He is not even 20, and maybe that’s the least impressive thing about Kylian Mbappé, who led France to an epic 4-3 over Argentina yesterday in the first World Cup Round of 16 game, at the end of an unforgettable battle that also featured two sensational goals on the part of Angel Di Maria and Benjamin Pavard. Absent without leave, once again, was Leo Messi, who showed up only on the occasion of Argentina’s late 3-4 goal, but failed to enlighten his side for the rest of a game that the French controlled for the most part.
Didier Deschamps’s selection was stronger and more solid, far from the controversies that had risked tearing apart the Argentinian clan. The verdict of the pitch respected what had emerged during the Group Stage, with Jorge Sampaoli’s side able to be on the lead just for a few minutes, and mostly thanks to a lucky goal by defender Gabriel Mercado.
But as soon as France hit on the accelerator, the Albiceleste were literally trampled, with the Paris Saint Germain 19-old-talent exploding two goals that shut down any possible resistance from the Selecciòn, despite the noisy support received from their more than 30000 fans on the stands of the Kazan Arena. At the end of the day, Argentina went home with the small consolation prize of being the protagonist of a game that we will be talking much about in the weeks to come. France on the other hand, will now face Uruguay on the road to the world title – for which they violently proposed their strong candidacy today.
Deschamps placed the experienced Olivier Giroud at the center of his forward line for what looked like an early World Cup final, with Mbappé, Blaise Matuidi, and Le Petit Diable Antoine Griezmann behind him – confirming the lineup that had snatched a disappointing 0-0 draw out of the game with Denmark. Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli, on the other hand, reshuffled his cards again (how much by his own will, it’s not for us to know…) and resorted to a 4-3-3 module with Lionel Messi falso nueve between Angel Di Maria and Cristian Pavon. Franco Armani was confirmed as the starting goalkeeper, after Wilfredo Caballero’s disasters in the first two group stage matches.
Mbappé offered an early preview of what the match was going to be in the 7th minute already, forcing Javier Mascherano to knock him down close to Argentina’s box. From the free kick spot, Griezmann hit Armani’s crossbar. You cannot say that the Argentinians were not warned in time…
France’s number 10 seemed literally possessed, and from a fantastic 60-meter progression of his originated the chance for France’s first lead. 34-year-old Mascherano was left behind, so it was Marcos Rojo who needed to try to stop him. But the hero of the game with Nigeria pushed him too hard in the box, causing a penalty that referee Alireza Faghani could not but allow. Griezmann converted for France’s 1-0 after 10 minutes.
Nicolas Tagliafico had to spend a yellow card to stop Mbappé again a few minutes later, with the whole Argentinian defense struggling to figure out the PSG’s talent accelerations from the center. The Selecciòn tried to resort to ball possession to build their chances, but the gap in energy and technical skills versus Les Bleus was evident. Messi remained isolated on the front line, ignored by his teammates and incapable of creating play himself. The impression was that only an isolated episode could change the trend of the match, and Argentina’s trump card turned out to be Angel Di Maria, who in the 41st minute invented a formidable left-foot curl shot from out of the box to level things up before the break.
The Albiceleste played on the wings of enthusiasm for a few minutes, and for a while the gods of football seemed to have changed their preferences, as they placed defender Gabriel Mercado on the trajectory of an unpretentious shot by Messi: A fatal deflection that put the ball past Hugo Lloris to give Argentina an unexpected 1-2 lead. Still, Jorge Sampaoli’s side was not tranquil – as shown by a misunderstanding between Fabio Fazio and Franco Armani that could cost much to the white and blues…
It only made sense that it took another ballistic feat to rebalance the match, and cast away the shadows of a clamorous (and undeserved) defeat for France. Les Bleus’ godsend answered to the name of Benjamin Pavard, a 22-year-old defender playing for Stuttgart, who might have been known for many things until today – but surely not for his left foot shot. Much of the credit in the equalising action for France also goes to left back Lucas Hernández, who designed a sharp cross from the left side, believing in a ball that seemed lost already. Pavard pounced on the ball from the right side, firing a sensational bend shot which instantly became a serious candidate for the best goal seen in the Russian competition.
From then on, the battle in Kazan became a game reserve for Kylian Mbappé. In the 63rd minute, a dominating Hernández sent again the ball in from the left side, Mbappé freed himself from his markers and shocked Armani with flawless conclusion. 3-2 for France, which soon became 4-2 when the PSG starlet – him, once again! – finalized a five-pass counterattack, after Olivier Giroud had made the ball filter through the Argentinian center backs.
From the moment they went down, the French had scored three times in a little more than 10 minutes. After his goal, Angel Di Maria had celebrated by putting his hands in the shape of two balls, as to mean “we have attributes.” It goes without saying that, at least on the occasion, Deschamps’ side showed to have some bigger ones.
Sampaoli’s move to revitalize the match was sending in El Kun Sergio Aguero, a change that bore fruit only when it was too late. Things got tough on the pitch, with Blaise Matuidi scoring a yellow card that costed him much, as he will be banned from the next Quarter Finals game. Deschamps promptly pulled him out, to prevent things from getting worse.
Messi showed a faint glimpse of his boundless talent in the 84th minute as he dashed past two defenders in the box, but his weak shot was the perfect image of a player who has little fuel left in the tank – at least for watch concerns his experience with the Selecciòn. His swansong came well into stoppage time, when a cross by La Pulce from the right side put Aguero in the condition to score with a header, and wrap up a pyrotechnical 3-4 score.
A small brawl in the last 30 seconds put an end to Argentina’s hopes – never too realistic, if truth be told – to grab a late ticket to the extra time. The Albiceleste went home with many questions to be answered, in primis what their leader and captain Messi will do.
On the French side, a new star is officially born, his breakthrough certified by the applause from the whole Kazan Arena when Didier Deschamps pulled him out: His name is Kylian Mbappé and – did we mention that already? – he is not even 20 years old.
June 30, 2018 – World Cup Round of 16
SCORERS: 13′ Griezmann (F, pen.), 41′ Di Maria (A); 48′ Mercado (A), 57′ Pavard (F), 63′ Mbappé (F), 68’ Mbappé (F), 93′ Aguero (A)
|FRANCE (4-3-3): Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Pogba Kanté, Matuidi (75’ Tolisso); Mbappé (88’ Thauvin), Griezmann (83’ Fekir); Giroud (Mandanda, Areola, Kimpembe, Rami, Sidibé, Nzonzi, Lemar, Dembélé, Thauvin) Coach: Deschamps|
|ARGENTINA (4-3-3): Armani; Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo (46′ Fazio), Tagliafico; Perez (61’ Aguero), Mascherano, Banega; Pavon (75’ Meza), Messi, Di Maria (Caballero, Guzman, Ansaldi, Acuña, Salvio, Biglia, Lo Celso, Higuain, Dybala) Coach: Sampaoli|
REFEREE: Faghani (Iran)
NOTES: Attendance: 42873; Yellow Cards: Matuidi, Pavard, Giroud (F), Rojo, Tagliafico, Mascherano, Banega, Otamendi (A)