KAZAN: The group stage of the World Cup is all very well but the knockout round is the greater theatre. This is where a cast who have honed their performance in the repertory fringe strut their stuff in front of the brightest footlights.
Thus France’s 4-3 victory over Argentina which launched the second round in Russia was of a technical and dramatic quality beyond anything the eight groups had to offer fans in 11 venues and television viewers all around the planet.
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 it would be unfair to focus on the losers when the French 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.
Thus Argentina were condemned to head home though whether Sampaoli will dare take the same flight may be another matter. The hinchada back in Argentina will forgive the players far sooner than they will forgive the manager, always the scapegoat.
France made a sharp start. In the eighth minute Griezmann struck the bar with a free kick after Javier Mascherano had brought down Mbappe. Two minutes later Mbappe embarked on a 60-yard dash from of his own half which was ended only by a trip from Marcos Rojo and Griezmann’s penalty opened. This was, for the record, the 19th successful conversion of a record 25 spot kicks at these finals.
They might have scored more. Paul Pogna thrashed a free kick too high and Olivier Giroud was just too late to reach a right-wing cross from fullback Benjamin Pavard. But those failings proved costly as 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, from deep within their talent, dug reserves of pride to pursue one last resurrection. In vain. Messi wriggled into space but mis-hit his shot. He did set up a stoppage-time goal for substitute Aguero. But it was all too desperate and too late.
In any case, to be fair, Argentina’s players had defied their own disorganisation to reach this stage in the first place.