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Kylian Mbappe shows why France World Cup favourites, England left behind

It will be 366 days and counting until the start of Russia 2018 when France host England in Paris on Tuesday, and from a French perspective at least, the World Cup cannot come quickly enough.

England, as ever, find themselves in the midst of a period of transition, with talk of progress, mixed in with a sprinkling of humility, once again the narrative in the wake of yet another dismal tournament performance at Euro 2016 just 12 months ago.

With England, we all know that the realism will be drowned out by misplaced optimism by the time the World Cup comes around, despite the talent within Gareth Southgate's squad. It is what always happens with England, and with Southgate still troubled by a lack of depth due to a shrinking pool of eligible players in the Premier League, the fault-lines are likely to be opened up again by the slightest hiccup between now and next summer.

Yet when it comes to France, Les Bleus are quietly assembling a group of players who could, and perhaps should, travel to Russia next June as Europe's strongest contender to win the World Cup.

Thanks to an uncharacteristic error by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris against Sweden last Friday, which led to Ola Toivonen scoring a stoppage time winner in Stockholm to move the Swedes level with France at the top of Group A, the French missed the chance to strengthen their grip on qualification.

But with three of their remaining four qualifiers due to be staged at home, it will take a succession of serious mistakes to blow France off course and a quick glance at the players within Didier Deschamps' squad suggests that they will sail untroubled towards qualification this autumn.

France were unfortunate not to win Euro 2016 on home soil last year, losing to Portugal in the final in Paris, but having gone so close 12 months ago, they are now stronger, more experienced and blessed by the emergence of Monaco teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe.

England can point to the development of 19-year-old Marcus Rashford as proof that they are also producing talent to rival the likes of Mbappe, but while the Manchester United forward will unquestionably become an international regular, it is when you scratch beneath the surface that the gulf between the two nations becomes apparent.

Southgate is looking to the future by handing opportunities to Ben Gibson (relegated with Middlesbrough) and Jake Livermore (mid-table Premier League with West Brom), while giving further chances to Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who could both be sold by Manchester United this summer.

Jermain Defoe, relegated with Sunderland, is one of Southgate's three forwards following the injury-enforced withdrawal of Jamie Vardy, while error-prone goalkeeper Joe Hart, told he has no future at Manchester City, is expected to lose his place to Jack Butland who has only played five games for Stoke this season since recovering from a year-long ankle injury.

Deschamps, however, could select two formidable teams from his 26-man squad and expect both to win against England on Tuesday. Seven of his defenders played in the Champions League this season, with Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy making a huge impression in the competition with Monaco.

In midfield, France boast the best player in England last season -- Chelsea's N'Golo Kante -- and the world's most expensive footballer in Manchester United's £89.3 million man Paul Pogba. Blaise Matuidi and Adrien Rabiot of Paris Saint-Germain add proven quality, while Corentin Tolisso, the Lyon midfielder attracting interest from Bayern Munich, offers yet more youthful promise.

Up front, while England can muster just three forwards in Rashford, Defoe and Harry Kane, Deschamps is so well off with world-class options that he is able to extend his exile of Real Madrid's Karim Benzema, who has not played since October 2015 after his alleged involvement in the attempted extortion of Mathieu Valbuena resulted in a police investigation.

Against England, Deschamps can select from Antoine Griezmann, Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Alexandre Lacazette, Dimitri Payet, Thomas Lemar, Florian Thauvin and Olivier Giroud.

It is an embarrassment of riches, but one which exposes the fragility of England's World Cup hopes and emphasises the strength of the French challenge.

Griezmann, 26, remains the golden boy, a year after ending Euro 2016 as the six-goal leading scorer, but Mbappe is the one who could make the difference between going close and winning next summer.

Every World Cup winner needs a player with the X-factor, one capable of turning a game with a flash of brilliance, and the 18-year-old is that player for France. He possesses the pace, balance and finishing touch of Thierry Henry and the power of former Brazil talisman Ronaldo.

Mbappe has the world at his feet, with Real Madrid, Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain all desperate to lure him away from Monaco for a world record fee. But while his club future is uncertain, Deschamps has no such concerns over Mbappe at international level, knowing only that he enables a strong France to become a formidable one.

If he plays against England on Tuesday, it will only be Mbappe's fourth senior appearance for his country, but he already resembles a player who has been on the international stage for years. Yet while Rashford faces a future of being one of only a small group of England players, alongside Kane and Dele Alli, capable of making a difference on the biggest stage, Mbappe merely becomes yet another superstar in the France squad.

And that is why they could be the team to watch in Russia next year.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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