Kylian Mbappé watched Olivier Giroud break a 13-year record and then showed why he will steal it for himself in a fraction of the time. This turned into a fine night’s work for France, who finished in complete control and could feel that their attack is clicking at the perfect moment. After a slow start they overwhelmed Poland and a team blown off kilter by injuries have discovered a measure of swagger. Much of that came from Mbappé, whose second half performance was among the best individual displays of this tournament, but they reached the last eight by deploying a number of their most potent weapons.
It was Giroud who applied the first blow and, were it not for Mbappé, his feat would dominate every appraisal. In truth it deserves to. Thierry Henry had set a high water mark by scoring his 51st and final goal for France in October 2009 and perhaps few would have expected the 36-year-old Giroud, whose contributions have often been maligned, to be the player overtaking him. But the chopped, brutally clinical finish across Wojciech Szczesny that met Mbappé’s smart through pass was the type he has delivered frequently over an outstanding career and had added significance given his side were labouring at the time.
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Before the stage is handed fully to Mbappé, another golden oldie merits appreciation. Hugo Lloris will almost certainly set a record of his own next weekend, having equalled Lilian Thuram’s record of 142 caps for the France men’s team here. He marked his achievement with a crucial save when the score was goalless, repelling Piotr Zielinski’s drive when the Poland midfielder looked certain to score. Moments later Mbappé and Giroud combined lethally; the foundations for victory, and perhaps a run all the way to retaining the World Cup, had been laid.
Mbappé had flickered during the first half, twisting a game but overworked Matty Cash inside out several times without finding teammates in support. His assist for Giroud suggested France do not lose balance through the absence of Karim Benzema but his two late goals were a reminder of the explosive individual talent that, when other radar are off, is lavish enough to blow anybody away.
He is still human, as he showed when slicing out of play while off balance after receiving a pass from the increasingly influential Ousmane Dembélé. The same proved true when, attempting to outrun Cash after an audacious turn even though his opponent had a 20-yard start, his opponent had the nerve to recover smartly. But Mbappé was otherwise virtually flawless after the restart, his fourth and fifth goals of this winter capping a display in which it felt he was pegging Poland back on his own.
The game was showing signs of becoming stretched when, 16 minutes from the end, Dembélé glided inside after being fed by Giroud. The obvious pass to Mbappé was on and, already, the outcome seemed inevitable. After manoeuvring into the penalty area and, to a noticeable gasp of anticipation, setting himself to shoot he produced a rocket that Szczesny had no hope of stopping. The execution, with little backlift, had almost looked casual.
From there it was a cruise for France but Mbappé rarely moves without consequence. As the clock passed 90 he contrived something even better, taking a pass inside from the substitute Marcus Thuram and smartly letting it run across him. The angle for a shot did not seem comfortably on: in the act of shooting he was 45 degrees away from goal and wrapping his foot around a ball that was slightly behind him. None of that mattered. A clean, vicious strike seared into Szczesny’s top left corner; Mbappé has scored 33 international goals in five years, so Giroud would be best advised to cherish sitting atop the pile while he can.
While the pair celebrated afterwards there was regret for Robert Lewandowski, who will surely not be seen again on this stage. He scored a penalty at the very end, succeeding at the second attempt after Lloris had strayed off the goal line in saving his first. A wan smile said plenty: Lewandowski broke his World Cup duck in the group stage against Saudi Arabia but the World Cup has seen nothing like the best of his generation’s best centre-forward.
Perhaps he would have had another go at it if Lloris, blocking with his legs when Zielinski had a free shot 12 yards out, had not intervened in the 38th minute. Lucas Hernandez got in the way of Zielinski’s follow-up and, from a third strike by Jakub Kaminski, Raphaël Varane cleared off the line. It was a remarkable let-off for France, who had been given questions to answer by opponents who offered more ambition than expected, but they were rarely troubled thereafter.
Instead they could celebrate the enduring power and wit of their own forwards, who have already succeeded where Lewandowski has not. “There is no recipe to stop Mbappé in the form he is in,” lamented the Poland manager Czeslaw Michniewicz. He was probably right, but there are five days for Gareth Southgate to find one.