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.
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.