Giroud broke his country’s goalscoring record while Mbappe became the leader in the golden boot race, winning the game 3-1.
The best way to achieve greatness is to retain something. Obviously not anything. Nobody put Modena in the pantheon when they won the Anglo-Italian Cup in 1981 and 1982. But the World Cup, now that’s the ultimate. It has been retained only twice, by Italy in 1934-1938 and Brazil in 1958 – 1962, and no team has even come close since the turn of the century.
But that’s what France are hoping to achieve over the next fortnight. Qualifying for the knockout rounds is a big start. Four of the previous five world cup winners had crashed out in the next tournament they played in – while in the group stage, including France in 2002. So there might have been a curse here.
But, even without half a dozen of their best players, France, and particularly Kylian Mbappe, looked ominous in beating Australia and Denmark. Their reserve side lost to Tunisia on Wednesday, though there’s a comforting precedent for that. At Euro 2000, France’s B team lost the third group game to the Netherlands; the A team won the tournament.
France’s path to glory in Qatar was made harder by Spain’s defeat to Japan in the week. They may now have to beat England, Spain and either Argentina or Brazil to win the trophy. But first, they had to take care of Poland.
Poland looked ripe for evisceration after qualifying for the last 16 with their tail between their legs. It felt like they lost today’s game on Wednesday night. They were heavily criticised for their passive, pragmatic defeat to Argentina, and things like that can devastate morale.
It felt like a matter of time before France won it. From the start, Dembele won the ball high up the field, used Giroud by not using him but then droves too close to Szczesny from the edge of the box.
Then, Poland started dominating possession, which got them vulnerable to counterattacks. Mbappe was key among them but Giroud as well, who missed an open goal shortly. It started with Griezmann playing a pass to the overlapping Dembele, whose fierce low cross was turned wide of the far post from four yards by the sliding Giroud.
And then Poland got their big chances back-to-back too. Bereszynski played a neat one-two with Frankowski, aided by smart off-the-ball movement from Lewandowski, and got round the back on the left. His cutback deflected invitingly towards the onrushing Zielinski, who smashed a shot straight at Lloris’s left thigh from about 13 yards. Zielinski’s follow-up was blocked by Hernandez, and then the second follow-up from Kaminski was cleared off the line by Varane.
But then Giroud scored the opener before half time putting him one ahead of Thierry Henry, in his country’s record books. It was a simple affair. Upamecano gave the ball to Mbappe, 25 yards out in the inside-left channel. He threaded it down the side to Giroud, who screwed a shot across Szczesny and into the corner.
France would get their second of the game through Mbappe. Giroud produced the most glorious first touch to kill an up-and-under clearance from Hernandez, then gave the ball to Dembele on the right. He cut inside and slid the ball across to Mbappe, in space on the edge of the area. Mbappe moved inside, shaped to shoot across the goal and then blistered a rising drive past Szczesny at the near post.
Mbappe would double that lead shortly after. He was in a similar position to the first goal when a received a pass from Thuram, maybe a bit closer – but this time he smashed a curler towards the far top corner. Szczesny got a touch, which was an achievement in itself, but couldn’t keep it out.
There would be a consolation goal from the penalty spot in the last minutes of the game. Lewandowski would send Lloris the wrong way to get his second goal of the tournament. No clean sheet for Lloris on his big day, but a nice way for Lewandowski to say ta-ra.
And with that France qualified and will play the winner of England and Senegal.