KEIR RADNEDGE in RUSSIA —- The The World Cup is no respecter of reputation. Every victory has to be earned. Again and again. Hence the 2018 FIFA World Cup no longer has any use for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The two superstars whose goal-greedy exploits have dominated the world stage for the past decade were both condemned to flights home from Russia within hours of each other. Second round drama saw Messi’s Argentina beaten 4-3 by France in Kazan then Ronaldo’s Portugal knocked out 2-1 in Sochi by Uruguay.
Almost certainly, since Messi is 31 and Ronaldo 33, these were their last appearances on the World Cup stage.
Many of the post-mortems over the next days will dwell on the despair seared across the face of Leo Messi after surely his last World Cup. But that would be unfair to the French who had a magnificent win to celebrate plus the promotion of a new young star in the World Cup firmament.
At 19 Kylian Mbappe is the youngest French player ever to score not just one but two goals at the World Cup. Not only that but it was his 60-yard dash which drew the penalty from which Antoine Griezmann clipped Les Bleus into the lead. Mbappe subsequently became the first teenager to score twice at the finals since England’s Michael Owen in 1998.
His match-winning brilliance vindicated the €180m fee which PSG have agreed to pay Monaco for a youngster who was only, formally, on loan to them this past season. By happy coincidence – destiny, even? – Mbappe was born in 1998, the year his manager Didier Deschamps captained France to World Cup glory.
Argentina, from their initial 1-1 draw with the minnows of Iceland, had been an accident waiting to happen. Coach Jorge Sampaoli, in a perpetual panic of indecision, swapped tactics, team shape and player selection from game to game.
Against France, he decided outstanding attackers such as Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Sergio Aguero should all start on the substitutes’ bench while he deployed Messi as a so-called ‘false No9’. Messi was thus asked to be inspiration, playmaker and striker all in one. Even for the five-times World Player of the Year this was too much.
France struck first through a Griezmann penalty after Mbappe had been felled by Marcos Rojo and they might have scored more but were caught just before half-time when Angel Di Maria – out of nowhere – arrowed home an angled drive from 30yd.
Argentina had dragged themselves back from the brink of group stage elimination with a tumultuous 2-1 win over Nigeria. That passion raised its head again after the interval as a shot from Messi deflected off the foot of fullback Gabriel Mercado and handed them the lead.
Suddenly the thousands of Argentinian fans, chanting, singing, cheering, twirling their shirts in the air, believed. That was their mistake. Their team had been drained of energy and willpower by the sinew-straining of a recovery too far.
A mere nine minutes later it was Mercado’s opposite number, France rightback Benjamin Pavard, who struck a superb equaliser. Seven minutes more and Mbappe drilled home from close range before claiming his own second and a French fourth goal on the run after a delicate assist from Giroud. France had thus managed one more goal in 68 minutes than in all their three unimpressive group matches.
Argentina raised a stoppage-time goal for substitute Aguero but that was not sufficient to save them.
As for Ronaldo, he was rarely able to escape the close attention of Uruguay’s defenders as Portugal went down 2-1 in Sochi.
The European champions were chasing the game for most of the night. Edinson Cavani scored two magnificent goals, after six and 61 minutes. The first was a classic far-post header to an angle ctoss from Luis Suarez, the second a side-footed 25yd effort from the corner of the penalty box.
Portugal were on terms only briefly early in the second half through a Pepe header to a left-wing corner. They dominated the last halfhour but without ever piercing a Celeste defence in which centre-backs Jose Gimenez and captain Diego Godin were magnificent.
For once, at the final whistles then, Ronaldo and Messi had ended up on the same side . . . the losing side.