KAZAN, Russia — The notion of this World Cup as something mercifully light on dreariness while unusually rich in sparkle deepened in Kazan Arena early Saturday evening, when a heaving, crackling gem of a round-of-16 bout saw France best Argentina, 4-3, while momentous scene piled atop momentous scene.
In the final such scene, Lionel Messi stared off blankly with trademark opacity while a billion or so Earthlings accustomed to watching him might have wondered which thoughts coursed behind that absurdly famous face. The fourth World Cup venture of the player widely deemed the world’s best had wound up kaput sooner than any of the other three, which had gone quarterfinal, quarterfinal and final.
Yet somehow, as a player who just reached 31 might have surmised a final trudge away, a player who hasn’t yet reached 20 supplied a bouquet of scenes that also matter globally. At the moment when France’s charismatic Kylian Mbappe followed one of the two goals he scored and the three he caused by sliding on his knees with his arms folded, the 19-year-old stated his grandest “Here I am” to date.
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And to think: His goals in the 64th and 68th minutes, which finished a young France team’s strong-stomach climb from a 2-1 deficit to a 4-2 lead, somehow gave way scene-wise to something way back in the 11th. In that, Mbappe materialized at the midpoint of a dreary Argentina pass atop the French box and began making his way alone down the pitch like some cartoon giant with seemingly half of Buenos Aires giving chase, his stomping steps seemingly audible, until Marcos Rojo spilled the big lad and met with referee’s arrest.
Antoine Griezmann slid the penalty behind a sliding Franco Armani, France led 1-0 on a goal awarded to the outstanding Griezmann yet wreaked by Mbappe, and the audience buzzed about having seen something powerful. A Norwegian reporter would ask after the match if maybe France didn’t get two trophies in 1998, with its World Cup title that July 12 and Mbappe’s birth in Paris that Dec. 20.
That coaxed a smile from the teen with the movie-star looks, followed by, “People remember more the World Cup victory than that I was born.”
By the time he said that, he also had become the first player younger than 20 to score twice in a World Cup game since P-P-Pele in 1958. So while France Manager Didier Deschamps wisely tried to fend off all the comparisons to past greats who played and finished umpteen years, he noted “a lot of room to make headway, to progress, but in such an important match, he showed all his talent.”
The kid did so with the help of another set of scenes from this day on which 42,873 saw a slew of the skills that ticket-buyers crave: scenes of French beauty. French beauty had been forecast, given France’s set of dazzling attackers. French beauty had been awaited, in that manner maybe only French beauty can be. French beauty just had not quite been seen, even through the loss-less but thrill-less group stage.
“We played against a team that was very, very fast in transition,” Argentina Manager Jorge Sampaoli said.
Waves and waves of that transition beauty deluged Argentina, which had to squeeze through South American qualifying just before the curtain, then squeak through Group D just before curtains, yet rebounded from that early Mbappe romp and actually led 2-1. It got a smashing 25-yard goal from the to-that-point invisible Angel Di Maria on 41 minutes, rocketed between a small thicket of players until it screamed out on the other side, too late for goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to deal with its path to the upper-right corner.
Argentina got another goal just after halftime, when Gabriel Mercado flicked a left foot onto Messi’s harmless-looking shot and the whole thing tricked Lloris and sent the singing, overwhelming Argentines into untold rapture. Could Argentina have found itself?
Then, as Deschamps put it: “Our team is younger, but we answered the call. We had a lot of character.”
They also had a lot of ways to move the ball briskly up the pitch, and this end-to-end breathless stuff governed all three of the goals that came on 57, 64 and 68. In the 57th: Blaise Matuidi fed one far ahead to Lucas Hernandez, who chased it to the byline. In the 64th: Samuel Umtiti near midfield played one to Paul Pogba, who raced through the middle and sent it well wide left to Hernandez. In the 68th: Olivier Giroud rampaged through the middle and slipped it easily to his right where somebody of mounting fame rampaged also.
What followed each: In the 57th, Hernandez’s last-second cross of superior quality bounded its way to defender Benjamin Pavard, who whirred it back the other way from the right of the top of the box with delicious side spin inside the left post. In the 64th, the ball caromed to Mbappe, who moved ahead beyond the confusion almost like an optical illusion and sent one under goalkeeper Armani’s left hand. In the 68th, that was Mbappe running right there, so the strike thundered to the left corner, the Argentina defense in shreds.
That made the match kind of croak a bit, until Argentina reawakened it in stoppage time, Messi possibly bidding farewell with a leftward cross of high, high art that Sergio Aguero headed in on 90-plus-3, and Argentina making one final push of fine structure that got a little woolly before Di Maria missed wide and the whistle pierced.
