France was made to work hard for its place in the World Cup quarterfinals, overcoming an improved Poland side 3-1 thanks to goals from Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappé.
Giroud broke the deadlock just before halftime, collecting a through pass from Mbappé and putting the ball brilliantly into the far corner. It’s that kind of clinical finishing that has now earned Giroud 52 goals for France, surpassing the previous record held by Thierry Henry.
Poland struggled in its three group matches, playing a conservative style of football, but a more attacking team on Sunday caused France problems throughout this match and Les Bleus had captain Hugo Lloris to thank for maintaining its clean sheet with a brilliant first-half save from Robert Lewandowski.
However, with the game very much in the balance, Mbappé showed why he is considered one of the best players in the world, finishing brilliantly into the near post from inside the penalty area to break Polish hearts.
If people thought Mbappé couldn’t top that effort, they would have been wrong. His second – and France’s third – was a thing of beauty, turning and curling a stunning strike into the top corner.
That is Mbappé’s fifth goal of Qatar 2022 and already his ninth World Cup goal overall, breaking Pelé’s record of seven World Cup goals scored before the age of 24.
Lewandowski did get a consolation goal for Poland with the last kick of the game, converting a penalty after he missed his first effort but was given a second chance as Lloris came off his line.
After making seven changes to the team for France’s defeat against Tunisia, manager Didier Deschamps reverted back to the team that beat Denmark in its second match of this World Cup.
France is looking to become just the third team in history to win back-to-back World Cups and looked like one of the most dangerous teams in Qatar after its opening two games.
The team managed to win just one of its six UEFA Nations League games earlier this year, finishing below Croatia and Denmark, but – to the relief of Deschamps – has rekindled the type of form that helped it lift the trophy in Russia four years ago.
The team’s improvement is even more impressive given Deschamps is without a number of key players at this World Cup.
The best photos of the 2022 World Cup
Already missing the midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, who both started in the final four years ago, France was then rocked by the news that defender Presnel Kimpembe, forward Christopher Nkunku and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema would also miss the tournament through injury.
Then came the news that defender Lucas Hernández had suffered a knee injury in the opening game and would also be out for the rest of the World Cup.
But when you have Mbappé on the pitch, the team will always have a chance. Known for his eye for goal, the 23-year-old turned provider for the opener, threading a ball into strike partner Giroud, who took one touch and struck the ball into the ground, causing it to bobble over Wojciech Szczęsny’s hand and into the far corner.
Poland was left to rue a missed opportunity just minutes earlier, as Lloris produced a stunning stop to keep out Lewandowski, before his defenders then made a goal-saving block on the line.
It was by far the best Poland had played in this World Cup and France knew it would have a battle on its hands in the second half.
Despite spells of Polish pressure, France was the better side in the second half and finally put the game beyond the Poles when Mbappé’s sweet strike caught out Szczęsny at his near post.
With the clock ticking down, Mbappé added gloss to the scoreline. After receiving a pass from Marcus Thuram, he turned past a Polish defender and put a pinpoint effort into the top corner – it was one of the best goals of the tournament so far.
After the match, Mbappé was asked about his goalscoring exploits and if the Golden Boot – awarded to the tournament’s top scorer – was one of his aims in Qatar.
“The only objective for me is to win the World Cup, now to win the next game, the quarterfinal, is the most important thing,” he said. “That’s what I dream, the only thing I dream is this. For that I came here, I came to win this World Cup.
“I didn’t come here to win the Golden Ball or the Golden Boot. If I win it, of course, I’m going to be happy, but that’s not why I am here. I’m here to win and I’m here to help the French national team.”
There was to be some late action in the game’s dying moments after referee Jesús Valenzuela ruled that Dayot Upamecano had blocked a cross into the box with his arm.
Lewandowski’s run up was unorthodox, stuttering and then hopping before striking the ball. It resulted in a weak effort that was easily saved by Lloris, but Lewandowski was given a second chance to score his second goal of the tournament as Lloris was ruled to have come off his line.
The Barcelona striker repeated the unusual technique, but this time with success into the bottom left corner.
Despite conceding late, France and Deschamps will be certainly be pleased with what was a complete performance against a difficult side.
On Sunday’s showing, few teams will relish the chance of facing France in this tournament.