Olivier Giroud praised for silencing critics to break goalscoring record | World Cup 2022

Didier Deschamps paid tribute to Olivier Giroud after the forward broke France’s men’s goalscoring record in their 3-1 win against Poland. Giroud’s 52nd strike for Les Bleus eclipsed a milestone set by Thierry Henry and Deschamps said it was just reward for overcoming criticism at various points in his career, including when he drew a blank during their triumph at Russia 2018.

Giroud has scored three times at this tournament and France, the holders, look in menacing shape before the last eight. “Four years ago he didn’t score but he was still an important player,” Deschamps said. “He has had difficult periods in his career. He has often been criticised but people are now seeing his quality. He stayed strong mentally and has broken a very difficult record held by Henry.”

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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Sitting next to him was Kylian Mbappé, who brought his international tally to 33 with two goals in the last-16 victory and, at 23, is 12 years Giroud’s junior. “Another boy here might break it one day,” Deschamps joked. “To score so many goals at international level is a great achievement. [Giroud] was already there when I arrived.”

Mbappé leads the golden boot charts at Qatar 2022 with five goals but scotched any suggestion that pursuing the prize might distract him. “The only objective for me is to win the World Cup,” he said. “That’s my only dream. I didn’t come to win the golden boot. If I do win it I’ll be happy but that’s not what I am here for.”

Although Mbappé’s performance, particularly after half-time, appeared to be masterful it earned mixed reviews from his manager. “He speaks on the pitch,” Deschamps said. “He didn’t have his best match tonight. He knows that himself but he can change a match in just a moment. He always plays with joy and we all want to share those smiles. France needed a great Kylian Mbappé tonight and they got one.”

Deschamps praised the understanding Mbappé and Giroud have developed since 2018, when the former operated in a more orthodox right-sided role. “They are now closer together and technically, over the years, have developed an understanding,” he said. “But I don’t mind if it doesn’t work and we get the same result as in 2018.”

The Milan player Giroud said his record was a “childhood dream” and praised the “solidarity and unity” he believes has been critical to France’s progress. They will play England or Senegal in the last eight after winning three of their four matches, scoring nine goals.

World Cup 2022 briefing: Business time for England against Senegal | World Cup

The main event

After all that noise – the joy, the triumphalism, the entitlement, the schadenfreude, the self-loathing – England had the best record of any team in the group stage at Qatar 2022. It shows how far they have come under Gareth Southgate that seven points and nine goals, the latter a record for England at a major tournament, was not enough to please Twitter’s finest.

Even in the hysterical world of the England national team, it’s hard to remember the last time that the balance between on-field achievement and off-field angst was so far out of whack, and that is unlikely to change unless England win handsomely against Senegal tonight. After a semi-final in 2018 and a final last year, the louder elements of the media, traditional and social, have come to a near unanimous conclusion: Southgate is holding England back.

The received wisdom is that England have an embarrassment of riches in attacking areas. Fine players though they are, we might be confusing the excellence of the Premier League with that of the national team. Since England became good again in 2018, a total of 10,158 voting points have been available at the Ballon d’Or. (Bear with us, this isn’t as boring as it sounds.) Premier League players picked up 3,431 of them, or 33.78%. But English players received only 86, or 0.85%. That’s less than Eden Hazard, and he has barely played in the last three years. For all his imperfections, most obviously his indecisive in-game management, Southgate has significantly overachieved with a squad that is not as talented as the “golden generation” of the mid-2000s.

Senegal, who they face tonight, have been filed under “awkward opponent but one England should beat”. England have never lost to an African team, a statistic that has been cited frequently in the buildup. Despite 30 years of watching players as stylistically diverse as Nwankwo Kanu, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Jay-Jay Okocha and Yaya Touré in the Premier League, there is a perceived homogeneity to African football that doesn’t reflect well on English football’s subconscious.

France are also in action today, taking on a Poland side who qualified for the last 16 with their tail between their legs. It should be a joyous occasion, Poland’s first knockout game at the World Cup since a closer-than-it-sounds 4-0 defeat by Brazil in 1986, but their pitiful performance against Argentina – no shots on target, no ambition, but only one yellow card – has changed the mood. It depends on what happens against France, but when the story of Poland’s 2022 campaign is written, historians may conclude that it would have been better to go out with a bang than through with a whimper.

England have no such choice. Unless they go through with a bang against Senegal, the knives – and the hashtags – will probably be out. RS

Talking points

Netherlands ease into last eight
Since Louis van Gaal took charge the Netherlands are unbeaten in 19 matches. In yesterday’s ruthless 3-1 dismissal of the USA they appeared to be a team playing within themselves, still with plenty of room for improvement in their quarter-final against Argentina – and perhaps beyond. There was a smidgen of defensive vulnerability to be seen when the USA fought back to 2-1 in the second half, but that recovery was swiftly squashed by a third Dutch goal, scored by the exceptional Denzel Dumfries. If nothing else, neutrals should hope the Netherlands stay in the tournament for the mental stimulation being offered by Van Gaal. Every time he speaks it seems to be something amusing, insightful or both. “Yesterday I gave him a big, fat kiss,” Van Gaal said of Dumfries, who was sitting beside him in the press conference. “And I’m going to give him another big, fat kiss.” As always, he meant what he said. LMc

