AThe French coach Didier Deschamps remarkably often spoke of “the group”, of a “team” and of a “unit” after reaching the quarter-finals when the Poles had been defeated by a goal of 3:1. The efforts of the French to present themselves as a socially functioning ensemble has been clearly noticeable since day one in Qatar, but on Sunday Deschamps’ words had another subtext, the message was: We are not only Kylian Mbappe.
The Paris St. Germain superstar not only played brilliantly in this round of 16, he also scored two goals; he now tops the list of the tournament’s top scorers with five goals and has excellent prospects of becoming the superstar of this World Cup. “Kylian with his skills, he solves many a problem,” said Deschamps cautiously, he didn’t want to utter greater praise in his first statement after the final whistle. The Polish coach Czeslaw Michniewicz kindly took over: “There is Messi, Ronaldo and Lewandowski, someone has to take over from them and I think that will be Mbappé.”
The French prefer to save such tributes for the final night, so Oliver Giroud simply said: “The adventure continues.” The AC Milan striker scored the first goal for France and also celebrated a personal coup: he now has 52 goals scored for the national team, surpassing the big one Thierry Henry in this ranking. “Of course it’s great to be able to beat Thierry, now the box is set,” said Giroud. “But my obsession is to go further with the team.”
So the French roll through the tournament unchecked (apart from the Mbappé show) – not with the really big spectacle, but always just good enough to still appear stable and to leave no doubts about their authority as reigning world champions. The question was in the room whether the last preliminary round match against Tunisia (0:1)in which Deschamps spared a number of players and nominated a B-Elf changed to nine positions, would have a negative impact. After all, the team had previously been in a good tournament flow.
A final answer could not be found, but the defending champion found it difficult to spot gaps in the Polish defense in the first half. A certain dominance was there, but chances remained rare. And when the Poles became bolder, it became clear in the 38th minute that the French defense is also vulnerable. Initially, Piotr Zielinski was free to shoot from ten meters out, but he found France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris before Raphaël Varane cleared Jakub Kaminski’s follow-up effort on the line. The defending champion’s World Cup project wobbled quite a bit in these scenes, in which the greater individual class tipped the scales in his favor.
Shortly before the break, Mbappé played a through ball at the end of a long play with many stations to Giroud, who scored the 1-0 with a complex turning shot in the long corner of the goal (44th). In the first half, however, it could also be observed that 22-year-old Aurélien Tchouameni was struggling to replace the injured N’Golo Kanté, who played a central role in the World Cup victory four years ago. Tchouameni, who plays for Real Madrid, does not yet radiate the convincing authority Kanté uses to control the space between the center line and his own penalty area. He was replaced by Youssouf Fofana after 66 minutes, which could still be a problem for the defending champion.
In the second half, however, the French finally overcame their B-Elf hangover from the Tunisia game. In the meantime, the superiority was overwhelming. Mbappé scored to make it 2-0 just as the extremely defensive Poles were about to attempt an attack. They were countered coolly (74′). The game was practically decided before Mbappé made it 3-0 with a technically impressive shot (90+1). “The way he scores goals is fantastic, his actions ultimately decided this game,” said Polish coach Michniewicz appreciatively afterwards. Converted deep in stoppage time Robert Lewandowski another penalty in the second attempt for the loser (90+9), but that no longer played a decisive role. “We are now preparing for Christmas,” said Michniewicz.