Two teams who ended their World Cup 2022 group-stage campaigns with defeat prepare for battle in Sunday’s last-16 clash at the Al-Thumama Stadium as reigning champions France take on Poland.
Les Bleus finished first in Group D to make it through to the knockout rounds, while Czeslaw Michniewicz‘s men set up a tie with the holders after placing second in Group C.
Having become the first manager to lead his side through to the knockout rounds of the 2022 World Cup, France coach Didier Deschamps was not afraid to ring the changes for Les Bleus’ final Group D showdown with Tunisia, but a second-string side could not remain perfect in Qatar.
With the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann all kept in reserve, Tunisia took advantage and drew first blood through Wahbi Khazri in the 58th minute, although Griezmann thought that he had levelled the scores right at the death.
However, VAR intervened after the final whistle to rule the Atletico Madrid man’s goal out for offside, which has reportedly led France to file a complaint with FIFA, but Les Bleus nevertheless held on to their first-placed standing, keeping Australia at bay on goal difference.
The 1998 and 2018 champions have now achieved a surprising first at the World Cup, as they have qualified for three successive knockout stages for the first time ever, while they have also become the first defending champions to make it out of the groups since Brazil in 2006.
Furthermore, Les Bleus have managed to progress from each of their last five last-16 ties at the World Cup, and having missed out on a seventh consecutive win on football’s grandest stage, Deschamps’s side need no added motivation to see off a shot-shy Poland.
Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny joked that he lost a bet with Argentina superstar Lionel Messi over the awarding of a penalty in his side’s defeat to the South American champions, but the Juventus man cannot put a price on saving a spot kick from the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.
The awarding of the penalty was criticised to the extreme, but Szczesny guessed correctly to keep out Messi’s effort in their Group C finale, although his efforts were ultimately in vain as Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez struck for La Albiceleste in the second half.
Despite taking just four points from their three Group C fixtures, Poland’s goal difference of 0 saw them pip Mexico (-1) to second place by the skin of their teeth and seal a last-16 spot for the first time since the 1986 edition, which was coincidentally held in Mexico.
Michniewicz’s side have not brought their best shooting boots to Qatar, though, as they have recorded a mere five shots on target in the 2022 World Cup so far – three of which came in their matchday two win over Saudi Arabia – although they had kept four clean sheets on the bounce before Mac Allister breached their defence.
It has been 40 years since France last suffered defeat against Poland, who knocked them out of the World Cup in 1982 before a 4-0 friendly win later that year, but Les Bleus have since strung together a seven-game unbeaten streak versus the Group C runners-up, most recently prevailing 1-0 in a 2011 friendly.
After goalkeeper Alphonse Areola recovered from back trouble to make the bench against Tunisia, France boss Deschamps should be afforded the luxury of a fully-fit squad for Sunday’s last-16 game – the ankle injury that Theo Hernandez sustained in training on Friday is not expected to rule him out.
A plethora of changes can be expected from the champions after Deschamps gave run-outs to several fringe players against Tunisia, with Mbappe, Griezmann, Dembele and Olivier Giroud – who needs one more goal to break Thierry Henry‘s men’s record for the national team – all coming back in.
Neither Jordan Veretout nor Youssouf Fofana, the latter of whom stood still to remonstrate with the referee as Khazri charged past him to score, covered themselves in glory last time out, so Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot will return to the base of the midfield here.
As for Poland, Michniewicz also has all of his troops available for Sunday’s knockout battle, although no fewer than six players would miss any potential quarter-final match if they are cautioned here.
Suspension concerns should not factor into the thinking of the Poland manager, who took off Przemyslaw Frankowski and Karol Swiderski at half time against Argentina, but the former should not be in any danger of losing his place.
However, Arkadiusz Milik and Krzysztof Piatek are both waiting in the wings to take the place of Swiderski alongside Robert Lewandowski in the final third.
France possible starting lineup:
Lloris; Kounde, Varane, Upamecano, T. Hernandez; Tchouameni, Rabiot; Dembele, Griezmann, Mbappe; Giroud
Poland possible starting lineup:
Szczesny; Cash, Glik, Kiwior, Bereszynski; Frankowski, Bielik, Krychowiak, Zielinski; Lewandowski, Milik
Possessing the lethal instincts of Lewandowski means nothing for Poland if the Barcelona man receives no service from his teammates, who are unlikely to experience much joy against France’s selection of well-rested first-teamers.
The loss to Tunisia may have come as a shock to the system for Les Bleus, but Deschamps’s settled first XI have otherwise played like world champions, and we expect the holders to march into the quarter-finals with ease.
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