A moment to forget for Australia’s Ryan
The manner of Australia’s exit was particularly painful for the goalkeeper Mathew Ryan after his blunder handed Argentina their second goal, slotted in by Julián Álvarez. Kye Rowles’ back pass wasn’t ideal, and hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but the effectiveness and urgency of Argentina’s pressing at that moment meant the Socceroos goalkeeper would have been wise to put his foot through the ball and aim for Row Z. Instead Ryan lost the ball and Álvarez did the rest. The margins would have been tight regardless but when they were chasing the game, Australia showed the vulnerability that clearly exists at the heart of Argentina’s defence. They will wonder what might have been but Ryan, and the Socceroos collectively, can be proud of how they performed in Qatar. LMc

Julián Álvarez pounces on a Mat Ryan mistake to put Argentina 2-0 up.
Julián Álvarez pounces on a Mat Ryan mistake to put Argentina 2-0 up. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Beyond the football

With drama aplenty in the group stage, stories in the global media have largely focused on the thrilling football – exactly as Qatar’s Supreme Committee and Fifa want it. Sean Ingle reports that the country is so happy with how the tournament has gone that it can be a springboard to hosting the biggest sporting event of all, the Olympic Games. The Guardian understands the country is ready to flex its muscles again and bid to stage the Games in the autumn of 2036, despite having failed with bids three times in the past. Ingle reports there is “growing optimism in Doha” that this World Cup will prove they can host the Olympics. But there will be obstacles, from LGBTQ+ rights to commercial concerns from the IOC after Qatar’s 11th-hour alcohol ban at stadiums. GB

Global media-watch

There was disappointment in the US after the national team were brushed aside by the Netherlands. “The subpar play from practically the entire team counts as a major disappointment,” wrote Jeff Carlisle for ESPN. In the Washington Post, Steven Goff wrote: “The US men’s team had reached the knockout stage with a blend of defensive excellence, precocious poise and unflinching confidence – but these things were missing [on] Saturday.”

Tim Ream reflects on defeat at the final whistle.
Tim Ream reflects on defeat at the final whistle. Photograph: Noushad Thekkayil/EPA

In Australia, journalists digesting the Socceroos’ early-morning exit were more sanguine. “One piece of genius from the greatest player of all time, and a rare mistake from one of Australia’s most loyal servants. In a sport defined by razor-thin margins, sometimes, that’s just the way it goes,” accepted Vince Rugari in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Guardian’s own Emma Kemp wrote: “This was not a bad performance. It was a very good performance with all the makings of another upset; the moving mass of blue-and-white tension in the stands confirmed it to be so.”

Meanwhile in South Korea, the official World Cup anthem Dreamers, featuring Jungkook of BTS fame, is getting plenty of airtime as they savour a place in the Round of 16 following the dramatic late win against Portugal. Not a patch on Shakira’s 2010 World Cup banger, Waka Waka (This Time for Africa), but admittedly that’s a high bar. LMc/NMc

The internet reacts

No social media post was more gratefully received by the world of football than the one posted by Pelé on Instagram. After a day of reports that the Brazil legend was receiving end-of-life care, Pelé shared a positive update from his hospital, adding that he felt “strong” and “with a lot of hope”. The 82-year-old, still the only player to win three World Cups in his career, will continue treatment, and we wish him well. NMc

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Elsewhere, plenty of people enjoyed Luis Suárez bawling his eyes out after Uruguay were dumped out of the World Cup. The former Liverpool forward sat on the bench for the final 24 minutes (plus an age of injury time) after being replaced by Edinson Cavani. He went through most of the emotions available to humanity; happiness, fear and eventually just tears, partially hidden behind his light blue shirt. Patrice Evra later liked an Instagram post of Suárez looking like his mother had just thrown a beloved teddy bear into a skip. It is not the first time Suárez has cut onions after a football match, allowing for a clever ranking system. WU

Ranking Luis Suarez crying.

A thread 🧵

Uruguay knocked out of the Qatar 2022 World Cup against Ghana, team he prevented from advancing in the QF in 2010 by handling a goal-bound header.

9.5/10 pic.twitter.com/Mbt8GN1BjX

— Danny Armstrong (@DannyWArmstrong) December 2, 2022

Today’s matches

France v Poland (Round of 16, 3pm GMT, BBC1)
“They [Poland] have a hardcore of players with good experience,” Didier Deschamps said in his pre-match press conference. “There is [Wojciech] Szczesny, [Kamil] Glik, [Robert] Lewandowski and you have to respect what this team does, they deserve to be there. Szczesny was decisive.” The France head coach knows their last-16 opponents have enough quality to cause an upset – and some “hardcore” individuals with enough experience to rile France. Szczesny has been in fine form in Qatar, while Lewandowski has broken his World Cup duck and will be confident of causing problems for the French centre-backs. France’s second string were appalling against Tunisia, a sign they Deschamps does not have much in reserve. If Poland can keep it tight until deep into the game, they will hope to crank up the pressure on the reigning champions. WU

Wojciech Szczesny saves Lionel Messi’s spot-kick against Argentina.
Anyone for penalties? Wojciech Szczesny saves Lionel Messi’s spot-kick against Argentina. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AP

