France vs Argentina: Kylian Mbappe comes of age to end Lionel Messi's World Cup dream

France 4-3 Argentina: The 19-year-old put on a show to see Les Bleus through to the last eight and send Messi and his side home

Ed Malyon
Kazan Arena
Saturday 30 June 2018 16:55
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France Argentina players walk out at Kazan Arena

Where do you start, then, with the game that had pretty much everything? An ascendant star truly announcing himself on the biggest stage, a generational superstar fading to black, the lead changing hands almost as often as possession and, in the end, seven goals that varied in quality from deflection by a dangling leg to unstoppable howitzer and virtually everything in between.

This might have been the first meeting of two legitimate World Cup contenders in the second round since Brazil went down to Argentina at Italia ’90, and even if these were two sides who haven’t played to their ceiling yet in this tournament it only left everyone absolutely floored in a modern classic of a knockout game.

Kylian Mbappe will hog the headlines for his performance, though it feels peculiar for a player who has already changed hands for €200m to need some sort of global coming-out party, a moment where he truly announces himself to the planet as the real thing. But this was truly it, a devastating performance that with seemingly every touch knocked a fragile Argentinean team further off-balance until they fell completely flat and out of the World Cup.

In the first half it was simply his running, his electric dribbling of the ball that Argentina couldn’t handle. In the second it was his positioning and his finishing but throughout it was a jet-powered speed that the slow, crumbling Argentina defence never had a hope of stopping.

For Lionel Messi it was not how he wanted it to end; blown away on a steaming-hot afternoon in Kazan, struggling to make an impact himself but ultimately let down by a defence that struggled against average opponents in the group stage and was then destroyed by elite ones when it mattered.

His Argentina team lacked what they had all tournament - quality in defence and clarity in idea. Jorge Sampaoli had shuffled his cards in each of the four games without ever being able to settle on a plan, shape or lineup. Those players he did persist with were the wrong ones and those who were marooned on the bench throughout the competition, or in some circumstances at home, might just have been what was needed.

Sampaoli has incinerated all goodwill towards him back home with the three chaotic group games that preceded this, culminating in his name being jeered by Argentina fans when it was read out pre-match. Going home may not be an option for a while, but with half an hour to go it felt as if Didier Deschamps might have been in the same boat. From there, Argentina capsized.

In a game of to-and-fro, Argentina started the better side but this team is too fragile to start to believe in itself and as soon as they started creeping up the field and trying to truly dominate proceedings the house came tumbling down, destroyed by a a teenage forward whose game-changing, electrifying run through the middle of the field to win France a penalty was reminiscent of Ronaldo in his prime.

Mbappe won the penalty in the first-half 

Antoine Griezmann converted to put France ahead and Argentina were reeling, taking at least ten minutes to regain their composure and function again.

When they regained their balance there was something there for Sampaoli’s side but their collective play never looked like rewarding them with a goal. Instead it took a wonder-strike from Angel Di Maria before half-time and a lucky poke from Gabriel Mercado just after it to turn this game on its head.

Di Maria’s strike was sensational but Benjamin Pavard’s might have been better, a goal so good from the France right-back that he appeared almost surprised by himself. 2-2 and all to play for, this game was set up for a classic finish but then Mbappe took over again.

Di Maria dragged Argentina back into the game

The PSG forward was so influential in the first half with how he ran with the ball. Surging through the heart of the field, Mbappe simply terrorised Argentina, exposing the lack of brains, quality and, most of all, speed in Argentina’s defence. He was part-Ferrari, part-runaway train at times, and even as his most eye-catching run appeared to be wobbling of its tracks, Marcos Rojo needlessly pulled him to the ground to hand France that early lead.

But the second half was all about his quality in front of goal; a first goal that demonstrated his close control and fine touch before rifling under Franco Armani, a second that was just a first-touch finish to hammer a nail into Argentina’s coffin. Those two strikes came in four minutes, making Mbappe the first teenager to score more than once in a World Cup tournament since Michael Owen in 1998. Mbappe wasn’t even born then but the way the Argentina defence backed off him, struck with absolute terror, was reminiscent of that famous Owen goal in Saint-Etienne 20 years ago on this day.

Mbappe restored the lead 

A little bit of ascending Owen with shades of peaking Ronaldo. A horrifying thought for anyone but an emboldening one for France, who squad is blessed an almost embarrassing overflow of talent but still look like a team that could play better. With so many stars, though - and there were at least three players in this starting line-up who could conceivably break Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Oropoly - the odds are always in your favour, there are enough matchwinners that they can almost take it in turn.

Today it was Mbappe, perhaps in the quarter-final it will be Griezmann or Paul Pogba, but the real lesson France must learn from today is from the tears of their opposition.

Mbappe scored what turned out to be the winner 

As Messi, possibly the greatest player of all-time, departs the World Cup for what is almost certainly the final time, it is a stark reminder of a generation of wasted talent for Argentina. The French may not have a player of Messi’s calibre but they have several who are not too far off and Deschamps’ responsibility - and you can see how heavily it weighs - is to ensure all that talent is converted to glory.

Anything else is a criminal waste.

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