DOHA, Qatar — France, the reigning World Cup champions, has been warned by coach Didier Deschamps not to underestimate Poland and star Robert Lewandowski in the knockout round Sunday.
Les Blues breezed through the group stage and clinched a spot in the round of 16 with a game to spare, which allowed Deschamps to rest his stars in France’s meaningless final first round game. Nine substitutes started in the 1-0 loss to Tunisia, and Adrien Rabiot, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Antonie Griezmann all came off the bench late in the game.
France, with fresh legs, is the overwhelming favorite to beat Poland and is the first defending World Cup champion to reach the round of 16 since Brazil in 2006. France is 5-0 in the first knockout round since the stage was introduced to the World Cup in 1986.
Four years earlier, Poland tied its World Cup-best third-place finish with a 3-2 victory over … France. But Poland, which is in the knockout round for the first time in 36 years, has not beaten France since a win in a friendly 51 days after that victory.
Poland has three losses and four draws in the seven meetings since, the last match in 2011.
Because it’s been 11 years since the two teams last played, Deschamps said France must take Poland seriously.
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“It’s not a team we’re used to meeting. They have experienced players,” the France coach said. “If there is one name to stand out, it’s Lewandowski, he’s one of the best strikers in the world. But it’s not just him, it’s a team that has good organization, a good athletic presence. We have three observers here who are following them closely. We will have all the details. Don’t underestimate this team.”
Poland has had a strong tournament behind Wojciech Szczesny, the Juventus goalkeeper who saved penalties against Saudi Arabia and Argentina. His second save was against none other than Argentina great Lionel Messi and his 18 saves this tournament are more than any other goalkeeper.
Lewandowksi believes the key to beating France is through preparation and, frankly, playing better than Poland did in its 2-0 loss to Argentina. Poland also drew 0-0 with Mexico and beat Saudi Arabia 2-0.
“Reaching the round of 16 is a great achievement for us. It’ll be difficult against France, we’ll need to remain focused,” Lewandowski said. “I know that it wasn’t our best performance (against Argentina), but if we prepare better, if we can work on improving what didn’t work, and if we give our all, we’ll definitely have a chance.”
England takes an unbeaten record in seven matches against African nations into its game against Senegal.
Despite no head-to-head matches, there’s some familiarity with Senegal: 10 of the players play club soccer in England, six of them in the Premier League. Senegal forward Sadio Mane of Bayern Munich is out with injury.
“Senegal are a really strong, athletic team, with some really good individual players,” England midfielder Declan Rice said. “They are a really good team. It’s the first time we’ve played them since I’ve been in the set-up and we know it’s going to be a tough test.”
England has won five of its seven previous round of 16 matches, including a 2018 victory over Colombia on penalties. Senegal reached the round of 16 once previously, a win over Sweden in 2002, but its tournament ended in the quarterfinals with a loss to Turkey.
But the African teams have played well this World Cup and Senegal believes it can continue its run in this tournament.
“The message is a strong one,” Senegal assistant coach Regis Bogaert said. “We’ve seen Cameroon can beat Brazil and Tunisia can beat France so we know Senegal can beat England. That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s an important message.”
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse missed Saturday’s pre-match news conference because of illness, and turned Friday’s training session over to his assistants. He plans to be on the sideline at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday.
England was a semifinalist in 2018 and is looking to reach the quarterfinals in consecutive World Cup tournaments for the first time since 2002 and 2006.
“It’s the knockout stages and we want to win. If you don’t win, you go home, but that’s not what we’re aiming for. We want to get to the end of the tournament,” Rice said. “We’re building well and we’re in a nice position, and we’re ready for whatever comes.”
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