England v Senegal (Round of 16, 7pm GMT, ITV1)
Senegal are missing a number of key players – and potentially their head coach Aliou Cissé due to illness – for this most vital of games. Sadio Mané, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Idrissa Gueye are all missing through a mixture of injury and suspension. Not only are they quality players but possess incredible experience, which will be sorely missed. Their replacements face a tough job to defeat an England team in good form. Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye has already been given a chance in Mané’s absence and impressed in the victory over Ecuador. Nampalys Mendy of Leicester City is another who has knowledge of the opponents thanks to his Premier League employers. Although not a regular for club or country, he has the skills to irritate England’s midfielders, while Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly will be solid behind him. It might not be the optimum Senegal team but there is enough to cause problems to England, who need to avoid complacency. WU

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Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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Player to watch

Iliman Ndiaye When England take on Senegal, they ought to watch out for the lad from Bramall Lane. A non-league youth player with Boreham Wood three years ago, Ndiaye has come a long way since signing for Sheffield United in 2019. An unused substitute against the Netherlands, he made a second-half cameo against Qatar and, 10 minutes after coming on, danced through three attempted tackles before laying on an assist for Bamba Dieng. Having started the win against Ecuador and produced a lively performance, the 22-year-old has grown in stature as the tournament has gone on. Even if Aliou Cissé decides to use him from the bench, he could be a threat. WU

And finally

Japan’s success in topping Group E ahead of Spain and Germany has surprised their next opponents as much as anyone. “We did not expect this,” said the Croatia midfielder Lovro Majer before the last-16 meeting on Monday evening. “I think hardly anyone expected that, but hats off to Japan. They showed that it is not names that are playing, but what is more important is heart and courage.” Japan defeated Germany despite having 29% possession, while they overcame Spain with just 22%. “Possession means nothing in football today,” said Josip Juranovic, the Croatia right-back, when those stats were put to him. “They play very well as a team and they are fast. But we showed against Canada we can deal with quick teams.” WM

France seek to learn from loss of focus at Euros as Poland await in last 16 | France

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.”

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Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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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.”

Switzerland’s goalkeeper Yann Sommer saves a penalty by France’s Kylian Mbappé during the Euro 2020 last-16 match.
Kylian Mbappé missed in the penalty shootout to give Switzerland a surprise win at Euro 2020. Photograph: Vadim Ghirdă/AP

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.

‘Let’s play ball’: Poland pray for more in World Cup last-16 tie against France | World Cup 2022

Zagrajmy w piłkę” – “Let’s play ball”. That was the headline instruction, front and centre, on the Polish website gazeta.pl on Thursday morning after the tense, chaotic conclusion to Group C the night before. Poland had stumbled into the last 16 of the World Cup with a performance so devoid of ambition that the domestic media coverage seemed more like a postmortem than a celebration of reaching the knockout stages for the first time since 1986.

It should have been a day of jubilation. Instead, there seemed to be a wide sense of embarrassment. “We will not tell our grandchildren by the fireplace years later about how the Polish national team progressed from the group at the 2022 World Cup,” wrote Dariusz Tuzimek for SportowyFakty.pl. “When they ask about it, we’ll try to change the subject.”

“Should Lewandowski be ashamed? The whole world saw that,” was the question in the headline of Tuzimek’s article. “One Wojciech Szczesny was not enough for Argentina and Messi, but still we got through,” said Polityka.pl, a reference to the goalkeeper’s individual heroics in defeat, including a breathtaking first-half penalty save from Lionel Messi.

Facing Argentina and Messi was never going to be straightforward. Yet it was still a frustratingly poor, disjointed display from a team that began the evening top of Group C and in control of their destiny. By the end they were left counting yellow cards – and praying.

As has so often been the case at Poland’s recent tournament appearances, Lewandowski was left isolated, despite Karol Swiderski being nominally selected to play alongside him. The Barcelona forward was left fighting for scraps: on the occasions Poland did win possession he sometimes battled impressively to win a free-kick around halfway. But he never threatened to make a significant impact, certainly not compared to the ever-threatening Messi.

Swiderski, who did not look sure what he was supposed to be doing, mostly became an extra defender rather than a companion for Lewandowski. Even when Lewandowski’s teammates got close enough to link, it felt fragmented and lacking fluency. Despite a lack of service Lewandowski was not above criticism, either. Rather than attempting to inspire the team after they fell behind after half-time, he appeared increasingly withdrawn, his body language negative.

Lautaro Martínez consoles Piotr Zielinski after Argentina’s 2-0 win at Stadium 974 – before it emerged that Poland had squeezed into the last 16
Lautaro Martínez consoles Piotr Zielinski after Argentina’s 2-0 win at Stadium 974 – before it emerged that Poland had squeezed into the last 16. Photograph: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

The closest Poland came to scoring, appropriately, was a set piece nodded fractionally wide by the centre-back Kamil Glik.

After the final whistle at Stadium 974, when coverage switched to Mexico v Saudi Arabia, it was an immediate reminder of what matches look like when both teams pose an attacking threat. The Saudis underlined the point during a thrilling conclusion by scoring a beautifully worked goal that in effect ended Mexico’s hopes of progress.

The former defender and Poland captain Jacek Bak said Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski was the team’s “invisible representative”. He wondered aloud whether the playmaker had “a mental problem” when playing for his country.

It seemed an appropriate question given the 28-year-old’s indifferent performance against Argentina, give or take a couple of decent set-piece deliveries. Zielinski is the creative lynchpin for Luciano Spalletti’s Partenopei, who lead Serie A by eight points. They are unbeaten in the league, with 13 wins from 15 matches, and have scored 37 goals. In September they memorably thrashed Liverpool 4-1 in the Champions League.

