Lionel Messi has played in many a game illuminated and decided by the brilliance of a man wearing the No 10 shirt, but few like this and rarely with such consequences. Messi will surely never win the World Cup now: not after Argentina’s elimination and evisceration. Teenager outshone a thirty-something, the world’s second most expensive player seizing the limelight from the man some think is the greatest ever.
The generation game was won by France’s perfect 10. Kylian Mbappe delivered an extraordinary performance on a day when he displayed his rich promise and Les Bleus finally looked like realising their potential. The 19-year-old striker produced perhaps the best individual display of the World Cup – Cristiano Ronaldo’s three-goal salvo against Spain is the other contender – to eject Argentina from it. Perhaps the game of the tournament had two of the goals of the tournament. It suggested Mbappe may end up as the player of the World Cup, too.
A coruscating classic where even the right-backs traded goals, the lead switched hands and excellence was accompanied by errors ended with deserving winners. Argentina were a shambles in defence. The scoreline flattered them as Mbappe destroyed them with a visceral example of how blistering and exhilarating sprinting can be. Three Argentines were booked for fouling him. He still scored twice and won a penalty.
His goals came in a five-minute flurry. Franco Armani should have done better when the forward first slipped past him, but it was further proof of his sharpness. His second was a slick finish, Mbappe latching on to Olivier Giroud’s pass to finish with calm finesse.
Yet his impact began far earlier as France made an exceptional start. Mbappe was Usain Bolt transported onto a field in Kazan. He was lightning quick, but his speed was all the notable because Argentina’s rearguard was so slow. A high defensive line has been a staple of Jorge Sampaoli’s management but deploying one against Mbappe was astonishingly naïve.
Argentina could not cope. Evidence was supplied early on. Javier Mascherano fouled Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann whipped a free kick against the bar. Then Mbappe set off on a 75-yard surge. Marcos Rojo had been an asset in the Nigeria box when he made an unexpected foray forward to clinch Argentina’s place in the last 16. He proved a liability in his own penalty area, desperately grabbing at Mbappe. Griezmann scored the spot kick.
Argentina’s defensive difficulties were compounded as they were overrun in the centre of the park. Paul Pogba was also excellent, powering through the midfield and supplying perceptive passes. Sampaoli’s side resorted to fouling N’Golo Kante, who was invariably quicker to the ball than them.
And yet, improbably, they contrived to lead. A combination of character, individual inspiration and a hint of luck transformed the game. Mbappe was not the only Paris Saint-Germain attacker to star. Angel Di Maria produced an emphatic rebuttal to suggestions he is in decline, scoring spectacularly with a thunderbolt from 20 yards and darting away from defenders at will.
Messi seemed hindered by Sampaoli’s selection. He excelled for years as a false nine for Barcelona. Here he was an out-and-out centre-forward, another decision that backfired, as the specialist strikers were benched. Yet he still mustered an impact, squeezing out a shot. It probably would have been simple for Hugo Lloris to save, but Gabriel Mercado diverted it to leave the goalkeeper flat on his heels.
When Griezmann spurned a wonderful chance, gifted by Federico Fazio with an awful back pass, and France were not awarded a penalty for the panicking defender’s push on the striker, it seemed the full-back’s goal would be decisive.
It was not. His France counterpart responded in style. Benjamin Pavard’s first international goal was a stunning product of technique and bend, struck from 20 yards after a deep cross from his fellow full-back Lucas Hernandez.
Then Mbappe seized the initiative, averting injustice and highlighting how France were too potent, too powerful and too rapid for an ageing, ragged Argentina team. Di Maria and Messi never gave up and the latter supplied the cross the substitute Sergio Aguero headed in. Argentina’s efforts were unrelenting but unsuccessful and, as France celebrated, Messi stood dolefully alone. A dream died, and an inimitable player looked inconsolable.
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