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Poland finds its true level at World Cup, beaten by the best

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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Poland heads home from the World Cup as the latest team unable to overcome an inspired Kylian Mbappé, who dominated in France’s 3-1 win in the round of 16.

It meant back-to-back losses against the game’s superstars, after Lionel Messi and Argentina won 2-0 in the last round of group-stage games.

Poland looked over-matched at the highest level and unable to create enough chances for its scoring great Robert Lewandowski.

EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE

Poland’s World Cup was a success on one metric — advancing from the group stage for the first time since 1986.

The standard now is very different from four decades ago, when a round of 16 exit would have been considered a failure for fans who cheered on third-place finishes at the 1974 and 1982 tournaments.

But there is realism now about Poland’s place in soccer, especially when its clubs struggle to be competitive in European competitions.

“We have some limitations,” Poland coach Czesław Michniewicz said after his team was eliminated Sunday.

As France coach Didier Deschamps noted before the game in praising Poland: “They are good at defending, and I think that they actually like defending.”

Still, Poland advanced from Group C thanks to a solid 2-0 win over a Saudi Arabia team that had just impressed the world beating Argentina 2-1 in their opener.

And for a 10-minute spell late in the first half, Poland had France reeling and Piotr Zieliński probably should have scored the game’s first goal.

WHO’S OUT?

Maybe the whole band stays together, at least for the next European Championship cycle.

Poland’s power trio for the past decade has been the veteran core of Lewandowski, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny and defender Kamil Glik. No one was ending their international career after the loss to France.

Lewandowski was hesitant when asked if he wanted to aim for the 2026 World Cup, which starts in North America two months before his 38th birthday.

But playing in the 2024 European Championships in Germany, a second home for the former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich star, is within his sights.

Coach Michniewicz is set to lead that campaign. Hired in January on a short-term contract, he is reportedly getting an automatic extension through Euro 2024 for advancing to the round of 16.

WHO’S NEXT?

At age 28, Zieliński has stepped up a level to shine in an excellent Napoli team that leads Serie A and looks set to go deep in the Champions League.

Roma defender Nicola Zalewski has flourished in coach Jose Mourinho’s team though was not used as a starter in Qatar.

“Nico is still a young 20-year-old for him to come to a major tournament,” Poland full-back Matty Cash said. “We have got many good players coming through.”

And Lewandowski’s replacement could come from Major League Soccer, where 25-year-old Karol Świderski scored 10 goals and added six assists last season with Charlotte FC.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Poland is the top-seeded team in a Euro 2024 qualifying group that plays through next year and is strongly favored to advance to the 24-team tournament.

The top two of Poland, Czechia, Albania, Moldova and the Faeroe Islands in the five-team standings will qualify. The Poles start March 24 with their toughest game, away to the Czechs.

Poland will expect Lewandowski there adding to his national record of 78 goals in 138 games.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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