Where is that swashbuckling player? And could the fault lie not with the players but the coach, Czeslaw Michniewicz? Would Zielinski perform better in a central position, where his range of passing and searching runs could do more damage? He also needs someone to shore up the central areas to give him licence to attack. Unfortunately Qatar 2022 appears to be a tournament too far for the former Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain and West Bromwich Albion holding midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak.

There is a parallel between Poland’s frustrating, traumatic history at major tournaments and England’s travails pre-Russia 2018. They do not lack talent but they never seem able to fully show it, to become equal to or greater than the sum of their parts. Many of the players seem fearful of harsh media treatment, conscious of the anger stirred up when pre-tournament hype is regularly replaced by another limp failure.

They have often been paralysed by the potential consequences of elimination, rather than motivated by the ever-elusive rewards of success at a World Cup. The cumulative effect of so many disappointments feeds the anxiety.

Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé
French forward talent such as Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé await Poland in the World Cup last 16. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The good news? They are still in the game. There were times when Poland succeeded in shackling Messi, Ángel Di María and Julián Álvarez quite effectively. At times, driving runs by the full-backs, Matty Cash and Bartosz Bereszynski, helped to make inroads.

Collectively they must carry that defensive solidity into Sunday’s last-16 meeting with Kylian Mbappé and friends. But they must also find a way to take the game to the world champions, to cherish possession rather than surrender it. Standing off and inviting pressure will be a one-way ticket home.

Has anyone told Poland – and Michniewicz – that this is meant to be the greatest show on earth? Their supporters must pray they will find a way to release the handbrake against France. Support Lewandowski, unleash Zielinski. Zagrajmy w piłkę: Let’s play ball.

‘Don’t get cards’: How Poland’s strange World Cup progression played out | World Cup 2022

“They were shouting at us from the bench: ‘Don’t concede. Don’t get cards,’” Piotr Zielinski said laughing, which he could do at last do. “Strange,” the Poland midfielder called it. Somehow, they were still standing. They had lost their final group match 2-0 against Argentina on Wednesday but had survived a Lionel Messi penalty and 23 shots, including one cleared off the line in stoppage time, and progressed to the last 16 by virtue of having collected two yellow cards fewer than Mexico. Or at least that’s what they thought when the final whistle went.

As it turned out, a goal for Saudi Arabia in the fifth minute of added time, scored 25km north at the exact moment that Messi and Robert Lewandowski were embracing post-game, covering their mouths to exchange words, would mean Poland progressed on goal difference. But 2-0 down against Argentina at Stadium 974 while Mexico were leading by the same score at Lusail, the two teams tied on everything in Group C, the lifeline they had clung on to was fair play.

“For the last 10 minutes of our game we knew that yellow cards would probably decide,” Lewandowski said. “We had heard that Mexico were ‘only’ 2-0 up. We knew then: we have to believe but also play carefully and not get a yellow card again. When Saudi Arabia scored, we knew that luck was on our side.”

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Thank you for your feedback.

That Poland had got that far owed much to Wojciech Szczesny, who not only superbly saved a penalty from Messi but made eight more stops and touched the ball more than any of his teammates, three times more than Lewandowski. He had lost a bet in the process, too. He was convinced VAR was not going to give Argentina a penalty when his hand caught Messi as he reached for a deep cross. He was wrong.

“We spoke before the penalty and I bet him €100 he wasn’t going to get it and so that’s a bet I lost against Messi,” he said. “I don’t know if I am allowed to do that. I am probably going to get banned for that. I don’t care right now. And I’m not going to pay him either. He doesn’t care about €100, come on.”

Wojciech Szczesny

“Anything I say about Szczesny will fall short,” Zielinski said. “Honestly, he did incredible things. He’s one of the best in the world and we’re very happy to have him.”

Despite that penalty save late in the first half, Argentina scored twice, in the 46th and 67th minutes. Meanwhile, goals in the 47th and 52nd minutes put Mexico ahead and left the group on a knife-edge. At times it was a bizarre sight. Rather than chasing a goal – “I was a defender first today,” Lewandowski said – Poland decided the best approach was for nothing to happen. But how do you defend for your lives without making a tackle? How do you run down the clock without running up the cards?

With a little help from Argentina perhaps? “It did go through my head to go to those who play in Italy but I thought it would be ugly to do that,” said Zielinski, a Napoli midfielder. “It was strange. We produced an ugly game and we have to improve now that we are going to face the world champions.

“We haven’t shown how well we can play. We have given the ball to our opponents and we have to change. Against France it will be different. We have to have more courage, more will to do them damage.

“We could have paid for [the approach] but we’re very happy. It’s been more than 30 years since we got through a group [in 1986].”

Poland’s Piotr Zielinski shadows Argentina’s Lionel Messi
Poland’s Piotr Zielinski shadows Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Fifa/Getty Images

Asked what it was like to face Messi, Zielinski said: “Brilliant. It’s a delight to see him play – poetry. He’s a genius. There are difficult situations and he makes them look easy. Suddenly there’s a pass, a one-on-one.”

At the end Messi and Lewandowski embraced and words were exchanged. “We talked a bit, it was fun,” the Poland captain said. “I told Messi that I was playing more defensively than normal but sometimes that’s what the team needs.”

When Messi was asked what was said between the two, he took it as his cue to leave. “I had felt very angry to have missed the penalty but the team reacted and produced a very good performance,” the Argentina captain said before that. “We played very well, we were what we had been for a long time. We had lots of chances and that is good for us to prepare what’s coming up.

