France vs Poland
The curse of the champion is no longer there. France, the previous World Cup winner, is there in the knockouts. The ominous streak had started with the French themselves in 2002 when they had finished last, with no wins in a group that had Denmark, Senegal and Uruguay.
Brazil was the aberration in 2006, but its run too was cut short in the quarterfinals by Les Bleus. Since then, Italy, Spain and Germany have faltered in the first hurdle. But Didier Deschamps’s team, brimming with attacking riches, topped its group in Qatar 2022 despite the last-game loss to the Tunisians.
Round of 16, Matchday 2
Deschamps had introduced multiple changes in that final league match, benching Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Antonie Griezmann, among others. It, however, was made to pay the price for the leisurely stroll as Wahbi Khazri scored the all-important goal.
But against a shot-shy Poland at the Al Thumma Stadium, France will need the speed of Mbappe to load the left channel, while Griezmann will bring in an additional goal threat with his runs from deep. The scorer of 42 international goals has been the heart of this French side in his right-sided midfield role and had set up Mbappe to score the winning goal against Denmark. Griezmann has ventured forward whenever needed and only a late VAR call (against Tunisia) stopped him from scoring his first goal of this tournament.
Robert Lewandowski mostly wandered alone in the Argentina game as Poland was busy defending, pulling men back to close the gaps that Argentina created. Against France, too, it will look to park the bus and hit the opponents on the counter.
“Poland had to defend a lot in the three games. And they defend very well; I would even say that they like it, that they love to suffer. But we must not limit ourselves to that. We know their attacking players. They are a competitive team, they have a hard core of players with a lot of international experience, who have already participated in various competitions, with almost a hundred caps,” Deschamps said in the pre-match press conference.
Despite Lewandowski leading its line, Czeslaw Michniewicz’s team managed just four shots on target and scored twice.
The focus for Michniewicz will again be on the defensive shape but striker Arkadiusz Milik was relaxed enough to have a laugh. “We need to buy scooters for our defenders,” he said about the team’s plan to stop the explosive Mbappe.
Michniewicz is aware of the quality France packs in every department. “I searched and searched [for a weakness in France]. I didn’t find it. But I’m sure every team has phases in the game where they make mistakes. We must draw out these mistakes from the French and put pressure on them all the time,” the coach said. “France is on a similar level to Argentina. Maybe it has even more individuality in the squad, more faster players on the wings. If we beat the defending champions, we can call ourselves world champions for a moment. We dream about it.”
Poland, though, has history on its side. The only World Cup meeting between the two ended in a 3-2 Polish victory in the 1982 third-place play-off.
England vs Senegal
A card game that relies on the art of deception is strengthening the bond among England’s players ahead of their match against Senegal in the World Cup round of 16.
Werewolf, a game of roleplay and deduction, has become a popular pastime for the squad between matches in Qatar.
“It’s about being the best liar,” said midfielder Declan Rice. “The villagers have got to snuff out the wolves and the wolves have got to lie and tell everyone why they are not a wolf. There is a lot of teamwork, ganging up.”
Whatever England is doing at its base in Al Wakrah, it’s working so far.
It plays Senegal on Sunday after topping Group B and tying Spain as leading scorers in the tournament with nine goals.
No other team picked up more than the seven points England recorded on its way to the knockout round and it is only one of three still undefeated.
Yet the message from coach Gareth Southgate and captain Harry Kane this week has been about maintaining focus and standards.
Belgium and Germany were high-profile departures from the group stage, while defending champion France, along with Argentina, Spain, Brazil and Portugal have all been on the wrong end of upsets.
And to think England’s 0-0 draw with the United States was considered enough of a shock that it prompted loud jeers from Three Lions fans after that match last week.
“I think it’s always difficult when you see big teams or big players in teams that don’t have the success that you want or don’t live up to the expectation of a nation or where they see themselves,” said defender John Stones. “We don’t ever want to fall into that category. I think that is great motivation for us as a reminder — you never want to take anything for granted or who you are playing against.”
England may be considered a major soccer nation, but its only tournament success came when it hosted and won the World Cup in 1966.
The years since have been pitted with disappointment and underachievement.
There has been an upturn under Southgate, who led the team to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and to the final of last year’s European Championship, which it lost on penalties to Italy.
The bond he has developed among the players is seen as a key factor in England’s improvement.
Southgate is also meticulous about his planning, from psychological help to deal with the pressure of taking penalties to even the most minor details.
At a team meeting this week, players were reminded about leaving their socks out the “right way” for the kitmen to collect after training.
“We get on each other for things like that because we have created those standards,” said Stones. “If you start getting sloppy with the little things, the bigger things start to get sloppy very easily. Any one per cent or two per cent of things that we can do to get better … obviously those are small things, but they matter to us.”
So there should be no danger of England taking Senegal lightly.
The African Cup of Nations winner finished second in Group A behind the Netherlands. That was despite suffering the pre-tournament disappointment of star striker Sadio Mane being ruled out because of an injury.
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse was unable to attend a news conference on Saturday because of illness and also missed team training on Friday. But he is planning to be at the match on Sunday at Al Bayt Stadium.
“He’s been sick for a couple of days now and he let us take charge of training yesterday with his instructions,” Senegal assistant coach Regis Bogaert said Saturday. “Hopefully tomorrow he will be able to be on the bench. We are sure that at 10 p.m. he will be there with the team, for sure.”
In 2002, Senegal famously beat defending champion France at the World Cup, with Cisse the captain of that team.
“We’ve seen Cameroon can beat Brazil and Tunisia can beat France so we know Senegal can beat England,” Bogaert said. “That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s an important message.”
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