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.

There were genuine fears his World Cup might be over, or that he wouldn't be fit enough to play in Qatar.

But his 88th appearance for Les Bleus went smoothly.

''I'm very happy, very satisfied to be here. I've worked very hard and I enjoyed it a lot,'' Varane said after the game. ''It's always special to play at a World Cup, to play for your country. I'm making the most of it.''

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

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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