“Tomorrow we will start preparing for Australia. The games are all very close together but it’s the same for everyone. They played a couple of hours earlier before us, no more. This was the hottest day of the three we have played, it was very humid and we had to make an extra effort.”

Messi had just broken Diego Maradona’s record for World Cup appearances, he is now on 22. “I only just found that out. I didn’t know,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to keep getting these kinds of records. Diego would be very happy for me. He always showed me a lot of affection, he was always happy for me and the good things that happened to me.”

Argentina advance despite Messi’s saved penalty and Poland squeak through | World Cup 2022

As Lionel Messi zigzagged this way and that it sometimes seemed that Argentina’s No 10 must be electrically powered and perhaps operated by remote control.

Although Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister scored the vital breakthrough goal for Lionel Scaloni’s side, it was Messi’s dedication to, in equal measure, bewitching his adoring public and bewildering Poland that really made the difference.

Well before the end everyone had, almost, forgotten that a player who is such a catalyst for his country and who spent much of the game slaloming past often helpless markers had missed a first-half penalty.

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When the music stopped and the final whistle blew Manchester City’s Julián Álvarez had joined Mac Allister on the scoresheet yet, miraculously, a thoroughly overwhelmed Poland still followed their tormentors into the knockout stages thanks to a superior goal difference to Mexico.

Talk about progressing by the skin of your teeth. Had Lautaro Martínez not missed a late sitter for Argentina and Saudi Arabia not pulled a goal back against Mexico his opponents would have been boarding a flight to Warsaw today on Thursday. Instead Poland survive to face France on Sunday in the round of 16.

Although they will need to improve considerably it at least means Robert Lewandowski will fight another day at a World Cup. The traffic was far too one way for Poland’s talisman to make the desired impact here but “Lewangoalski” surely deserves at least one more moment in the Doha sun.

Few would bet against its still powerful December rays shining on Messi and Argentina – who meet Australia on Saturday – for a while yet. If Messi exists in anyone’s shadow it is that of the late Diego Maradona. Here, in making his 22nd World Cup appearance, he eclipsed his compatriot’s equivalent tally of 21 games.

Wojciech Szczesny saves Lionel Messi’s penalty
Wojciech Szczesny saves Lionel Messi’s penalty in the first half after the Poland goalkeeper was adjudged to have fouled the Argentina forward. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Given that every other person pouring into Stadium 974 seemed to be wearing a pale blue and white No 10 shirt with either Maradona or Messi on the back, the latter bore quite some responsibility. Could Messi upstage Lewandowski, Poland’s record goalscorer and the striker who effectively replaced him at Barcelona?

The good news for that adoring audience was that the answer was a resounding “yes”. In persistently destabilising Czeslaw Michniewicz’s defence the Paris Saint-Germain forward swiftly suggested that Lionel Scaloni’s side’s shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening Group C game had been an aberration rather than a symptom of a worrying new structural flaw. In the first 15 minutes alone, Messi forced Wojciech Szczesny into a couple of saves after variously dodging and brushing aside assorted Poland defenders.

Not to be eclipsed entirely, Lewandowski sporadically looked capable of offering a masterclass in the No 9 role but lacked the service to conduct it properly. A glimpse came when, holding the ball up and holding off markers with equal aplomb, he conjured a decent opening for Krystian Bielik but the midfielder responded with a tepid shot directed straight at the underemployed Emiliano Martínez.

“What can I say,” said Michniewicz after watching Lewandowski being regularly marooned in less than splendid isolation as his teammates manned the barricades against an impressively fluent, tempo-setting Argentina. “We didn’t assist Robert.”

In marked contrast Messi received plenty of help from, among others, Scaloni’s left-back Marcos Acuña and their eye-catching interchanges posed considerable problems for Poland’s right-back, Matty Cash. Not that the Aston Villa defender was the only one of Michniewicz’s players experiencing raised stress levels.

The entire team lived dangerously as, to select just a very few examples, Alvarez saw a shot blocked, Acuña headed wide and Szczesny back-pedalled desperately to claw Ángel Di María’s cross out from beneath his crossbar.

Wojciech Szczesny

It frequently seemed as if the former Arsenal goalkeeper was resisting Scaloni’s blue and white tide single-handed. Typically, Szczesny performed minor wonders to deny Álvarez following Mac Allister’s brilliant pass and then found himself, extremely harshly, deemed to have conceded a penalty after brushing Messi’s face with a hand after the ball had gone.

Precisely why the spot-kick was awarded following a VAR review remains a mystery but justice appeared done when Szczesny dived superbly to his left, extended a gloved hand and saved Messi’s penalty.

With Poland barely touching the ball in Argentina’s half it was extremely one-sided but as long as Michniewicz’s central defenders continued clearing a barrage of crosses the impasse endured.

Their luck ran out a minute into the second half when Nahuel Molina’s cut back reached Mac Allister and, despite failing to make the truest right-footed connection, his shot narrowly evaded Szczesny’s outstretched fingertips before grazing the inside of a post en route to the back of the net. “I was so happy,” said Mac Allister. “It was so emotional for me and the whole squad. We played really well collectively. We managed to find that calm.”

After that Messi’s quick feet – is he really 35? – and even faster brain took over. When Álvarez met Enzo Fernández’s ball, took a controlling touch, swivelled seamlessly and lashed the ball into the roof of the net, it was all over. And Scaloni’s verdict?: “Reassuring.”

