Kylian Mbappé, the player Qatar paid a fortune to keep in Paris, is pretty much all this country’s leaders will have to crow about at their World Cup, in a footballing sense. That is why an interview between him and the Qatari ‘tournament ambassador’ David Beckham is still being furiously promoted on state television here.
It’s titled ‘The Stars Align’, a glossy and superficial production, as so often about this strange World Cup landscape, although Mbappé offers a moment of insight after Beckham told him about his send-off against Argentina with England in 1998.
“People don’t know what it’s like to have that much energy to play and give your best,” says the 23-year-old in his excellent English. “Sometimes you’re going to do these things because you’ve got all the adrenaline at the World Cup.”
Poland’s Wojciech Szczesny issued a defiant rallying cry ahead of their clash with France
He is confident in stopping Kylian Mbappé, who hopes to lead France to World Cup glory
Letting the podium and the occasion cloud his mind and judgment seems to be the only possible obstacle to Mbappé making his mark in this tournament. If there was any suggestion that the contractual games he plays with Paris Saint-Germain may have clouded his mind, the first two weeks of the World Cup have dispelled that.
So much in France seems secondary to the main task of feeding him. He has so far been helped by an assigned role in which he is denied the prosaic task of defending and L’Equipe noted yesterday that the French nation can take solace in this. “He runs the least so he can stay cool to explode on the counter when his team finds the ball again,” the paper wrote.
Naturally, Mbappé is one of the five fastest riders in this tournament, with a speed of 35 km/h during the 2-1 victory over Denmark, in which he scored twice. Three goals have been scored so far for a player to put England on course for the quarter-finals.
Antoine Griezmann said yesterday that Mbappé – who turns 24 two days after the final – is “not the same player” as he was in 2018 when he was part of France’s World Cup-winning squad. “He didn’t have the same personality then,” said the veteran striker. “We see him a lot more in the group, in training. He talks a lot. He brings his joie de vivre.’
Mbappé has been brilliant throughout the World Cup, scoring three goals in three games so far
Griezmann is now one of the underlings, switching from his usual forward role to a right midfield position behind Mbappé, Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele. It was “complicated” to work on this role with so little time, he said. “But now I’m more in a role where I find the attackers. I’m starting to understand what he is [Mbappe] want. What he needs; his game.’
Patrice Evra, whose opinion is always worth hearing, believes Dembele and Griezmann have been France’s best and most threatening players to date. The destruction of full-backs by the Barcelona player confirms that assessment.
These assets and the team’s pleasing balance mean that the absence of Karim Benzema, Lucas Hernandez, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba has not been felt, although a hugely organized Poland will test what France has to offer. Today is Miners’ Day in Poland and the aim is to dig in and hope that Robert Lewandowski can come up with something.
Patrice Evra claims that Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele have been the stars of France
A penalty shootout would be very ominous for France, given that Wojciech Szczesny is arguably the group stage goalkeeper, with two penalty saves, including Lionel Messi’s. All in all, this opportunity is not without dangers.
Szczesny did not deny that the defensive task will be difficult for a side that is in the last 16 for the first time since 1986. “We will do our best to pass this task,” he said. The key to stopping Mbappé? Myself!’
The former Arsenal goalkeeper, now at Juventus, has always displayed a wise perspective and sense of humour. He joked with Messi yesterday during the VAR review for Argentina’s penalty in the group stage match that Poland lost 2-0. ‘I told him I would bet him 100 euros that he [the referee] wouldn’t give it. So I lost that bet. I’m not going to pay him though! I think he’s had enough!’
Szczesny put in some great performances for his national side during the group stage
French coach Didier Deschamps acknowledged that an assault on the imagination will be required against such a robust side. “They defend a lot and they defend very well. They love it,” he said. But the task for Poland is to feed Robert Lewandowski, who was isolated against Argentina.
The Barcelona attacker is another one regarded by Qatar as one of their own, now that they have paid him so handsomely to appear in the national airline’s inflight safety video, where he pulls the cord on an inflatable life jacket.
Lewandowski’s performance against Argentina was deeply deflating, leaving Poland’s colorful and chatty manager Czeslaw Michniewicz to reflect yesterday on how the team can do better for him. “We played difficult passes in easy situations. We didn’t create enough chances for Robert,” said Michniewicz. “Such attackers must be near the penalty area.”
Michniewicz last week likened dealing with Messi to trying to hold back Italian Olympic skier Alberto Tomba on the slopes. His striker Arkadiusz Milik had an equally colorful picture of what it takes to stop Mbappé: “We have to play collectively as a group. We need cooperation, because individually no one can stop him. He’s so fast it’ll be hard to stop him without an engine.’
French boss Didier Deschamps has put forward Robert Lewandowski as Poland’s biggest threat
Poland’s captain Lewandowski will be key to their chances of some success against France