Kylian Mbappé was France’s sure thing. That is why he was fifth in their list of penalty takers and is why, when he stepped up to keep them in Euro 2020, the thought he might miss felt like too heady a twist in the narrative. Things like that have simply not happened to Mbappé during a young career of rare accomplishment, but here came the kind of horror that exposes even the preternaturally gifted as flesh-and-blood mortals: Yann Sommer, Switzerland’s exceptional goalkeeper, smelled weakness and read his intentions correctly, diving right and clawing the spot-kick away. France were out; their delirious opponents had made their own slice of history and a tournament of unstinting drama took its least plausible turn yet.
Both these teams had the game in their hands during the 90 minutes; both proceeded to throw it away and eventually it was Mbappé upon whom time froze. In the second half of extra time, a period to which France subjected themselves by criminally spurning a two-goal lead in the last 10 minutes, Mbappé had a chance to cast their previous jitters aside when Paul Pogba sent him through down the inside left. But Mbappé sliced badly wide and into the side netting; perhaps that, as much as the indignation from 12 yards that would follow, was the moment when his night’s fate became obvious.
The recriminations will be loud and long. Didier Deschamps will be lambasted for reacting to a lack of fit left-backs by switching to a back three, a system whose weaknesses an eager and competent Switzerland set about examining with glee. Mbappé will also have to avoid brickbats, even if anyone can fluff their lines in a shootout: grumblings about his ego, or at least the perception Deschamps has overly kowtowed to his status as France’s star turn, have rumbled throughout this tournament.
It was a surprise to see him over a first-half free-kick, which he battered into the wall, given he had enjoyed little success on set pieces in the previous three games. Perhaps that signposted what was to come; maybe it was an indulgence too far to offer him on a plate what could have been the game’s telling intervention.
The overarching point is that France had this coming. They did not start the game badly but had already wobbled at the back when Haris Seferovic, relishing a non-challenge from Clément Lenglet, met the excellent Steven Zuber’s cross and headed in. Lenglet, drafted in by Deschamps to facilitate his formation change, had a shocking first half and the decision to replace him with Kingsley Coman at half-time must have been among the easiest of the manager’s tenure.
It was intended to reverse a call that will now be viewed among his very worst. Switzerland should have made Deschamps’ volte-face irrelevant when Zuber was scythed down by Benjamin Pavard in the box and, via a correct intervention by VAR, they won a penalty. But Ricardo Rodriguez opted for placement rather than his trusty sledgehammer of a left foot; Hugo Lloris saved and then France went to work.
What happened next showed why France should not lose against any of this summer’s opposition on paper, but also demonstrates exactly why they have. They quickly scored three glorious goals, two of them coming within four minutes. First Karim Benzema tamed what appeared to be a wayward Mbappé through ball with a bewildering flick of the heel, sending himself through for a masterful dink over Sommer. Then a rat-a-tat of passes between Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann ended with the latter dinking across and Benzema, who had come alive, heading in from on the line.
Pogba was running the show by now and proceeded to cap the lot, swishing in a vicious, dipping curler from 25 yards. Switzerland seemed to have had their fun and missed their chance: France, imperious now, were over the hill.
But in this tournament France have played like a team of patches, of flashes and moments, of breathtaking pieces of spontaneity and synchronicity that never quite spread out over a sustained spell. The burst of high quality they managed should have been enough here but then everything turned again. From nowhere Seferovic, such a curious striker but one who constantly shows up where others might not, headed in emphatically from Kevin Mbabu’s cross. Then, with the minutes ticking down, the outstanding Granit Xhaka released Mario Gavranovic, a substitute, for a cool check inside and a smart finish.
This half-full arena was throbbing now. Coman struck the bar with the final kick; into an additional 30 minutes we went and Sommer, saving from Pavard and Olivier Giroud, helped ensure Switzerland had the shootout chance they deserved.
Mbappé’s blunders will ring out loudest, though, not that Switzerland will care as they approach their first tournament quarter-final since 1954. They had defied logic and form, much like the entire night.