There is probably no more exciting player in this World Cup than Kylian Mbappé, who leads France into Sunday’s round of 16 clash with a Polish side whose hopes of pulling off a famous upset will depend largely on Robert Lewandowski.
It’s a sobering thought Mbappe, not 24 until the end of this month, may not yet be at the peak of his strength but has already scored seven goals in 10 World Cup appearances.
That tally includes one in the 2018 final while 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 Pelé, did so in 1962.
Mbappé has already scored three goals in Qatar, including a brace in a 2-1 win against Denmark that secured qualification for the round of 16, and is believed to be on the rise as the undisputed star of Didier Deschamps’ side.
The situation is different from that of Paris Saint-Germain, where he shares the limelight with Lionel Messi and Neymar, and in this sense it may be that the withdrawal due to injury of Karim Benzema on the eve of the tournament does not hurt French hopes.
“Kylian has no ego,” Deschamps insisted a few days ago, going against the perception of Mbappé in the context of PSG.
For us he is a decisive player and his performances put him in the spotlight. He’s not 18 anymore. Now he has experience ”.
It wasn’t just Mbappé – who has now scored as many international goals as Zinedine Zidane – that France missed out on as a second-flight side lost 1-0 to Tunisia on Wednesday, a result which didn’t stop them from taking the lead of the group.
He will be back alongside the likes of Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud when France and Poland meet in a major tournament for the first time since the 1982 World Cup.
“Kylian is not the same player or person as he was in 2018,” Griezmann said on Friday when asked about Mbappe’s role in a squad affected by injuries to several key players ahead of the tournament.
“Now he is much more part of the team. He talks a lot and enjoys himself. He knows the media, the fans and even his teammates will be watching everything he does, but he’s beyond reproach.”
France are clear favorites for Sunday’s match, but there is a reminder of what happened in the round of 16 at last year’s European Championships, when Mbappé missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out defeat against Switzerland.
Poland just topped their group ahead of Mexico on goal difference and Lewandowski’s goal – his first World Cup goal – in the win against Saudi Arabia was therefore decisive.
“I am aware that it could be my last World Cup and I wanted to be able to say that I played and scored at the World Cup,” he said after that game.
The 34-year-old also scored nine goals in qualifying and there is no one else like him in Czeslaw Michniewicz’s squad.
“We are happy because getting out of the group was our goal,” said defender Jakub Kiwior after the squad’s training session on Friday.
Seeing Mbappe and Lewandowski together on the same pitch is a rare surprise.
Two of the most prolific strikers in modern football, they are however different types of strikers – one all about explosive pace entering the box from wide areas, and the other the ultimate finisher in the penalty area now towards the end of his career.
Lewandowski left Bayern Munich for Barcelona in the last close season but could reportedly have ended up at PSG in France.
Le Parisien reported on Friday that PSG tried to persuade Lewandowski to join them after tying Mbappe to a new contract in May.
PSG’s inability to sign Lewandowski or another top-level number nine has been singled out as one of the reasons Mbappé was reportedly so unhappy at his club just a couple of months ago.
Those ties have since died down and his focus is on the World Cup, with Lewandowski now standing in his way.
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