Kylian Mbappe, the player Qatar have paid a fortune to keep in Paris, is pretty much all this country’s leaders have left to crow about at their World Cup, in a footballing sense. It’s why an interview between him and Qatar ‘tournament ambassador’ David Beckham is still being furiously promoted on state-owned television here.
It’s entitled ‘The Stars Align’, a glossy and superficial production, like so much about this strange World Cup landscape, though Mbappe does offer a moment of insight after Beckham tells him about his sending-off against Argentina with England, in 1998.
‘People don’t know what it is like to have this energy to play and give your best,’ the 23-year-old says, in his excellent English. ‘Sometimes you go and do these things because at the World Cup you have all the adrenaline.’
Kylian Mbappe is ready to lead France to World Cup glory but faces stern test facing Poland
Allowing the stage and the occasion to cloud his mind and judgement appears to be the only potential impediment to Mbappe leaving his imprint on this tournament. If there were any suggestion that the contractual games he’s been playing with Paris Saint-Germain might have clouded his mind, the World Cup’s first two weeks have dispelled them.
So much about France seems subordinate to the prime task of feeding him. He’s been helped so far by an assigned role in which he is excused the prosaic task of defending and L’Equipe observed yesterday that the French nation can take comfort from this. ‘He runs the least so he can keep cool to explode on the counter when his team recover the ball,’ the paper wrote.
Naturally, Mbappe is among the five fastest runners at this tournament, registering 21.9mph during the 2-1 win over Denmark, when he scored twice. There have been three goals so far for a player England are on course to meet in the quarter-finals.
Antoine Griezmann said yesterday that Mbappe — who turns 24 two days after the final — is ‘not the same player’ as in 2018, when part of France’s World Cup-winning team. ‘He did not have the same personality then,’ the veteran forward said. ‘We see him a lot more in the group, in training. He talks a lot. He brings his joie de vivre.’
Griezmann is one of the subordinates now, switching from his usual forward’s role to a right-sided midfield position behind Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele. It’s been ‘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 [Mbappe] wants. What he needs; his game.’
Patrice Evra, whose view is always worth hearing, feels that Dembele and Griezmann, have been France’s best and most threatening players so far. The Barcelona player’s destruction of full-backs bears out that assessment.
These assets and the team’s pleasing balance mean the absence of Karim Benzema, Lucas Hernandez, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba has not been felt, though a hugely organised Poland will test what France have to offer. It’s Miners’ Day in Poland today and the aim will be to dig in and hope Robert Lewandowski can deliver something.
A penalty shootout would be deeply ominous for France, given that Wojciech Szczesny is arguably the goalkeeper of the group stages, with two penalty saves, including Lionel Messi’s. So, all told, this occasion is not without its perils.
Szczesny did not deny that the defensive task will be difficult for a side who are in the last 16 for the first time since 1986. ‘We will do our best to try and pass this job around,’ he said. ‘The key to stopping Mbappe? Myself!’
The former Arsenal goalkeeper, now at Juventus, has always displayed wise perspective as well as a sense of humour. He related yesterday a joke with Messi during the VAR review before Argentina’s penalty in the group game Poland lost 2-0. ‘I told him I would bet him 100 euros that he [the referee] wasn’t going to give it. So I’ve lost that bet. I’m not going to pay him, though! I think he’s got enough!’
Poland’s Wojciech Szczesny has issued a defiant battle cry ahead of their clash with France
Szczesny put in some terrific performances for his national side during the group stage
France coach Didier Deschamps acknowledged that there will need to be attacking imagination 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 feeding Robert Lewandowski, who was isolated against Argentina.
The Barcelona forward is another whom Qatar consider one of their own, now that they have paid him so handsomely to feature in the national airline’s on-board safety video, where he pulls the cord on an inflatable lifejacket.
Lewandowski’s display against Argentina was deeply deflating, leaving Poland’s colourful and talkative manager Czeslaw Michniewicz to reflect yesterday on how the team must do better for him. ‘We played difficult passes in easy situations. We didn’t create enough opportunities for Robert,’ Michniewicz said. ‘Strikers like that need to be near the penalty box.’
Michniewicz last week compared dealing with Messi to that of trying to stop the Italian Olympic skier Alberto Tomba, on the slopes. His striker Arkadiusz Milik had an equally colourful depiction of what is required to stop Mbappe: ‘We need to play collectively as a group. We need co-operation, because individually no one is able to stop him. He’s so fast, it will be difficult to stop him without a motorbike.’
France boss Didier Deschamps has highlighted Robert Lewandowski as Poland’s main threat