France roared back against Argentina to reach the World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday as Kylian Mbappe sent Lionel Messi home empty-handed following a seven-goal thriller.
Antoine Griezmann gave France the lead from the penalty spot but the South Americans levelled through a sweet hit from Angel Di Maria and edged ahead shortly after half-time through Gabriel Mercado.
But defender Benjamin Pavard equalised with a thunderous strike to pull France level before Mbappe netted two goals in four second-half minutes to become the first teenager to score at least twice in a World Cup match since Pele in 1958.
Sergio Aguero gave Argentina late hope but they ran out of time and head home. Here we examine the big talking points.
A SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER
Some contests contain one or two elements which make for great entertainment. Others hurtle into a space of near absurdity that you start to wonder if you’ve failed to suspend your imagination.
Indeed, France’s victory was a vomit of every epic motif you can think of, an instant classic only a bore would attempt to downplay.
While society is permeated by knee-jerk reactions through the quick-to-hand medium of social media, this deserves all acclaim because it’s impossible not to be swallowed up by its chaotic nature.
The lead was exchanged three times. There were seven goals in total – two of them (Pavard and Di Maria) were absolutely blockbuster, another (Mbappe’s second) was poetic in its simplicity and effectiveness.
And let’s first pause to discuss the glorious goals because they warrant entire scripts dedicated to them. Di Maria’s screamer was only matched for intensity by his wild shriek in celebration as the Paris Saint-Germain winger unleashed a beast of a left-footed strike beyond Hugo Lloris from 30-yards – the longest strike of the tournament so far.
After that, Pavard sent us all into a dizzying spin with a balletic effort of raw technique which is comfortably the best we’ve seen in Russia.
And not to be overshadowed, France’s fourth was a beautiful and brutal cut-throat counter-attack which started with Lloris and ended with Mbappe clinically grabbing his second.
Entwined within the plot twists, was the granting of A-list standing for Mbappe for a breakout performance while Messi, as far as the World Cup is concerned at least, was consigned to washed-up status.
Part one of the 2018 World Cup was memorable and thanks to this masterpiece, part two is threatening to stretch that narrative.
WONDER BOY IS THE SUPERHERO
If the game was like a movie in its plot, then Mbappe was its star. The 19-year-old transitioned from his ‘Wonder Boy’ role and into ‘Superhero’ stature with a performance of piercing pace and perfect poise.
The visible panic on the faces of Argentina defenders every time the PSG man ran at them was one of the hallmarks of the clash.
And Paul Pogba deserves some credit here as well because if Mbappe was the bullet, he was holding the gun.
Indeed, the Manchester United creator barely needed to look up before firing accurate long balls into the teenager and a precisely lofted pass almost created another opportunity for Mbappe to vaporise the France backline as he earned a free-kick after his earlier slalom from deep in his own half led to the penalty.
Ultimately, though, Mbappe rightly leads the stellar reviews because his acceleration after changing direction, his ability to shift the ball out of congested areas and his fiercely calm finishing ability leads us to believe we’re witnessing a very special talent emerge onto the world stage.
A MESSI ENDING
As we move through the commentary of this thriller, we reach a point of finality. Mbappe’s rise may well be in its infancy but for Messi and the World Cup, it is surely a sad climax.
The Barcelona icon will be 35 when the next tournament approaches and even if, physically, age is to be no barrier, the emotion of yet another Argentina heartache will lead to a break up.
The 31-year-old hinted before heading to Russia it could be his last outing with the national team and despite flirting with international retirement previously it’s unlikely he’ll cheat himself again.
Yet, there is an argument to be made that while this iteration of Argentina is nothing without Messi, it is also because of him they are nothing.
The rest of the squad seemed to devalue itself with their star, captain, maybe even coach on such a lofty pedestal.
The desperation of teammates to funnel the ball through to Messi seemed to tunnel their own natural thoughts and it created so many errors. A schism in the relationship could be what’s best for all parties.
Some of his teammates came to the fore instead, but it wasn’t enough to get their side into the quarter-finals.
Here’s how the players rated:
Franco Armani 5 – He should have done better with Mbappe’s first goal, which put France back on top and allowed them to keep the momentum going. A shaky performance all round.