Lewandowski and Messi lead Poland and Argentina in clash of styles | World Cup 2022

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the sharpest of them all? On Wednesday night all eyes at Stadium 974 will be drawn, inexorably, to football’s version of a beauty contest: can Lionel Messi’s rich attacking gifts guide Argentina into the knockout phase or might Robert Lewandowski’s uncanny efficiency in front of goal enable Poland to eclipse the Group C favourites?

“We rely on these great strikers but an individual cannot win alone,” Czesław Michniewicz, Poland’s head coach, said on Tuesday. “But it’s not only a battle between Lewandowski and Messi – it’s not tennis, it’s not one on one, they are not serving! Robert needs his teammates, the same as Leo.”

Nonetheless Michniewicz, whose side top group C, one point ahead of Argentina, likens the South American team’s talisman to the famous 80s and 90s Italian alpine ski champion Alberto Tomba. “At our team briefing we talked about Alberto Tomba on the slope; he was able to avoid everyone,” the 52-year-old said. “So I need to put my players in positions to make a difference because, if not, Messi will score easily. You need more than one person to halt him.”

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The similarities between Tomba’s technical slalom excellence and the PSG forward’s elusive attacking manoeuvring have led to Poland’s players debating how to stop “Messi dancing between the poles” as they ponder the best way of preventing him leading Argentina’s dressing room in a celebratory post-match jig of joy.

So how, precisely, can they rein in a player who has scored 93 goals in 167 international appearances? Michniewicz turned realistic and rhetorical. “Playing Argentina you have to prepare for when you concede and to avoid panic when that happens,” he said. “How to stop Messi is a great question. The world has been thinking about it for several years and I don’t think we’ll find an answer. At 35 he says this is his last World Cup so I expect he’ll be very ambitious.”

At 34, Lewandowski accepts it could be his swan song, too, and Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, is certainly not underestimating the threat posed by a centre-forward who believes a habit of eating desserts before main courses and protecting his slightly stronger right foot by sleeping on his left side, have helped to make him Poland’s record scorer with 77 goals in 136 games.

Lionel Messi wheels away after scoring against Mexico.
Lionel Messi wheels away after scoring against Mexico. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

“Lewandowski’s a top player,” Scaloni said, emphatically. He may disagree with the notion that dessert first aids fat burning but he also appreciates the jeopardy “Lewangoalski” could pose his team on a night when they may require victory to guarantee progress. “As a football fan it’s a pleasure and a privilege to see Robert up close. You have to enjoy such a great player … but we’ll be prepared for him.”

Lewandowski’s goal in the 2-0 win against Saudi Arabia last Saturday – incredibly the Barcelona striker’s first at a World Cup – left Poland requiring a point at most to reach the knockout phase. Argentina, meanwhile, remain in slight shock after their Group C opening 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia. Scaloni could certainly do with Messi adding to the penalty he scored against the Saudis and the goal he registered in the rather more reassuring 2-0 win against Mexico.

“I know all of Argentina counts on Messi,” Michniewicz said. “We’ll respect him but we will still believe we can win.”

Given that Argentina had gone 36 games undefeated before slipping up against Saudi Arabia that may be a tall order but Lisandro Martínez, Scaloni’s Manchester United defender, did not sound overly confident.

“Poland’s a very tough opponent and Lewandowski’s a top player,” he said. “Lewandowski moves so well, he’s so dynamic. We know we have to remain focused throughout the 90 minutes.

“But we have to trust ourselves and our football. We were very anxious before the Mexico match because we knew it was all or nothing. We know what we’re capable of but we also know we haven’t reached our best level yet. But we’re trying. We have to remain calm, give it our all and show the style we are known for.”

The Messi/Lewandowski subplot is amplified by the pair’s careers having often run along parallel lines. Although a very different sort of forward, Poland’s captain effectively replaced Messi at the Camp Nou after the latter’s departure for PSG and, despite the pair having not always seemed exactly best friends when competing for individual awards, there is talk that these two attacking gladiators could yet be united for one last hurrah at Barcelona.

“When Messi was there I went to Barça so many times to see him,” says Michniewicz. “We should all be excited to play against him in a match where the stakes are high. This is a wonderful time – but I want to leave happy.”

Robert Lewandowski gets first World Cup goal as Poland beat Saudi Arabia | World Cup 2022

Before kick-off Herve Renard denied that Saudi Arabia’s government had gifted his players a Rolls Royce apiece in recognition of their achievement in beating Argentina last week. The Green Falcons’ French manager reminded everyone his team had not escaped the group stage yet and, Robert Lewandowski revelled in reinforcing the point.

Poland’s record scorer not only finally registered his first World Cup goal but created Piotr Zielenski’s opener as Herve Renard’s initially dominant team missed a penalty and ultimately ran out of steam.

Barely two minutes had elapsed before Lewandowski was left limping following a full-blooded Saudi challenge. It was cheered to the rafters by a full house at Education City where the overwhelmingly Saudi-supporting crowd had transformed the stadium into a sea of green, and every time a Poland player touched the ball they were booed like pantomime villains.

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The atmosphere served as a tailwind for Renard’s vibrant side and it took an excellent save by Wojciech Szczesny to palm a shot over the bar from the impressive Mohammed Kano. Invariably half a yard off the pace at this juncture, Poland appeared in danger of being submerged by wave upon wave of Saudi attacks and it spoke volumes that, as early as the 20th minute, their mounting frustration had seen three of Czeslaw Michniewicz’s players booked.

