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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Mbappé and France make a statement in extending their title defense

Kylian Mbappé after scoring his first of two goals.

By James Wagner

In the nearly 100 years of the World Cup, only two countries have won titles back to back. Italy did it in 1934 and 1938, before the tournament was a truly global affair. And Brazil, powered by a young Pelé, accomplished the feat in 1958 and 1962.

With a 3-1 win at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar on Sunday, France kept its hopes alive of becoming just the third country to retain its crown. France wasn’t particularly sharp to start, but a goal by Olivier Giroud and two from Kylian Mbappé showed off the talent and depth that dispatched a plucky Polish team, clinched a place in the quarterfinals and suggested France might not stop there.

France will face England, a 3-0 winner over Senegal later on Sunday, in its next game. The road will only get tougher from here: Spain or Portugal are the likely opponents after that, and Argentina, the Netherlands, Brazil and Croatia lurk on the other side of the bracket.

The victory brought milestones for two of France’s best players. With his goal in the 44th minute, the 52nd of his national team career, Giroud passed Thierry Henry as the leading scorer in France’s history. As Poland began tiring in the second half, Mbappé, 23, blazed a shot into the left corner for a 2-0 France lead in the 74th minute. It was his eighth career goal in the World Cup, passing Pelé for most in the tournament before the age of 24. Mbappé didn’t stop there, though; he added a third French goal in the first minute of stoppage time, his World Cup-leading fifth.

Star striker Robert Lewandowski converted a penalty kick for Poland on the final kick of the match, but it was a mere consolation prize. France was well through by then, and already looking forward.

It was the sort of result that was expected from France, which was, on paper, better than Poland in many ways. Even with a slew of injuries to key players — such as the world player of the year Karim Benzema, defender Lucas Hernandez and midfielders N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba — France remained one of the title favorites. It had little trouble in the group stage, losing its final game to Tunisia after it had already earned a spot in the knockout stage.

Poland, on the other hand, expended a lot of energy to get this far. After beating Saudi Arabia and tying Mexico, it narrowly advanced to the round of 16 after losing 2-0 to Argentina in its final game of group play. Struggling to score all tournament despite having Lewandowski, Poland had just two goals entering Sunday. Its strength was a defense anchored by Wojciech Szczesny, who had been arguably the best goalkeeper at this World Cup.

Poland’s coach Czeslaw Michniewicz bristled at criticism that his team was too conservative and too defensive in its approach, saying entering the game against France: “The ones that weren’t playing defensively at the World Cup are back home watching on TV. Now we’re out of the group phase, so we will change our plans.”

In an evenly matched first half, Poland surprised France with better possession and a more aggressive attack than it had featured in previous games. It helped that France wasn’t particularly strong on defense to start, failing to clear balls and giving Poland second chances.

The sides traded moments of pressure and missed opportunities. In the 21st minute, Lewandowski fired a long-range missile to the right of the goal, just his eighth shot of the tournament. In the 29th minute, French forward Ousmane Dembélé fed a cross in the penalty area to a darting Giroud, who knocked the ball wide of the left post. Watching from the sideline, Deschamps turned away in disgust.

Soon after France tried to seize control of the game with threatening exchanges, Poland fired three successive shots in the 38th minute. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris turned away the first from Piotr Zielinski, and then got some help from defenders Theo Hernandez and Raphael Varane on the following shots.

But finally, France broke away when Giroud received a pass from Mbappé near the end of the second half and fired a left-footed shot across his body past a diving Szczesny. To celebrate, Giroud raced over to the corner of the field, slid onto his knees and pointed to the sky with both arms.

Then in the second half, Mbappé took over the game as weary Polish defenders struggled to keep up with him. In the 74th minute, he and Dembélé raced down the field after a Polish turnover, with Dembélé feeding a long cross to Mbappé. Unmarked on the left side near the penalty box, Mbappé paused, collected himself and drilled a shot past Szczesny for a 2-0 lead. Mbappé then waved his arms up and down to the crowd as if to signal for more noise.

Even with a comfortable lead, Mbappé kept attacking. Soon after stoppage time began, he fired a shot from the edge of the penalty area into the top right corner for France’s third goal.

It was plenty of cushion to withstand a goal by Lewandowski on a penalty kick in the ninth minute of stoppage time. In the end, Poland was but a minor hurdle for France, which had its sights set on another deep run in the World Cup.

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