If France need a lesson in how not to deal with a second-round tie against outwardly moderate continental peers, they only need look back 17 months. A Euro 2020 assignment against Switzerland in front of a Covid-reduced crowd in Bucharest did little to raise the pulse on paper and perhaps that was the problem: although they belatedly sprang into life going forward it was a different story at the other end, a late collapse leading proceedings towards a shootout and Kylian Mbappé missing the decisive kick.
There are parallels with the task they face against Poland on Sunday. Few really expect a thriller, especially those who have watched Czeslaw Michniewicz’s team over the past fortnight, and the risk is that a predicted slog may carry a sting. This time France need to be fully switched on, heeding the lessons rehearsed during last year’s post-tournament inquest.
“We talked about that a lot, particularly in the months following the European Championship, and it is a factor that comes into play,” Hugo Lloris, speaking on Saturday, admitted of the Switzerland defeat. “For such an important match you can’t afford to relax and lose your concentration. Everything has to work.”
That means slipping back into the well-oiled groove that took them emphatically past Australia and, not without a wobble or two, a Denmark side who have fallen by the wayside. They cannot claim to be leggy: Didier Deschamps was perfectly happy to take the post-match rap on Wednesday when a misshapen and patternless side lost to Tunisia, because all bar two of his preferred starters had been given most of the afternoon off. Mbappé, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and company are among the most rested stars in a sapping, breakneck tournament and will be expected to make it count.
“You can’t just wait for your opponent – you have to be on the front foot,” said Lloris, who will equal Lilian Thuram’s record of 142 caps for Les Bleus when he retakes his place in goal. “We need to give everything and, when we get a chance, take these opportunities.”
They must find enough players in the form to do so against a Poland side Deschamps said “like defending” and will, in particular, hope some weight can be taken off the shoulders of Mbappé. Sometimes it feels as if the Paris Saint-Germain forward is content to solve everything alone but that is no path to retaining the trophy.
Perhaps it is Griezmann’s time to step back up. He has featured in 70 consecutive games for France, a remarkable feat, and international football has sometimes appeared a refuge from patchy club fortunes in the past two years. But he has not scored in his past dozen, even if that feels a harsh conclusion given the bizarre disallowing of a late equaliser after coming on against Tunisia; a repeat of 2018, when three of his four goals came in the knockout stage, would be welcome.
Deschamps has learned that the secret to cajoling the best from Griezmann is tough love or, at least, tough like. “I’m not going to talk about love but if you don’t like your players it’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “If I don’t like them I don’t select them for the squad in the first place. For Antoine and some others we know each other and trust each other very well, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be frank with him and give him advice he might not always appreciate.”
The danger in that search for all-round cutting edge lies in the potential for defensive neglect, as evidenced against Switzerland. That is particularly risky when you face Robert Lewandowski, who is served the thinnest of gruel in this Poland team but leaves no doubt through actions, deeds and words that his second and final World Cup means everything. Lewandowski was visibly emotional upon breaking his duck at this level against Saudi Arabia; the sands of time are running against him and every half-chance will be laden with meaning.
“You have to try and restrict his influence in the game,” Deschamps said. “The less he receives the ball, the less he can do. He’s a very clever player, technically very gifted, and he knows how to use his body. He didn’t get the ball a lot in the group stage but with just one chance he will be very dangerous.”
Putting aside the need for both teams to spread the burden, Lewandowski’s face-off with Mbappé has the potential to intrigue. “They are not the same age, or similar in other respects,” Deschamps pointed out, while acknowledging the piquancy of the tussle. He knows that denying Lewandowski oxygen should get half the job done for France; should Poland smother Mbappé then, even considering France’s injury woes, there are further sharp instruments to call upon.
Lloris steered conversation away from Mbappé and towards his own counterpart Wojciech Szczesny, who is having an outstanding tournament and contrived Poland’s only highlight against Argentina with an astounding penalty save from Lionel Messi. “He is playing a magnificent tournament,” Lloris offered, and the thought occurred that if Szczesny is able to cause Messi pain he is able to inflict a repeat of last summer’s misery on Mbappé, too.
It makes sense, then, that France have been brushing up on their spot-kicks in training. “If a penalty is well taken a goalkeeper has little chance of stopping it,” Lloris said. “But there are goalkeepers who are very strong in this situation and sometimes they have little secrets they don’t like to share.”
France, who have England or Senegal in their quarter-final sights, hope the mystery of that shock in the Romanian capital has been comprehensively put behind them by the time the weekend is out.