After the inevitable first question to Sampaoli about having Argentina’s worst finish since 2002 despite having the “best player in the world,” and whether Sampaoli would stay on, he would say such things as “too soon to analyze,” “I’m sad,” “I’m frustrated” and, “They fought until the very last minute and they nearly equalized in the end and I really, really value that.”
That they did, because this game, like this World Cup of Spain-Portugal, Germany-Sweden, Switzerland-Serbia and Mexico-Germany, of Peruvian and Colombian fans, of Iran almost advancing, Russia making noise, England thriving and Germany going out, just couldn’t and wouldn’t quit. While it stirs, it has put bright lights on a guy born in December 1998, who has found just the stage for sending the shine right back.
“Bien sur!” Mbappe said, meaning, of course, “of course.”
“In the World Cup, you have the top-level players so you have the opportunity to show what you can do and what your abilities are. There is no better place than the World Cup,” just as there are few World Cups any better than this.
— Chuck Culpepper
Dueling yellow cards
In the 93rd minute, France’s Olivier Giroud and Argentina’s Nicolas Otamendi were involved in a scrum and received yellow cards.
Argentina finds a late one
In the 93rd minute, Argentina’s Sergio Aguero headed in a pass from Lionel Messi from the center of the box to the bottom-left corner of the goal. It briefly gave Argentina a glimmer of hope that was quickly snuffed out.
In the 68th minute, Kylian Mbappe capped a special day with a special run for a goal. Olivier Giroux sent him a through ball rolling in step as he made his run down the right side, and Mbappe picked it up with no one in front. He sent a right-footer flying past Franco Armani, who dove right, and that may have been the knockout blow to Argentina.
Kylian Mbappe had spent the match creating for others. In the 64th minute, he created a chance for himself. He dribbled through the box, past Argentina defenders and suddenly drilled a left-footer toward goalkeeper Franco Armani’s left foot. Armani dropped, trying to deflect out the shot, but it bounced between his left hand and foot and ricocheted up into the net. After being held scoreless for 45 minutes after its first goal, the French scored twice in seven minutes. Mbappe grinned wide and slid on his knees toward the crowd exploding in applause.
Benjamin Pavard scored what the announcers called “the goal of his life” in the 57th minute to even the French with Argentina. A long cross bounced through the box and suddenly found Pavard, who is making the ninth international appearance of his career. Pavard struck it with the outside of his foot and sent a corkscrewing, screaming spinner toward the top-left corner of the net. Argentina goalkeeper Franco Armani didn’t have a chance, and once again it was any team’s game.
A third yellow card for Argentina
In the 49th minute, French forward Kylian Mbappe beat the Argentina defense again, but he was tripped. As he fell, Argentina’s Ever Banega slid in late and collided with the Frenchman’s left thigh. The referee quickly drew his yellow card.
In the 48th minute, star Argentina striker Lionel Messi sent a left-footed strike into the box and Gabriel Mercado deflected it right. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris froze as he watched the ball trickle into the net to make his team trail for the first time in this World Cup.
Halftime: France 1, Argentina 1
Les Bleus struck first but La Albiceleste tied things up with a 41st-minute goal from Ángel Di María. The sides hadn’t played their best in the group stage, but it appears they’re warming up here in their first knockout game.
Mascherano takes significant yellow card
In the 43rd minute, Javier Mascherano drew a yellow card for a tackle in the midfield. If Argentina advances, he will be forced to sit out its next match.
Off a throw-in late in the 41st minute, La Albiceleste’s Ever Banega rotated a pass up to Angel Di Maria, who seemed almost surprised by how open he was. The French had hung low in the box, so Di Maria thundered his left foot through a shot from just outside the box that spun left to the top-right corner of the net, whizzing by French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Argentina and, of course, Diego Maradona went wild.
Argentina draws a yellow card, nearly allows another PK
Minutes after Griezmann gave France the early lead, his team seemed poised to receive another penalty kick. Kylian Mbappe made a deft touch on a long pass and was sprinting into the box when Nicolás Tagliafico stepped in front of him and sent him sprawling. Tagliafico received a yellow card, but Mbappe was about a half-step outside the box, so France was awarded a free kick that Paul Pogba sent high and allowed Argentina to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Marcos Rojo, the heroic defender whose goal sent Argentina into the knockout round, put his team in a difficult spot in the 12th minute. He slid underneath French forward Kylian Mbappe as he ran into the box, receiving a yellow card and giving a penalty kick. French star Antoine Griezmann slotted a left-footed PK bottom right as Argentinean goalkeeper Franco Armani went left, and France, in a win-or-go-home battle between global juggernauts, seized the early advantage.
— Sam Fortier
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