3, December 2022
There is arguably no more thrilling player at this World Cup than Kylian Mbappe, who leads France into their last-16 clash on Sunday with a Poland side whose own hopes of pulling off a famous upset will depend to a large extent on Robert Lewandowski.
It is a sobering thought that Mbappe, not 24 until later this month, may not yet be at the peak of his powers but he has already scored seven goals in 10 appearances at the World Cup.
That tally includes one in the 2018 final when he was still a teenager as France beat Croatia in Moscow.
His mission now is to help his country become the first to retain the World Cup since Brazil, with an even younger Pele, did so in 1962.
Mbappe has already scored three times in Qatar, including a brace in a 2-1 victory against Denmark that secured qualification for the last 16, and there is a belief he is thriving as the undisputed star of Didier Deschamps’ side.
The situation is different to that of Paris Saint-Germain, where he shares the limelight with Lionel Messi and Neymar, and in that sense it may be that Karim Benzema’s withdrawal due to injury on the eve of the tournament does no harm to French hopes.
“Kylian has no ego,” insisted Deschamps a few days ago, going against the perception of Mbappe in the context of PSG.
“He is a decisive player for us and his performances put him in the spotlight. He is not 18 anymore. He has experience now.”
It wasn’t just Mbappe -– who now has as many international goals as Zinedine Zidane — that France missed as a second-string team lost 1-0 to Tunisia on Wednesday, a result that did not stop them topping their group.
He will be back along with the likes of Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as France and Poland meet at a major tournament for the first time since the 1982 World Cup.
“Kylian is not the same player or person as in 2018,” said Griezmann on Friday when asked about Mbappe’s role in a squad hit by injuries to several key players before the tournament.
“He is much more a part of the squad now. He speaks a lot and has fun. He knows that the media, fans and even his teammates will be watching everything that he does but he is beyond reproach.”
France are clear favourites for Sunday’s game but there is the memory of what happened in the last 16 at last year’s European Championship, when Mbappe missed the crucial penalty in a shoot-out defeat to Switzerland.
Poland only just scraped through their group ahead of Mexico on goal difference and Lewandowski’s strike -– his first World Cup goal –- in the win over Saudi Arabia was therefore crucial.
“I’m aware it might be my last World Cup and I wanted to be able to say that I’ve played and scored at World Cups,” he said after that game.
The 34-year-old also got nine goals in qualifying and there is nobody else quite on his level in Czeslaw Michniewicz’s squad.
“We are happy because getting out of the group was our objective,” said defender Jakub Kiwior after the team trained on Friday.
Seeing Mbappe and Lewandowski together on the same pitch is a rare treat.
Two of the most prolific forwards in the modern game, they are nevertheless different types of striker –- one all about explosive pace coming into the box from wide areas, and the other the ultimate penalty-box finisher now coming towards the end of his career.
Lewandowski left Bayern Munich for Barcelona in the last close season, but according to reports in France he might have ended up at PSG.
Le Parisien reported on Friday that PSG tried to convince Lewandowski to join them after tying Mbappe to a new contract in May.
PSG’s failure to sign Lewandowski or another top-class number nine was given as one reason why Mbappe was reportedly so unhappy at his club just a couple of months ago.
Those reports have since died down and his focus is on the World Cup, with Lewandowski now standing in his way.