Kylian Mbappe stars, Paul Pogba at his best and Lionel Messi misses out. We bring you the talking points from a World Cup thriller in Kazan…
France are through to the last eight of the World Cup after a 4-3 victory over Argentina, which swung in three different directions over an enthralling 90 minutes.
It’s the end of the road for some in the Argentine set-up, but for France, the world stage brought out the best in Mbappe and co.
France 4-3 Argentina
As it happened
This electric forward had the world stage to prove why he is a £166m teenager, and he took it emphatically.
Mbappe was let loose on a laboured defence, attempting more dribbles (10) than the entire Argentine side, and seven more than Messi. Argentina were so petrified, they resorted to kicking him, fouling him three times in the opening 20 minutes.
His first break, running 77 yards from his own half to the opposition box and winning a penalty, was blistering, bringing memories back of Michael Owen in St Etienne 20 years ago to the day.
That day, Roberto Ayala couldn’t catch Owen; Marcos Rojo did catch Mbappe, but clumsily and unfairly.
Argentina seemingly fostered the perfect environment for Mbappe’s runs, but this was as much to do with France and Didier Deschamps. France were happy to allow them the ball, registering just 35 per cent possession in the first half, knowing that as they edged slowly up the pitch and showed their anxieties, France and Mbappe would break with devastating impact.
Thierry Henry is the obvious comparison, but Deschamps fielded questions on his resemblance to the Brazilian striker Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo was a forward who was very quick but I think Kylian is even quicker. But [Ronaldo] is someone who is a world champion compared to a young player who has lots of abilities and qualities, but he’s only 19, 20 years old. He’ll make a lot of progress and I’m very happy with the way he plays.”
He’s the youngest player to score two goals in a World Cup game since another Brazilian, Pele in 1958. Could this be Mbappe’s defining moment?
Pogba the quarterback
Mbappe didn’t do it all by himself in Kazan. Pogba had a decent group stage, but he stepped up on Saturday, putting in a world-class midfield performance.
Picking the ball up deep, he regularly found Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann in-behind the Argentine defence, getting his head up as France looked to move from back to front fast to catch Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo off guard.
So often unnoticed, Pogba’s hard work in his own box was also key, regularly getting on the end of wide deliveries as France came under pressure in intense spurts.
He also made 10 recoveries, more than any player on the pitch, and in this mood, the 25-year-old is the complete midfielder.
In what could be his last game on a World Cup stage, Messi tried in vain to steer his Argentina side to the quarter-final stage.
Employed as a false nine in the first half, Messi struggled to get himself involved, drifting away from his forward position to find the ball, meaning Argentina were often left with no recognised striker.
Messi was left with no choice but to edge deeper, but the defensive work of France midfielders N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi to interrupt Messi’s rhythm meant he could not have the impact many Argentine supporters were hoping.
The introduction of Sergio Aguero in the second half allowed Messi to play a more natural game; his cross for the Manchester City man’s goal was superb, and he is the first player to have delivered an assist in each of the last four World Cups.
But Messi is still yet to score in a knockout game in the competition – just the 756 minutes of football. Was this his last chance?
‘Little boss’ no longer in charge
Former Liverpool midfielder Mascherano summed up Argentina against Nigeria – jittery, mistake-ridden yet eventually full of heart and character.
But make no mistake, this France side were a step too far for the 34-year-old. He announced his international retirement after the game, and it was one he’ll want to forget fast.
Once described as the man with three lungs, Mascherano was frighteningly off the pace in Kazan, giving away foul after foul. He would have missed the last eight through suspension if Argentina had progressed, which may have been a blessing in disguise.
That isn’t to take away from Mascherano’s Argentina career. He was “little boss” in Brazil in 2014, but 2018 came just too late.
France right-back Benjamin Pavard was playing in the German second division with Stuttgart just one season ago, and on only his ninth appearance for Les Bleus produced one of the goals of the tournament.
On the gallop, the 22-year-old cut across a loose ball from 25 yards to find the far corner, up there with most aesthetically pleasing goals you’ll see if viewed from behind the defender.
Defensively, Pavard was solid. His positional maturity alongside the imperious Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane is all the more impressive given he is regularly deployed at centre-half for Stuttgart, where he is nicknamed Monsieur Versatile.