The elation — and the glimmer of redemption — that Argentina’s group stage win against Nigeria elicited lasted as long as it took a 19-year-old to dart across the field.
When a tackle by Marcos Rojo put an end to Kylian Mbappe’s brilliant run to the goal and gave the French an early penalty kick, one wouldn’t have predicted that he, and not his more celebrated teammates or opponents, would dominate the game where goals came often and there was much see-sawing.
No teenager has imposed such will on a World Cup match since Pele – just 17 – mesmerised the world with his wizardry in the 1958 finals in Sweden.
In the end, Argentina — and Lionel Messi — were sent packing.
The South Americans, perhaps still recovering from their emotionally-draining win over Nigeria, had a horrendous start to the game.
The team’s suspect backline came to haunt it as early as the 12th minute when a tearing run by Mbappe was brought to a halt when Rojo, outpaced by the youngster, outmuscled him, conceding a penalty. Antoine Griezmann rolled the ball down the middle after Franco Armani had guessed the direction wrong, diving to his left.
The French forward line, with Oliver Giroud playing at its tip, gave their opposition a harrowing time with the Argentines often resorting to cynical fouls to keep their marauding attackers at bay.
Nicolas Tagliafico, the Argentine left-back, was the guilty party in the 19th minute when he brought down Mbappe, again, just inches outside the box. Paul Pogba’s resultant free-kick soared above, leaving Argentina with the chance to get back into the game.
The equaliser arrived against the run of play when Angel Di Maria — often unappreciated (he was considered surplus both in Real Madrid and Manchester United) — scored the longest-range goal (30 yards) of this World Cup with a left-footed snap shot that sailed past the outstretched Hugo Llloris with four minutes left for the fist half whistle.
Fortune continued to favour Argentina after the break with Messi twisting and turning to unleash a low shot, which was diverted past a flummoxed Llloris by Gabriel Mercado, who was lucky to be at the right place.
Argentina’s advantage, however, was short lived as Benjamin Pavard struck the sweetest right-footed volley from outside the box, after a botched up clearance, in the 58th minute. The right back employed wonderful technique and composure to control a swerving, vicious drive into the far corner, leaving Armani with little chance to deal with it.
Read: Rojo - From hero to a villain in days
A distressed Argentina, unable to come in terms with the quick change in fates, allowed France to muscle back into the game and soon paid the price when Mbappe reacted quickest to a blocked shot from Blaise Matuidi to drive a low shot across the goal to restore France’s lead in the 64th minute.
The teenager, miraculously left unmarked, effectively closed the game, scoring his second of the night — four minutes later — after Giroud found him in space.
Also read: Mbappe goals, pace scorch Argentina
Messi, with the dream of a World Cup slipping away, tried in vain to drive his dysfunctional team ahead, but France remained resolute as Argentina failed to find a way past its resistance.
Sergio Aguero’s injury-time headed goal — from a left-footed Messi cross (perhaps his last in a World Cup) — created some last-minute mayhem but the result and the hero of the day remained unchanged.
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