DOHA, Qatar — After he scored yet another goal and carried France to yet another World Cup victory, Kylian Mbappé raced over to the sideline and held out one finger toward a television camera. As he made a sly grin, he held out another finger and then saluted with both — one for each goal he scored in France’s 3-1 victory over Poland in its round of 16 game on Sunday at Al Thumama Stadium.
It was a moment of brilliance, fun and brashness that exemplified so much about the 23-year-old French superstar who had said he wanted to become a national icon, lead his country to another World Cup title and supplant Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as world player of the year.
“This is the competition of my dreams, and I’m delighted to be here,” Mbappé said on Sunday. “I’ve been preparing for this tournament all through the season physically and mentally. I wanted to be ready, and things have been going well. We’re a long way away from the ultimate objective.”
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.
France wasn’t particularly sharp to start on Sunday, but a goal by Olivier Giroud and two from 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 in its next game. The road will only get tougher from here: Spain or Portugal are the likely opponents after that, while Argentina, the Netherlands, Brazil and the 2018 runner-up Croatia lurk on the other side of the bracket.
“He didn’t have his best match,” the French coach Didier Deschamps said of Mbappé through an interpreter. “I don’t want to accuse him or anything, and he knows that, but he can change a match in a moment. He’s always playing with such joy, and we want to share that with him. France needed a great Kylian Mbappé tonight and they got one.”
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 in his 117th game, Giroud, 36, passed Thierry Henry as the leading scorer in France’s history.
“Most important is to score more goals to help the team to reach our target and to take games step by step and go as far as we can,” said Giroud, who didn’t score during the 2018 World Cup but now has three in this edition.
In order to repeat as champions, though, France will need more of what Mbappé did on Sunday. As Poland began tiring chasing him around in the second half, Mbappé 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; he added a third French goal in the first minute of stoppage time, his World Cup-leading fifth. It put him in prime position for the tournament’s awards for the best player and the highest scorer.
“I came here to win the World Cup, not the Golden Ball or the Golden Boot,” he said.
Sunday brought the sort of result that was expected from France. 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 and rested many starters.
Poland, on the other hand, barely survived the group stage to reach the knockout round for the first time since 1986. While it had been criticized for being too defensive and conservative despite possessing the star striker Robert Lewandowski, Poland surprised France in a hard-fought first half with a more aggressive attack.
With France stumbling defensively at times, the teams traded moments of pressure and missed opportunities until Giroud broke through near the end of the first half. He received a pass at the edge of the penalty area from Mbappé, who drew Poland’s attention, and then fired a left-footed shot across his body past the Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
Then in the second half, France broke away as Mbappé took over the game. In the 74th minute, he and forward Ousmane Dembélé raced down the field after a Polish turnover, with Dembélé feeding a long cross to Mbappé. Unmarked on the left side of the penalty box, Mbappé paused, collected himself and drilled a shot into the net for a 2-0 lead.
“No coach knows a recipe to stop Mbappé in the form he’s in right now,” Coach Czeslaw Michniewicz of Poland said through an interpreter. After mentioning other stars such as Ronaldo, Messi and Lewandowski, Michniewicz said Mbappé will be “the one to take over” the sport.
Even with a comfortable lead, Mbappé kept attacking. Soon after stoppage time began, he curled a shot from the edge of the penalty area into the top right corner for his second goal of the game and then celebrated.
“He’s unbelievable,” said Matty Cash, the Polish defender given the unenviable task of marking Mbappé throughout the night. “I spent the afternoon watching his clips, and I obviously knew it was going to be a tough test. But when he gets the ball and he stops and moves, he’s the quickest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The lead extended by Mbappé was plenty of cushion to withstand a penalty kick converted by Lewandowski that was a mere consolation prize in the closing moments of the game. France and Mbappé were well through by then and were already looking forward.
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