Mbappé steals the limelight from subdued Messi as Argentina bow out
Nineteen-year-old’s spectacular display helps France seal a quarter-final place
Kylian Mbappe scores to put France 3-2 ahead during the last 16 victory over Argentina in Kazan. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA
This was surely no way for a player with a serious claim to being the best on the planet to exit the international game’s greatest stage.
There he was, though, Lionel Messi, grim-faced and head down towards the back of a long line of Argentine players as they snaked their way in single file silently through the mixed zone at the Kazan Arena. It looked, for all the world, like the saddest ever conga.
Messi looked more distant than most, still shocked it seemed by what had befallen him and his team. Argentina had trailed then led this thrilling encounter with France but ultimately lost to a side whose teenage star, Kylian Mbappé, simply stole the show.
“When you are to meet a player like Kylian or Leo of course you make a plan to control them,” said Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli afterwards, “but if they have a day like Mbappé did today then it’s very difficult to make the plan work.
“We talked about every single thing that could happen beforehand. But this is football and football is about more than just watching a video. On the pitch things can look a little different.”
Unfortunately for Sampaoli, they seemed to turn out pretty much as envisaged by Didier Deschamps whose own plan to deal with Messi worked rather well. The 31-year-old Barca star had been shifted to the central striking role in 4-3-3 with Cristian Pavon starting in place of Gonzaolo Higuain but the French surrounded him, central defenders in front, holding midfielders behind, cutting off his supply lines and quickly closing him down when the need arose.
Deschamps pointed afterwards to the way his players had curtailed any significant support Javier Mascherano or Ever Banega would have hoped to provide and Sampaoli conceded that the collective effort to help their best player lift his game had failed.
Already out of sorts, their captain simply wasn’t capable of carrying a team that includes quite a few passengers and they managed just four shots on goal, three of which were converted, despite having 60 per cent of the possession.
To his credit, Messi still managed to come away with two assists, which might well have been contribution enough to ease his side into the next round against less lethal opponents. Here, though, Paul Pogba and co countered the Argentine possession game perfectly, smothering it at one end while exposing the lack of pace and, later, space at the other. They scored four from four.
Perhaps, the exit of Portugal and Ronaldo a few hours later will have provided him with some crumb of comfort but Messi looked utterly desolate as he lingered on the pitch a little while to congratulate Mbappé and watch the goals back before heading, before any of his team-mates, towards the tunnel.
He departs this World Cup still without a goal in the knockout stages of the competition despite having played almost 13 hours of football in them; an almost unthinkable statistic at club level. At his club, however, there is rather more talent around him,
Having already retired once from international football, it would be no surprise at all if he opts to go on a more permanent basis now. Mascherano was the only one to break ranks in the mixed zone where he announced that he had had enough and with the team having failed to win any of three major finals they qualified for over the last four years, the scale and manner of their defeat here suggests that their day has passed.
The next generation may, as Sampaoli insisted they can, make Argentina great again but there is little immediate evidence of it and Messi will be 35 by the time Qatar comes around.
For Mbappé, meanwhile, there is rather more cause for optimism. The 19-year-old became the first teenager since Pelé 60 years ago to score twice in a single game at a World Cup and earned comparisons with another great Brazilian, Ronaldo, for his overall performance.
Deschamps did his best to play those down but having spent so much of his time talking about the youth and inexperience of his side in a way that suggested this might yet be a World Cup too soon for them, the 49-year-old coach may be starting to believe himself that their day is not quite so far away.
The goals conceded – a spectacular first half 30-yard strike by Angel Di Maria then second half efforts by Gabriel Mercado and, very late on, Sergio Aguero – may be of some concern but the game unfolded very much as the French would have wanted with Mbappé’s pace exploited to the full by a French side equally happy, it seemed, to pass their way forward at great pace or simply go long in order to catch their opponents flat-footed.
Mbappé won the penalty with which Antoine Griezmann put them in front in the early stages and after 22-year-old full back Benjamin Pavard made it 2-2 in the 57th minute the teenager effectively decided it with his two goals; the second a fine finish to a blistering break out of defence involving five different players.
France, will surely have to beat at least one side better than Argentina to lift the title in two weeks and Uruguay may well provide them with a tougher test on Friday but Deschamps says he believes his side can keep on improving and if he is right then it will take a very good one indeed to stop them in their tracks.
FRANCE: Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Pogba, Kante; Mbappe (Thauvin, 89 mins), Griezmann (Feikir, 84 mins), Matuidi (Tolisso, 75 mins); Giroud
ARGENTINA: Armani; Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo (Fazio,half-time), Tagliafico; Perez (Aguero, 66 mins), Mascherano, Banega; Pavon (Meza, 75 mins), Messi, Di Maria.
Referee: A Faghani (Iran).