being fitted for every crown imaginable right now after his commanding performance in Tirreno-Adriatico, a race which is only won by the sport’s greatest champions, like Simon Yates, Nairo Quintana, Greg Van Avermaet… you get my point.
The forward lit up Russia 2018 as a teenager, but his character has been questioned repeatedly in the run-up to Qatar 2022
Kylian Mbappe was destined to become a superstar. He’s always known it, too. “I have had a career plan since I was young,” he admitted to RMC. “I know what I want to do, where I want to go, and I will not let anything disturb me.” Even if that means disturbing others, it seems.
Mbappe’s behaviour over the past two years has become a major talking point in his native France, and it culminated in a heated debate after his decisive penalty miss at Euro 2020.
It wasn’t about a simple spot-kick, of course. Or even the fact that it had resulted in France being eliminated at the last-16 without Mbappe scoring a single goal.
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World Cup Classic Team: France 1998
World Cup Classic Team: France 1998
This was a question of character. His critics claimed that Mbappe had become too big for his boots, that he was behaving like a prima donna, and that France were paying the price for the Paris Saint-Germain superstar’s perceived arrogance.
Mbappe was understandably hurt by the criticism, particularly as he had been racially abused following France’s Euros exit. He felt as if he were being made a scapegoat and that nobody had his back.
“The message I was receiving was that my ego was what made us lose,” he explained, “that I wanted to take up too much space, and that without me, we might have won.”
Kylian Mbappe France Euro 2022 GFXGetty/GOAL
Mbappe considered quitting the national team. “I have never taken a single euro to play for the French national team and I will always play for my national team for free,’ he said. “Above all, I never wanted to be a problem.
“The most important thing is the French national team and if the French national team is happier without me, [I’ll go].”
Noel Le Graet was having none of it. The French Football Federation (FFF) president knew that Mbappe didn’t really want to walk away. He listened to his complaint that the FFF had not backed him as much as they should have done, and convinced the forward to carry on.
“You know how it is,” Le Graet told Le Journal du Dimanche. “He’s a winner, he was very frustrated, like all of us, by the elimination. But he’s a great guy, much more of a team player than people think.”
The thing is, though, Mbappe’s petulant behaviour over the past year has only reinforced the perception that the 23-year-old still has a lot of growing up to do.
Having been made the “cornerstone of the PSG project”, Mbappe’s increased influence at the Parc des Princes created a divide in the dressing room, with the Frenchman in one corner and Neymar in the other.
The net result has been unseemly on-field squabbles over spot-kicks, as well as the most undignified sight of a frustrated Mbappe turning away in disgust after not being given the ball.
Kylian Mbappe Neymar PSG 2022-23 GFXGetty/GOAL
Off the field, meanwhile, there have been ill-advised social media posts expressing his dissatisfaction with PSG’s tactical set-up, which has unfairly forced new coach Christophe Galtier into showing off his powers of diplomacy.
Mbappe’s primary issue is that France don’t play like PSG. He doesn’t have a big man to play off, depriving him of the same level of freedom. He can’t do what he wants essentially.
At international level, meanwhile, he found himself at the centre of a storm over image rights in September. It was reported that he had even refused to partake in some pre-agreed sponsorship activities, which, unsurprisingly, sparked more allegations of entitled antics.
Mbappe, though, stated: “The squad has always been behind me. From the beginning, it was a collective move. It’s just that I don’t have any problem going to the front of the stage, fighting for my team-mates.
“As I said, it’s not a big deal to take criticism. I’m used to it. It’s not going to change the way I play, or the way I live my life, and if it can help the group get what they want, that’s the main thing.”
The group certainly needs him again now. Karim Benzema’s injury-enforced withdrawal on the eve of the World Cup has seen the media spotlight switch to Mbappe, just as it did four years ago in Russia.
Kylian Mbappe France 2018 World Cup GFXGetty/GOAL
With Benzema still in exile because of his involvement in the Mathieu Valbuena sex-tap scandal, Mbappe cemented his status as the most exciting youngster the World Cup had seen since Pele. He even matched the Brazilian’s feat of scoring in the final while still a teenager. The King’s heir had arrived.
Things haven’t gone quite as expected in the interim, though. Mbappe has, at times, been brilliant, utterly unplayable at times. But, rather surprisingly, he has yet to prove himself unequivocally the best player on the planet – at least over a whole year. And it’s clear that the controversy hasn’t helped.
In a bizarre way, though, Benzema’s withdrawal might actually aid Mbappe’s cause. He has had his issues with the Real Madrid No.9’s replacement, Olivier Giroud, but Mbappe has been the first to publicly admit that they have formed an effective partnership.
It is perhaps a fragile alliance – Mbappe was clearly irked by Giroud’s recent claim that his runs are often ignored – but it could fire France to a second World Cup.
Indeed, one of the reasons why Deschamps didn’t call up a replacement for Benzema is the fact that he believes he is now better off making Mbappe the focal point of attack, essentially giving him even more freedom to express himself.
Benzema’s absence is arguably, therefore, a blow for France but a blessing for Mbappe. He has a glorious chance to get that career plan right back on track.
Can you survive without Pogačar? That is the question. And I think the answer is yes, but it won’t be easy. Let’s start with the present. You can easily put together a non-Pog team of everyone who has gotten off to a hot start, possibly with Wout Van Aert as the double-restricted guy and definitely with Jonas Vingegaard as your single-restricted guy, and assemble a team that is currently winning the competition. You have about as good a chance of assembling an NCAA basketball tournament bracket that hits on 100% of the games. And winning the competition on March 14 is not the point. But this alone is a sign that all hope, however faint, is not lost.
What really matters is where this is going. Pogačar’s 1,236 points is 198 more than he had at this point last year — reflecting an increase in points at Strade (+150) and UAE Tour (+50). But assuming he repeats hisNFL Clear Bags usual schedule (and check me on this if he isn’t, apart from the spring classics), well, his major classics wins from 2021 will be hard to repeat, and he has nowhere to go but down at the two biggest points chaches (Liege and Lombardia), plus the Olympics coming off the calendar. Sure, he’s showing up at MSR and Flanders, so maybe you can add back some points there, but apart from cleaning up his spring efforts and hoping to repeat his glorious summer, do we really think Pogs is going to significantly increase his totals?
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