A record-breaking goal from Olivier Giroud just before half-time and two stunning finishes from Kylian Mbappe at Doha’s Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday evening proved enough for Didier Deschamps’ men to clinch a 3-1 victory over Poland that saw France advance into the quarter-finals where a tie with England or Senegal awaits.
Despite their injury-marred buildup to the World Cup, France look unstoppable. The wealth of talent on offer to Deschamps, French clubs being nurseries for harnessing talent, has meant that despite being forced to change almost half of his side since their World Cup triumph in Russia four years ago, France are doing more of the same in Qatar.
Their midfield axis was only formed at the World Cup but it helps to have captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Rafael Varane as the leaders of their defence as well as the trio of Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Giroud providing the attacking thrust again.
They remain ruthless, efficient and clinical.
Despite being France’s target man throughout their campaign in Russia, Giroud’s starting berth wasn’t confirmed when France headed to Qatar. Karim Benzema, on the back of a spectacular year with Real Madrid which saw him being crowned the Ballon d’Or, was due to be France’s centre forward.
But the injury to Benzema just days before the tournament was due to begin, saw Giroud being reinstated and his classy finish made him France’s all-time top scorer with 52 as he surpassed the legendary Thierry Henry.
The incredibly-talented Mbappe, the global superstar ready to take up the mantle of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, remains the heartbeat of this French side. At just 23 years of age, he’s already scored 33 times for his country and he might as well end up being a two-time World Cup winner.
In contrast, Poland were playing their first knockout game at the World Cup since 1986; looking to do better than their abysmal display against Argentina in their final group game. The Polish media had laid into them for showing little endeavour in a 2-0 defeat that only saw them go through on goal difference.
France too had advanced from their group on goal difference and also lost their final game to Tunisia. But the scenario for them had been vastly different — they’d secured qualification ahead of that game and Deschamps made nine changes in an attempt to give everyone in his squad some game time in Qatar.
But the criticism back home seemed to have made no difference. It was all France in the opening 20 minutes. Griezmann, in his record 71st consecutive appearance for Les Blues, earned a free-kick in the opening second and three minutes later, saw his corner headed wide by Rafael Varane. It seemed a question of when France would take the lead.
Mbappe’s electric pace down the left was causing Poland all sorts of problems. His fizzing cross was headed for a corner by Bartosz Bereszynski, who then blocked a shot from Ousmane Dembele after another cross from Mbappe.
Aurelien Tchouameni then fired a low long-range shot that drew a save off Wojciech Szczesny, the only Polish player who earned praise in their performance against Argentina where he had saved Lionel Messi’s first-half penalty. He then reacted well to turn away Griezmann’s back-heeled lob before it reached Giroud. Then, Jules Kounde got on the act, but his fierce drive from way out was caught by the Polish custodian.
A period of Polish possession followed but it came with little incision; France content to sit back and spring on the counter. One such move saw Dembele set free by Griezmann down the right but a sliding Giroud couldn’t turn it in.
Giroud, though, made no mistake when the ball came to him a minute before full-time. Dayot Upamecano found Mbappe and he slipped a pass past Matty Cash that gave Giroud the time to take a touch and turn before slotting it past Szczesny.
Poland were left to rue a glorious chance that had fallen to them minutes earlier. They had three attempts at goal in a space of a few seconds but France somehow survived. A from the left had deflected into the path of Piotr Zielinski, whose first-time shot with his right crashed into Lloris’ thigh and his follow-up with his left was blocked. The ball fell to Jakub Kaminski but he saw his effort cleared almost on the goal-line by Varane.
Had that gone in, the game would perhaps have been different. But here, unlike in the game against Argentina, where they could afford to lose and still go through, Poland needed to mount a comeback. But despite showing more heart than they did a few nights before, it was France who continued to have the better chances.
Griezmann’s free kick, after Dembele had been scythed down by Bereszynski, was punched away by Szczesny before Mbappe saw a shot deflected wide after he’d cut in from the left. Poland seemed to get a foot into the game but their hopes were soon snuffed out by Mbappe’s blistering strike with a quarter of an hour remaining.
Giroud controlled a ball from the back and found Dembele on the right. Dembele cut inside and threaded a ball to Mbappe on the edge of the box to the left. With no one closing him down, Mbappe took a few touches and sent a right-foot rocket from almost a standing position that flew past Szczesny and almost ripped the back of the net.
It was another belter from Mbappe in the first minute of added time. This time he received a pass from substitute Marcus Thuram from the left and from the edge of the box on that side, he opened his body to curl a shot into the bottom corner. The French fans behind the goal were already in party mode.
Poland, though, got a consolation with the last kick of the game; their talismanic striker Robert Lewandowski got two chances before scoring from the spot in what would probably be his last World Cup game. It was France, though, who were celebrating and on this form, it seems they will require some stopping.