Kylian Mbappe came of age in Kazan yesterday afternoon with a stunning second-half double to fire France into the World Cup quarter-finals and send Lionel Messi’s Argentina home to deal with the fallout from another tournament in which they have fallen short.
Mbappe, the 19-year-old striker who plays his club football at Paris Saint-Germain, scored twice in five minutes just past the hour mark as Didier Deschamps’ men stormed back from behind to seal a 4-3 victory in a seven-goal thriller which will live long in the memory.
An enthralling contest saw goal-of-the-tournament contenders from both Angel Di Maria and Benjamin Pavard and even an improbably dramatic finale after Sergio Aguero’s injury-time effort gave Argentina hope right at the death.
Antoine Griezmann had given France an early lead from the penalty spot after Mbappe was pulled down and Jorge Sampaoli’s side only stirred after Di Maria lashed home a superb 30-yard effort shortly before half-time.
Gabriel Mercado poked Argentina into the lead before Pavard’s stunning equaliser paved the way for the audacious Mbappe to take the game by the scruff of its neck.
Amid it all stood the forlorn figure of Messi, rendered a virtual bit-part player in his so-called “false nine” position, shorn of the influence which has turned so many games.
For France, who had been indifferent in the group stages, there was obvious delight at finding their form as the knockouts begin. “There is an excellent mentality in this group and we did everything to go further,” said Deschamps. “We answered the call.”
In contrast, the recriminations have already started for Argentina. Javier Mascherano immediately announced his retirement from international football. “This whole story is over and from now on I am a fan of the Argentina team and I hope these guys can win something in the future,” said the 34-year-old after his 147th and final cap. We wait to see whether Messi does likewise and whether Samaoli decides to walk.
Beleaguered Sampaoli had insisted his side would approach the game “with a knife between their teeth” but as with their group stage campaign there was little sign of anything incisive early on.
Griezmann had already hit the bar before he gave France the lead from the penalty shot in the 13th minute after the speedy Mbappe was fouled by Marcos Rojo in the box.
The impressive Paul Pogba fired over the bar and France looked set to win the game at will before Di Maria changed the momentum four minutes before the break, smashing home a brilliant left-footed shot from long-range.
The recovery was complete three minutes into the second half when Mercado deflected a Messi strike effort into the net, but the response from Deschamps’ men proved simply devastating.
First Pavard let fly with a right-footed effort which was every inch the equal of Di Maria’s strike to draw France level in the 57th minute.
Six minutes later a left-wing cross from Lucas Hernandez was only half-cleared from the Argentina box and fell to Mbappe, who took one touch before slotting home beneath keeper Franco Armani.
And neither France nor Mbappe were finished, with the teenager increasing his tally in the 68th minute when he was fed by Olivier Giroud on the right side of the box and duly dispatched his second of the game.
Yet there was still to be one final twist as Aguero stooped to head home Messi’s cross into the box two minutes into injury time, giving Argentina hope of an outrageous recovery. They pushed forward desperately in the dying seconds but the referee’s whistle led to wild celebrations and the sense Messi could have handed over the mantle to a new superstar of the game.