The 2018 World Cup’s first knockout match saw France end Argentina’s campaign with a thrilling 4-3 victory on Saturday night.
Les Bleus found a breakthrough just over 10 minutes into the star-studded clash, when Kylian Mbappe was crudely sent down inside the box by Marcos Rojo and Antoine Griezmann converted the resulting penalty.
France continued to look deadly on the counter, yet the Argentinians worked their way into a rhythm and were right back in the contest courtesy of Angel Di Maria’s rocketing strike from distance before half-time.
Among an electric atmosphere in Kazan, La Albiceleste emerged for the second half with renewed vigour and completed their turnaround when Lionel Messi’s effort following a corner was fortunately deflected past Hugo Lloris by Gabriel Mercado.
Argentina’s advantage was similarly brief, however, as Benjamin Pavard’s jaw-dropping volley from outside the box again levelled the scoreline. The spotlight was saved for Mbappe though, as the youngster then capped his amazing performance by hitting the net twice inside five minutes. In one final twist, Jorge Sampaoli’s side were given some late hope through Sergio Aguero’s header, but it was little consolation as their journey in Russia came to a close.
Mbappe indeed the real deal
The 19-year-old’s big money transfer to PSG in 2017 came to the disappointment of many football clubs, but in case fans outside of France had forgotten him, Mbappe provided a stunning illustration of why he was once arguably the sport’s most sought after name. From his first run down the wing – leading to a penalty – it was clear that Argentina had no way to deal with the attacker’s supreme pace and determination to move forward.
The opposition defence hardly had a chance to react as Mbappe cleared a path inside the box and drove the ball low to restore France’s lead, before a classy finish to a counter put the result beyond doubt.
A level of composure beyond his years was needed to provide such a decisive factor in this high pressure match, and the two goals mean that Mbappe follows in the footsteps of the legendary Pele – becoming just the second teenager to score a brace at the World Cup.
Last chance for Argentina’s hero?
It will still be some time before Messi is not ranked among football’s current best players, however, once more the greatest possible prize has slipped through his fingers. La Albiceleste had the 31-year-old to thank for ensuring they qualified, however, Messi could not bring his best to the tournament proper and indeed, apart from the attempt which was deflected in by Mercado, he did not look overly threatening against France until the closing minutes.
The focus he continues to take up in the starting XI – especially at a point when Argentina were chasing the game – was arguably a detriment here to his team as well, with the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala forced to watch from the sidelines as Messi was persistently frustrated.
Few players will ever reach the same heights as the ‘Little Master’, but one will hope the fact he will likely now not lift the World Cup trophy, or even score in the competition’s knockout phases, does not haunt Messi personally.
Heavyweight fixture does not disappoint
Already providing a memorable backdrop for the group stages, the atmosphere in Russia hit a new level with the beginning of the knockout fixtures. Few could have asked for a better opening game for the Round of 16, with the widely-touted French squad facing a desperate Argentina and these two teams full of star names did not disappoint.
The players fought to match the energy of the supporters, translating into a 90 minutes brimming with chances and highlight reel goals. It is a testament to the mindset possessed by both squads that the lead changed hands numerous times and in such dramatic fashion. While it would not have been surprising to see Argentina register a fourth at the death, Les Bleus undoubtedly earned their spot among this World Cup’s elite eight.