Mbappe brilliance inspires France past Lionel Messi and Argentina

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KAZAN, Russia — Three thoughts on France’s 4-3 win vs. Argentina in the World Cup round of 16:

1. France surge past Argentina

Les Bleus are through to the quarterfinals and the way in which they dismantled Argentina will send a clear signal to their rivals. France’s goals came via Antoine Griezmann’s penalty, Benjamin Pavard and two from Kylian Mbappe, and their opponents, who briefly went 2-1 up through Angel Di Maria and Gabriel Mercado, ultimately had no answer despite a last gasp Sergio Aguero header.

France could not have asked for a better start. Griezmann had already curled a free kick against the top of Franco Armani’s crossbar when he was handed a chance to go one better after a breathtaking run from Mbappe, who seized on Ever Banega’s error, then surged half the length of the pitch.

Marcos Rojo pushed over the 19-year-old with his right arm and the offence could not have been clearer. Griezmann rolled the spot kick to Armani’s right and the immediate thought was that Argentina would have to open up even more.

Their cause looked hopeless in the opening 40 minutes as France, happy to pick their moments to threaten, exposed them on the counter. Then, though, Di Maria struck out of nothing. Perhaps N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba could have closed quicker as he took aim from 25 yards; either way, the strike, whipped into a flailing Hugo Lloris’ top corner, was out of this world.

A turnaround nobody could have foreseen was completed three minutes after the interval. Di Maria was involved again, winning a free kick on the left before sending in a set piece that Pogba could only half-clear. Lionel Messi retrieved the ball, shot speculatively and his effort flicked past a stranded Lloris off Mercado’s laces.

Argentina’s unlikley lead lasted just nine minutes, though. Pavard’s finish, the cleanest of right-footed half volleys from the right corner of the area, was one to rival that of Di Maria and it inspired France to take control with a comeback of their own.

Mbappe was, almost predictably, sharpest to react after a Blaise Matuidi effort had been blocked inside the box and, after making space with a superb touch amid a crowd of bodies, drilled a low shot under Armani, who surely could have done better.

But the goalkeeper had no chance when, incredibly, France scored their third goal in the space of 11 minutes. A flowing move ended with Olivier Giroud touching the ball through to Mbappe, who finished with aplomb. Aguero’s late consolation made no difference.

2. France strengths expose Argentina weaknesses

The best-case scenario for France was that their pace would rip Argentina apart and, in the end, their wildest dreams came true.

This was scintillating football that both played to their strengths and capitalised upon where their opponents are weakest; in that sense it was a particular triumph for Didier Deschamps, who has long been accused of forcing his team to play with the handbrake on.

Theory is one thing but on a stage like this, and in front of a partisan crowd heavily weighted toward Argentina, carrying out a game plan is something else. Yet France saw an opportunity and exposed their opponents.

You sensed Argentina would be in trouble when, only seven minutes in, Mbappe blazed away from Mascherano and won the free kick from which Griezmann hit the frame. Accordingly, it would not be long before the veteran midfielder was left trailing the youngster again, this time watching as Rojo conceded the penalty.

At that stage it seemed a question of how many goals France would score but then came their wobble either side of half-time. However, the response showed that, deployed correctly, France have the resources to blow anybody away.

It is not the kind of football they have generally played under Deschamps and they are not yet good enough to switch off as they did for Di Maria’s goal, but perhaps this was a watershed moment. The manager has spoken at length about his team’s youth and inexperience but they appeared to grow up, delivering against an old foe in style.

3. Messi helpless as another World Cup dream ends

Messi pushed, pushed and pushed again, but it was not enough and now the chance to win a World Cup with Argentina has surely eluded him. He has carried this team on his shoulders but here they were exposed for what they are: A sluggish, ponderous side reliant on big moments from individuals. They lack fluency, cohesion and — surprisingly, given the players at their disposal — flair.

Without Di Maria’s burst of quality or Mercado’s stroke of luck, Argentina would barely have been in this game. The way in which their midfield three of Mascherano, Banega and Enzo Perez were cut through, particularly in the first half hour and for Mbappe’s second goal, was embarrassing.

On the ball, meanwhile, they made their own problems, Banega’s needless error sent Mbappe away to win France’s penalty and too many moves broke down when a tigerish France midfield robbed them of possession. On such occasions was a vulnerable defence exposed.

Argentina were bereft of sharpness and wit although Messi looked like a man desprate to keep his dream alive. One run, with five minutes left, ended with a shot at Lloris and it was from Messi’s superb pass that Aguero gave some desperate hope in stoppage time. But there was great escape.

That Argentina scored three times is perhaps, from their perspective, the most frustrating thing. They possess the weapons, but have little idea how to use them effectively and Sampaoli’s decision to field Christian Pavon in place of Gonzalo Higuain from the start made little impact.

Argentina must refresh and find new talents to galvanise their defence and midfield; the sadness is that, when they do eventually come through, Messi will surely be long gone. – Espn