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France back on track as Netherlands close on Nations League finals

PARIS (AFP) – Kylian Mbappe starred as world champions France shrugged off injuries and off-field problems to beat Austria on Thursday, while the Netherlands won in Poland to close in on a place in next year’s UEFA Nations League finals.

France’s build-up to their defence of the World Cup in Qatar in November and December has been marred by fitness issues surrounding a host of key players as well as other worries, but Les Bleus did not appear distracted as they outclassed the Austrians in Paris, winning 2-0.

Mbappe showcased his phenomenal pace and strength on the way before finishing emphatically to put the hosts ahead in the 56th minute at the Stade de France.

The recalled Olivier Giroud doubled their lead nine minutes later, heading in Antoine Griezmann’s cross to score his 49th international goal – he is now just two goals short of Thierry Henry’s French record.

“We did what we needed to do to get the victory, creating lots of chances and controlling the match,” said France coach Didier Deschamps.

“There are lots of positives to take from the game.”

France’s forward Kylian Mbappe strikes the ball past the Austrian defence. PHOTO: AFP

Injuries had deprived Deschamps of a whole team, with goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris, midfield duo N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, and Karim Benzema among the players missing.

Pogba has also been in the headlines after filing a complaint with Italian prosecutors saying he was the target of a EUR13 million (USD13 million) blackmail plot.

His brother Mathias is one of five people charged and detained in the case.

Meanwhile this week began with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) superstar Mbappe refusing to take part in a photo shoot in a row with the French Football Federation over image rights.

Mbappe celebrated his goal by mimicking a photographer in an apparent nod to that row.

Just eight days shy of his 36th birthday, Giroud is France’s oldest ever goal-scorer.

Coming exactly two months before they begin their World Cup defence against Australia in Qatar, the result also allowed France to stave off the threat of relegation from the top tier of the Nations League, a competition they won just last year.

Deschamps’ side still need to win their last Group A1 game away in Denmark tomorrow to be certain of avoiding relegation, while qualification for the four-team finals next June is already out of reach.

Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runners-up, are on course to top the section after beating Denmark 2-1 in Zagreb.

Borna Sosa’s 49th-minute opener for the hosts was cancelled out by a magnificent Christian Eriksen strike in the 77th minute.

However, Croatia’s winner came just two minutes later through Lovro Majer.

Croatia are a point clear of the Danes before going to Vienna to play bottom side Austria tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands are well placed to advance to the finals from Group A4 after a 2-0 win away to Robert Lewandowski’s Poland in Warsaw.

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