By JAMES ROBSON
AP Soccer Writer
AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — France’s players reacted as if they had already won the World Cup. What they were actually celebrating, though, was Harry Kane’s missed penalty.
The match wasn’t over yet, but France was leading 2-1 when Kane, England’s captain and its best player, stepped up to take a penalty that would even the score in the 84th minute of Saturday’s match at Al Bayt Stadium.
He sent his shot high over the bar and defending champion France held on to win 2-1 for a spot in the semifinals.
“That’s football,” England coach Gareth Southgate said. “There is nobody I would rather have in that situation and if we had one tomorrow, I’d feel exactly the same way.”
France is looking to become the first country to successfully defend its World Cup title since Brazil — led by Pele — won back-to-back tournaments in 1958 and 1962. Italy also won two World Cups in succession in 1934 and 1938.
France will next face Morocco on Wednesday for a spot in the final.
“We are getting to the semifinals. We are closer to the final and this was an important achievement tonight and we can believe, but we have an important game on Wednesday,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “In the past the world champions didn’t always do well in the next World Cup and we’ve managed to do that.”
France knows that all too well.
As defending champions in 2002, the French team was eliminated in the group stage. France reached the final in 2006, losing to Italy in a penalty shootout, and then was knocked out in the group stage four years later in 2010.
On Saturday, Aurelian Tchouameni gave France the lead but England evened the score when Kane converted from the penalty spot in the 54th minute. Olivier Giroud put France back in front with a header in the 78th minute, setting up Kane for that chance to equalize again against his Tottenham teammate, France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
That’s when he blasted his shot over.
“It is very difficult when you get a second penalty and, of course, a goalkeeper that knows you really well as well,” Southgate said. “There’s a lot involved in that situation. He’s the best, but the best are still 85% (accurate), so even the best are going to miss at times.”
Kane sank to his knees after the final whistle. His earlier goal put him in a tie with Wayne Rooney as his country’s leading scorer, but that wasn’t what mattered.
At the same time, an elated France team ran across the field in a blue wave of celebration before gathering together in a huddle, bouncing up and down joyously.
The singing and dancing continued into the locker room.
Morocco, the first African team to reach the semifinals of a World Cup, now stands in the way of France’s bid to make history.
“Allow us to savour our victory tonight against a very good England team,” Deschamps said when faced with questions about his next opponent.
For Southgate, it’s time for reflection as he decides whether to carry on in the England job after leading the team through three tournaments since he was hired in 2016.
“Whenever I’ve finished these tournaments I’ve needed time to make the correct decision because emotionally you go through so many different feelings and the energy that it takes through these tournaments is enormous,” he said. “I want to make the right decision, whatever that is for the team, for England, the FA (Football Association). I think it is right to take time to do that.
“I know in the past how much my feelings have fluctuated in the immediate aftermath of tournament.”
Southgate has often been criticized for being too cautious in the biggest games, but he opted for a back four against France and loaded his team with attacking threats.
Maguire kicked the ball out of play at the very beginning of the match even though there was no pressure from a France opponent. Air was leaking out of the ball and Maguire informed the referee that a new one was needed.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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