Gabriel Mercado 6 – Knew nothing about his goal – indeed, he was trying to get his foot out of the way of Messi’s shot. Was put under the cosh by France’s speedy attack.
Marcos Rojo 3 – Couldn’t handle Mbappe’s pace, giving away a cheap penalty and struggling constantly. Was duly taken off at half-time.
Nicolas Otamendi 5 – Looked a far cry from the defender whose passing has made him a Pep Guardiola favourite at Manchester City. This was a thuggish performance – and a poor one.
Nicolas Tagliafico 5 – Among the many players made to look a step too slow by Mbappe, as the young Frenchman proved too much for his Argentine counterpart.
Enzo Perez 5 – Helped maintain possession but offered little thrust for Argentina. Looked a little unsure of himself.
Javier Mascherano 5 – A typically robust display in midfield, as Mascherano would pop up everywhere to try and get Argentina going. His age showed in a few mistimed tackles and was perhaps lucky to stay on the field.
Ever Banega 7 – Argentina’s best player on the day, as he tried as often as he could to find the perfect pass to unleash his attackers. It was his pass that found Di Maria in space to gloriously level the scores at 1-1.
Cristian Pavon 6 – Was an ever-willing runner on Argentina’s right side, but his crossing was wasteful.
Lionel Messi 6 – It says something about Messi’s quality that a below-par display from him still sees the Barcelona man get two assists. But he was well contained by France’s defence.
Angel Di Maria 7 – Scored an utter screamer to get Argentina back in the game, a much-needed goal as French had threatened to run away with the tie.
Federico Fazio 6 – Came on at the start of the second half for Rojo, but although he wasn’t as reckless, he didn’t fare much better against Mbappe and the rest of France’s attack.
Sergio Aguero 7 – Was largely anonymous after coming on from the bench, but scored a late header to give Argentina hope of an unlikely comeback.
Maximiliano Meza 6 – Came on for Pavon and played in much the same vein, not doing much to help his side be any more incisive.
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Antoine Griezmann fired them in front from the penalty spot early on before Angel Di Maria’s brilliant long-range effort drew La Albiceleste level.
Argentina then took the lead when Gabriel Mercado deflected in Lionel Messi’s effort, but Les Bleus stormed back in front via Benjamin Pavard’s contender for goal of the tournament and Mbappe’s driven first.
The Paris Saint-Germain star then finished a fine team move to make it 4-2, with Sergio Aguero’s late header proving in vain.
Here, we analyse the performance of France’s flamboyant striker Mbappe, who truly stamped his mark on the 2018 World Cup.
France had flattered to deceive so far, but it was almost as if the whistle to get the last 16 under way was the catalyst for Didier Deschamps’ giants to rise from their slumber. Mbappe was certainly wide awake from the start, tearing Argentina’s porous defence to shreds throughout.
His blistering pace forced Marcos Rojo to concede an early penalty while his second-half brace settled the contest. France have finally turned up and it’s their youngest player leading the way.
Movement – He was constantly alert whenever France were in possession, looking to stretch an Argentine defence who have looked alarmingly suspicious. His run for the Griezmann penalty looked unstoppable, indeed only a foul from Rojo could end it. His run and touch to get onto the end of Pogba’s sublime pass which then led to a free-kick shortly after was a joy to behold.
Making a difference – Arguably the finest young talent on the planet, but we’d been waiting for him to really arrive at the World Cup. We’re waiting no longer as he put France back in the lead at 3-2 and then finished Argentina off.
Passing – It’s difficult to criticise a man who’s essentially won his team the match, but look beyond the obvious and there’s still much Mbappe can improve on. His passing accuracy is the glaringly obvious one, having put up a woeful figure of 70.8 per cent.
Only striker Olivier Giroud and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris were worse of the starting XI. And while his finishing was of the highest order and his speed posed insurmountable problems, he’ll need to fine tune the accuracy of his passes for the last eight.
His Olympian speed tempted Rojo into a rugby tackle which resulted in the opener after only 13 minutes. His sublime touch and skill then saw him find space in a crowded box to fire France back in front as both player and team turned it on after finding themselves 2-1 down. Mbappe was then on the end of a sumptuous team move, side-footing in stylishly to put the cherry on top of a stunning move that started with Lloris.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com