Mbappé delivers for France as captain; Lukaku nets hat trick

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Paris, Mar. 26: Kylian Mbappé delivered for France again, this time wearing the captain’s armband. Leading a new era for Les Bleus, there was something very familiar about the way Mbappé slotted home two unforgiving finishes to headline a 4-0 win over the Netherlands in European Championship qualifying on Friday.

France showed no lasting effects from that painful penalty-shootout loss to Argentina in the World Cup final three months ago. Nor did Mbappé, the scorer of a hat trick in a losing cause that day.

One of his first touches against the Dutch was to slip a pass inside for Antoine Griezmann, his hair dyed pink, to finish first time for the opening goal inside two minutes at the Stade de France. The two stars embraced, showing there was no lingering feud after Griezmann — the more experienced of the pair — was overlooked for the captaincy in favor of Mbappé following Hugo Lloris’ retirement.

Dayot Upamecano bundled in the second in the eighth minute, and the third goal in a dazzling opening 20 minutes by France was scored by Mbappé. He ran in behind the Netherlands defense and shot inside the near post after Randal Kolo Muani let a pass from Aurélien Tchouaméni roll past him.

Mbappé completed the thrashing in the 88th with a solo goal, picking up the ball 40 meters out and producing a series of feints on the edge of the area before blasting a low shot beyond goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.

It took the Paris Saint-Germain striker onto 38 international goals, above Karim Benzema into fifth place on France’s all-time list. While Benzema’s time might be up for the national team, Mbappé — aged 24 and the leader of the new wave of soccer superstars after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — is really only getting started.

Speaking of starts, this was a disappointing way for Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman to begin his second spell in charge of the team. Robbed of key midfielder Frenkie de Jong because of injury and five players during the week because of a flu virus, the Dutch were swarmed all over in a one-sided Group B game as qualifying for Euro 2024 continued.

Their misery was complete when Memphis Depay had a penalty saved by France goalkeeper Mike Maignan with virtually the last kick of the match.

“It was a complete performance," said Kolo Muani, who started up front instead of Olivier Giroud. “We made a very good start, that’s what we’d wanted to do, and afterward we were able to control the match.”Lukaku hat-trick

Romelu Lukaku underlined his enduring value to Belgium by scoring all three goals in a 3-0 win at Sweden in the other notable victory on Friday. It was a successful start to Domenico Tedesco's tenure as coach of Belgium, which is also playing under a new captain in Kevin De Bruyne.

Tedesco will know the importance of having Lukaku healthy if the Red Devils are to finally win an international trophy. The striker wasn't fully fit at the World Cup and that was a big reason why Belgium went out in the group stage. Lukaku has been playing regularly for Inter Milan since then and was a constant threat against Sweden as he scored in the 35th, 49th and 83rd minutes, with two set up by winger Dodi Lukebakio.

“A really good result," Tedesco said. “I felt a good spirit not only on the pitch but also on the bench. The spirit of being united.” Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden's 41-year-old striker, came off the bench for his first national team appearance in nearly a year and had a couple of chances to score.

Loss for Lewandowski

Euro 2024 could be the last major international tournament for 34-year-old Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski, though Poland's bid to make it to Germany got off to a sticky start.

Poland lost 3-1 at the Czech Republic, which went ahead when Ladislav Krejčí scored after 27 seconds — the earliest goal netted by the national team in its history.

Tomáš Čvančara and Jan Kuchta also were on target for the Czechs as Lewandowski was kept scoreless in the Group E game. Austria beat Azerbaijan 4-1 in the group containing Belgium and Sweden, with on-loan Manchester United midfielder Marcel Sabitzer scoring twice, and Greece won at Gibraltar 3-0 in France's group. There were wins for Serbia (2-0 at home to Lithuania) and Montenegro (1-0 at Bulgaria) in Group G. (AP)

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