It was a day to celebrate a record-breaking No 9. Just not Robert Lewandowski. Now at Barcelona, Poland’s highest scorer, a serial marksman in the Bundesliga, standing second only to Gerd Muller in the history of the German top flight and Bayern Munich alike, bowed out of the World Cup, perhaps forever, by doubling his tally at this level.
Yet, and perhaps for once, he paled by comparison with Olivier Giroud. In a sense, everyone who has ever played for France does, too. Even as Kylian Mbappe, who delivered a third display of breathtaking brilliance this World Cup 2022, outscored Giroud at the Al Thumama, he trails him on the all-time leaderboard. Even as Mbappe took his tally to five goals this World Cup, it was not the most notable statistic. Such is Giroud’s historic feat.
An often underrated figure has now headed into uncharted territory for Les Bleus. In celebration of his opener, Giroud raised five fingers on one hand, two on the other. He has a 52nd international goal.
He leaves Thierry Henry, a scorer a mere 51 times, behind him; the more celebrated figures of French football, from Zinedine Zidane to Michel Platini, Just Fontaine to Jean-Pierre Papin, were already in his rear-view mirror. From unpromising beginnings, he has become a genuine French great.
After winning the World Cup without mustering a shot on target four years ago, he has proved an unexpectedly prolific replacement for the injured Karim Benzema now. On the afternoon Hugo Lloris equalled Lilian Thuram’s national record of 142 caps, Giroud became the nonpareil of Les Bleus.
Each is testament to and a reason for the success they have enjoyed under Didier Deschamps. For the third consecutive World Cup, they reached the quarter-finals under their victorious captain from 1998. If their last-16 victory over Argentina was arguably the tie of the tournament in 2018, this represented largely serene progress.
The common denominator in both was the magnificence of Mbappe. Four years ago, he eliminated Lionel Messi at this stage. Now it was Lewandowski’s turn and, if that is overly simplistic, it nevertheless feels the case that Mbappe is France’s cheat code.
Even as he took the lead in the race for the Golden Boot, scoring a second brace this tournament, he also turned supplier. Mbappe delights in playing alongside Giroud; he set up both his 51st goal, in the victory over Denmark, and now his 52nd. He celebrates his sidekick’s goals almost as enthusiastically as his own.
They are the opposites who have attracted. Giroud can feel the tortoise to Mbappe’s hare. He has never had speed and it has taken him until he is 36 to break the record. The surprise was that the goal came when he sprang an offside trap. That tends to be Mbappe’s domain; instead, he pierced the Polish back four with a defence-splitting ball to show he has precision as well as pace.
Giroud advanced into space and bobbled a shot into the far corner. He might have struck earlier, skewing a shot wide of an open goal from six yards, though Ousmane Dembele made it harder for him with an overhit cross. His finest finish did not count, a brilliant bicycle kick after the whistle had blown. He supplied a dextrous flick into the side netting in his search for a second double of this tournament.
Yet France have sufficient attacking ammunition that the chances keep on coming. Most involved Mbappe and his first goal stemmed from a combination of the four forwards, albeit in a slightly different fashion. Antoine Griezmann has proved eager to adopt more defensive duties in his new role in the midfield; one block on the stroke of half time may have prevented an equaliser. A hooked clearance in the second half helped France double their lead, with Giroud plucking it down from on high and then releasing Dembele before Mbappe lifted a shot into the roof of the net. He doubled his tally in injury time, arrowing an effort into the opposite top corner.
Each time, he was afforded too much space, yet that was understandable. Mbappe was so quick it felt unfair for his luckless opponent, Matty Cash; at times he looked less the “Polish Cafu”, as he has been nicknamed at Aston Villa, than the Polish Alan Hutton. He was left on his backside, sliding in the wrong direction when the Frenchman lashed a shot into the side netting. One eviscerating burst of acceleration, leaving poor Przemyslaw Frankowski seemingly stuck in quicksand as he tried to catch up, was stunning. Once again, he felt irrepressible.
It meant it felt inevitable French pressure would tell, despite Polish resistance. They have been unambitious for much of the tournament and had benched Arkadiusz Milik: this was a day for defending and they did plenty of it.
Poland’s policy of hanging in the game and waiting for one chance might just have worked. Before Giroud struck, Bartosz Beresynski made the initial incision on the left, Piotr Zielinski had two shots blocked, the first by Lloris, and then Jakub Kaminski’s effort was cleared off the line by Raphael Varane. The value of Varane’s intervention was apparent a few minutes later.
Goalsaver could have been goalscorer, too, the centre-back heading wide in the fourth minute. He and his defensive colleagues were denied a first clean sheet in Qatar in strangely farcical fashion, courtesy of a twice-taken penalty, given with the aid of VAR against Dayot Upamecano, initially saved by Lloris before his encroachment gave Lewandowski a second chance to score a consolation goal.
For Poland, a first venture into the knockout stages since 1986 amounted to an anti-climax. Their captain had the final say but, on the biggest stage of all, he trails behind Giroud, France’s unlikely legend.
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