That trio included Aston Villa’s Matty Cash, a right-back Renard’s side seemed particularly eager to provoke into the collection of a second yellow card. Lewandowski was so starved of service that he dropped ever deeper in search of the ball. At one point Poland’s record goalscorer could even be spotted occupying the right-back role.

Then, in the 39th minute, Cash for once succeeded in overlapping down the right and although Lewandowski could not quite control his cross in the manner he had hoped, Poland’s captain laid it off to Piotr Zielsinki. As Zielsinki’s fabulous first-time volley flew into the roof of the net, Lewandowski smiled for the first time.

It was only his side’s second chance, Saudi Arabia’s Saleh Al Shehri having earlier diverted Krystian Bielik’s header to safety. The same pair were involved in a rather more significant incident at the other end when Bielik caught Al Shehri on an ankle in the area and, following a VAR review, a penalty was given.

Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saves the follow-up shot from Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al Breik after saving a penalty from Salem Al Dawsari.
Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saves the follow-up shot from Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al Breik after saving a penalty from Salem Al Dawsari. Photograph: Peter Bryne/PA

It was a soft award and the kick was disappointingly executed by Al Dawsari, whose poor shot was saved low by Szczesny. The former Arsenal goalkeeper then performed acrobatic wonders to somehow tip the follow-up shot from Mohammed Al Breik over the bar.

Szczesny’s double-save was up there with the finest goalkeeping interventions seen at the World Cup. By now it was dark in Doha and Renard desperately needed one of his players to switch the lights back on for his side.

Yet Poland’s back four – Michniewicz had switched from his more familiar defensive trio specifically for this game – held firm. Indeed Poland might have increased their advantage but saw a header from Arkadiusz Milik and a shot from Lewandowski, who by now was joining the attacking dots for Poland, hit the bar.

At this stage the tiring Green Falcons had lost their earlier shape and structure and looked to be interchanging positions at will, but urged on by the hyperactive Renard, whose touchline exertions had left his trademark fitted white shirt thoroughly soaked in sweat, they remained dangerous. Or at least they did until Abdullah Al Malki’s poor touch permitted Lewandowski to snatch the ball off his toes before directing a low left-foot shot under the goalkeeper.

Lewandowski claims to always sleep on his left side in order to preserve the power of his slightly stronger right foot, but the left looked pretty good here. It was his 77th goal in a Poland shirt and left both sides with much to play for in their final group games, when Lewandowski and co face Argentina and Saudi Arabia Mexico.

Lewandowski denied by penalty save from Mexico’s Ochoa in Poland draw | World Cup 2022

On this evidence Saudi Arabia must feel quietly confident about their chances of winning a thoroughly intriguing, expectation-confounding Group C. Mexico and Poland arrived at this most futuristic arena on the edge of the Arabian Sea after the startling news that Argentina had been beaten by the Saudis. Poland in particular, played much of this match as if still in shock.

Although Mexico were the better side, they struggled to conjure clearcut openings and had what is destined to become known as one of the great World Cup saves by Guillermo Ochoa to keep out Robert Lewandowski’s second-half penalty.

In deceiving Poland’s captain courtesy of a magnificent goalkeeping dummy before defying the usual constraints of physics and gravity to keep the ball out Ochoa earned Mexico a deserved point.

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It means the man called “Lewangoalski” is still to score at a World Cup finals and Poland’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages for the first time in 36 years have receded.

It is unusual, if not unique, to attend a football ground identified by a number rather than a name, but 974 shipping containers were used to build Stadium 974. Perhaps coincidentally, that trio of numerals form the international dialling code for Qatar.

From the outside, an structure scheduled to be repurposed for wider community use is an edgy, arresting piece of architecture and inside it was hugely atmospheric. Mexico is 9,000 miles from Qatar but 974 was a sea of green with most of the noise generated by their fans. Poland must have felt it was an away game.

With Poland either content to weather the early storm or simply powerless to interrupt it, chances were rare with a decent one not arriving until nearly the half-hour mark.

It began with Héctor Herrera crossing and Alexis Vega out-leaping Aston Villa’s Matty Cash – who, despite being born in Slough, has a Polish grandparent – at the far post. From around six yards out Vega sent a header bouncing fractionally wide.

Lewandowski had a peripheral role. Admittedly, the best strikers can quite often spend the bulk of matches drifting on the margins only to come alive and score in those vital, gamechanging, split-second moments but, as the interval approached, Poland’s record scorer had touched the ball on a handful of occasions – significantly just once in Mexico’s area – and unleashed one, uncharacteristically underwhelming shot.

Was the heavily shadowed striker feeling the pressure, patiently biding his time or possibly a bit of both? Certainly his room for manoeuvre seemed severely restricted during an opening 45 minutes when his side failed to record a shot on target.

It did not help his cause that his teammates were persistently dropping so deep, thereby starving him of the service he needs in order to sprinkle his magic over proceedings. If only Poland had felt brave enough to press a little higher up the pitch it might have been different.

Mexico's Héctor Moreno battles for the ball with Jakub Kaminski.
Mexico’s Héctor Moreno battles for the ball with Jakub Kaminski. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

If Lewandowski failed to impress, Henry Martín, Mexico’s central striker had also exerted limited influence as his side’s principal threat was delivered down the flanks. This lack of impact threatened to cost them dear when, early in the second half, Hector Moreno tugged Lewandowski’s shirt during the course of a tussle, collected a yellow card and, after a VAR review, conceded a penalty.

