This had been billed as the night a rested Kylian Mbappé would run riot. He ended up doing exactly that but, first of all, France’s old stagers laid the platform.
Olivier Giroud will never forget surpassing Les Bleus’ male goalscoring record, set by Thierry Henry, which had been intact for 13 years. His 52nd international strike broke Poland’s resistance just before half-time and came after a crucial save from Hugo Lloris, who was equalling Lilian Thuram’s high-water mark of 142 caps.
Their contributions sent an increasingly convincing side on the way to a quarter-final against England or Senegal; Mbappé then took full control, giving most of the crowd what they came for with two thrilling finishes and reinforcing the sense of certainty that Giroud’s new crown will one day be passed his way. A twice-taken Robert Lewandowski penalty was merely a late footnote.
An initially subdued atmosphere reflected the sparse travelling support of most European teams in Qatar. There were scatterings of empty seats all over the stadium and it was a far cry from the kind of din produced by Argentina’s fanbase in their win over Australia the previous night. The opening exchanges provided little to overly enthuse anyone present, Poland happy to keep their shape in a compact 4-5-1 and France perfectly aware patience would be required in breaking them down.
Raphaël Varane headed wide from a fourth-minute corner but the first buzz was provoked by a run from Mbappé, who skinned Matty Cash and required Bartosz Bereszynski to defend his cross to the far post. A similar sequence saw a more dangerous centre find Ousmane Dembélé, who found the Poland left-back placed to intervene again.
Later in the half Bereszynski would cover superbly on his opposite flank to prevent Mbappé running through. But this became far from one-way traffic, even though Wojciech Szczesny was forced to parry Aurélien Tchouaméni’s low drive from range and gather more straightforwardly from Dembélé’s effort.
Poland lacked pace and power but at least attempted to be proactive, the spectators holding their breath as Lewandowski took aim from 25 yards only for his drive to fly a yard wide. Lewandowski could not quite organise his feet to offer Jakub Kaminski a chance shortly afterwards but must have felt encouraged that his teammates were trying to get forward in support.
In the 35th minute they had five men forward when Cash, with plenty of time to run on to the ball, drilled a cross-shot beyond three onrushing white shirts. In case that gave him ideas above his station he was soon tied in knots again by Mbappé, who could only fire into the side netting.
It said plenty, though, that by now Poland looked equally threatening. They would rue not taking a glorious triple opportunity to be in front. Bereszynski, marauding upfield now, surged inside and his cutback was diverted straight into Piotr Zielinski’s path. The Napoli midfielder looked certain to blast past Lloris from 12 yards but was thwarted by the goalkeeper’s legs; a follow-up from the same player was blocked by Lucas Hernandez and then, remarkably, Raphaël Varane cleared a third effort from Kaminski off the line.
France looked laboured save for the moments when Mbappé was able to blaze a trail, even though Didier Deschamps had given nine of his starters a break in the defeat by Tunisia. But his mere presence means a game can turn and that proved true when, at the end of a passing move that appeared to be going nowhere quickly, he slipped a cute ball through to Giroud from just outside Poland’s penalty area. Giroud had run off Jakub Kiwior too easily and his history-breaking finish, cut left-footed across Szczesny, was brutally incisive.
Poland almost equalised quickly when Kaminski’s shot deflected narrowly wide. It was a reminder the half-time score could easily have been the reverse. Antoine Griezmann looked to banish such concerns straight after the restart but Szczesny beat away his angled free-kick; the forward, playing in his 71st consecutive international, had been quiet but then found space down the right before failing to locate Mbappé.
Next Mbappé’s shot snicked wide with Szczesny helpless and it was clear France had the memo a second goal should complete their task. Shortly after the hour Mbappé, off balance as he met Dembélé’s return pass, sliced out for a throw-in; it looked comical but by now France were in total command.
Cash earned appreciative applause by recovering after Mbappé, confident enough to give him a 15-yard start, had tried to spin him. But he was helpless as anyone when, with the game becoming stretched as Poland committed players forwards, his scourge settled any doubts. Found on the left of the area by a breaking Dembélé, it took Mbappé a second to steady himself and far less than that to crack a thunderous finish into the roof of Szczesny’s net. He repeated the trick with a similar blast in added time. Giroud will have to enjoy the record while he can.