Lewandowski placed the ball on the spot and took a couple of deep breaths. His run up looked a little nervous but he was aiming low for the bottom-right corner, out of the reach of most goalkeepers.

To the crowd’s considerable delight Guillermo Ochoa, a veteran of five World Cups, proved equal to the challenge. After deceiving Lewandowski by feinting as if he was diving to the left before acrobatically changing course in mid-air and throwing himself to the right, the keeper extended a hand to palm the ball clear.

Not to be outdone Wojcieck Szcvzesny subsequently performed wonders to keep out Henry Martín’s header

Robert Lewandowski towers over Qatar as he chases World Cup legacy | World Cup 2022

The army of workers tasked with sweeping mini dust mountains from doorsteps across Doha spend long days endlessly battling the elements. In a city constructed on sand, the gentlest of breezes makes it near impossible to prevent the desert from intruding on an otherwise gleaming capital well accustomed to accommodating forces of nature.

It is playing host to another one right now, in the shape of a striker capable of making the world’s best defenders feel as helpless as Qatar’s street cleaners.

Although Robert Lewandowski spends most days closeted in the team hotel, he is a ubiquitous presence here. Once darkness falls, and it descends early in the Gulf at this time of year, giant images of the Poland captain and record goalscorer illuminate the sides of skyscrapers lining the city’s Corniche.

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Up in the skies above the Arabian Sea countless stacked Qatar Airways flights circle as they queue to land at Hamad airport. Before takeoff passengers may have been slightly surprised to watch Lewandowski starring in a football-themed safety video.

Whereas his fellow part-time actor, Brazil’s Neymar, is merely seen escorting business-class passengers to their seats, the 34-year-old demonstrates how to pull on a life jacket in the event of an unscheduled landing on water.

Given that responsibility and Lewandowski are no strangers, it seems appropriate casting. “Playing for Poland definitely carries massive pressure,” agrees a striker hoping to guide his country to victory against Mexico in their opening group game on Tuesday. “I’m acutely conscious of the responsibility of meeting our fans’ expectations. They grow with every goal. No matter who we’re playing and what challenges we face, everyone expects me to score – but it’s not always easy.”

He will be shouldering the hopes of, among others, half the clientele of L’Autre, a Polish-Mexican restaurant in London’s Mayfair who know a win would appreciably enhance Czeslaw Michniewicz’s team’s chances of escaping the tournament’s group stage for the first time in 36 years. An evocative photograph of Argentina 1978 hangs proudly on L’Autre’s wall, depicting the scenes when the two countries last met at a World Cup and Poland won 3-1.

Lewandowski pulls off a backheel flick in World Cup qualifying
Lewandowski carries the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. Photograph: Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Considering Lewandowski’s age, a repeat could offer him not merely a ticket out of a group also featuring Argentina and Saudi Arabia but an extended last hurrah on the global stage. “I don’t think this will be my last World Cup though,” says a player clearly minded to rage against the dying of the light. “I want to play in the next one too.”

Given that “Lewangoalski” has scored 18 times in 19 appearance for Barcelona this season and remains feted in Germany – where he played under Jürgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich – it would be unwise to doubt him. Both coaches admired the work ethic of a 6ft 1in forward who did not finish growing until he was 20 and compensated for this late physical development by not only becoming two-footed but expert in the air.

Such dedication paid off handsomely, helping him to 76 goals in 134 Poland appearances and a quintet of coronations as Bundesliga player of the year. Lewandowski’s place in the firmament of the world’s greatest centre-forwards is assured thanks to more than 500 career goals, but something significant is missing from an otherwise near-perfect CV.

Despite that compelling blend of superior movement, stellar technique and sheer power, he is still to score at a World Cup. In mitigation, Poland’s failure to qualify in 2010 and 2014 dictate he has participated in the group stage of only one finals – Russia 2018.

“Russia was one of the biggest disappointments of my career, mostly because we didn’t create any opportunities,” he says. “I didn’t have any chances and that still hurts. That was a failure. To score at a World Cup is a huge dream and I’m going to do everything to make this dream happen.”

Further inspiration is provided by the famous Poland teams of 1974 and 1982 who recorded third-place World Cup finishes, with Grzegorz Lato winning the Golden Boot at West Germany 1974 after scoring seven goals. “I’ll do well to beat Lato – we’re not a team that creates a huge number of chances,” acknowledges Lewandowski.

Lato entered politics after retiring from playing, and Lewandowski is widely lauded for his philanthropy and charity work. It is perhaps partly a consequence of Klopp’s influence as an almost surrogate parent – the striker was only 16 when his father died and he has credited the German with offering him invaluable off-field guidance – that Lewandowski has such a balanced, mature equilibrium on and off the pitch.

Robert Lewandowski player profile
Robert Lewandowski

“Argentina will be our toughest match,” says a man who feels Guardiola taught him fresh and invaluable tactical thought. “But I’ll be very happy to play against [Lionel] Messi. He’s changed football for the better, for ever.”

Although he believes a solid, tactically smart Saudi Arabia should not be underestimated, Mexico represent the immediate challenge. “They’re a tough team who fight all the way to the final whistle and never give up,” he says. “They know how to play at major tournaments. They’ll be a big test. “But we’ll play every match with smiles on our faces and as a unit. Even if it’s very tough I’ll enjoy it.”