KAZAN, Russia – If that is it for Lionel Messi’s hopes of winning a World Cup–and he will be 35 by the time the next tournament comes around in Qatar–at least he went out in a classic, a 4-3 thriller that featured two goals of unimpeachable quality and will live forever in the collective memory of the World Cup. But if it marked the end of one era, it perhaps also marked the shift to a new one, as Kylian Mbappe confirmed his immense talent. That £166 million for which Paris Saint-Germain agreed to sign him last summer suddenly looks a lot more reasonable.
The Argentina defense cannot handle even moderate pace, and Mbappe is lighting fast. All France had to do was defend moderately well and hit balls over the top. It was something of a mystery that the game remained as close as it did for so long. This Argentina has been a shambolic side from the start of the tournament, and for Mbappe, it was the perfect victim. Whether France actually has found a coherence that had been lacking in the group stage or whether it just capitalized on the shortcomings of its opponent will only be seen in the quarterfinal.
It was clear from the very start that Argentina could not handle Mbappe. After 13 minutes Ever Banega miscontrolled 30 yards from the France goal. Mbappe picked up the ball and ran. Banega couldn’t catch him and neither could Javier Mascherano. Mbappe swept by Marcos Rojo, who did catch him, but only by using his arms to haul him down. It resulted in a clear penalty that Antoine Griezmann rolled in.
What followed was a game of extraordinary drama, one in which it seemed mystifying that France was ever in danger. Argentina may have been a mess, but its will to survive and endure is remarkable. Angel Di Maria lashed in a brilliant equalizer from 30 yards four minutes before halftime, and three minutes after the break, a Messi shot was redirected in by Gabriel Mercado.
Briefly, there was a thought that Argentina might somehow cling on, that it might somehow rekindle the spirit of 1990 when it produced dogged win after dogged win.
It did not last long. Argentina’s right flank was an open door all night. A cross from the left evaded everybody until it reached Benjamin Pavard, who almost caressed a curling volley into the top corner. Then it was Mbappe’s turn. A cross from the left, a sharp turn and shot and a goal from the sort of predatory instincts that mark out the best finishers.
Then, four minutes later, after another forward charge into space, a neat touch from Olivier Giroud and a calm finish, Mbappe became the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score two goals in a World Cup knockout tie.
“I’m very happy," Mbappe said. "It’s flattering to be second after Pele. But let’s put things in context, Pele is another category. But it’s good to be among these people who score in knockouts.”
There was still time for Sergio Aguero to pull one back, but this was France’s day, and specifically Mbappe’s day. There will always be skepticism about those who play in the French league, even if they score 13 league goals in helping their side to a domestic treble. But this, after his performances for Monaco in the Champions League in 2017-18, confirmed him not merely as a player of the highest potential but of the highest quality.
“As I’ve always said,” Mbappe went on, “in a World Cup you have all the top-level players, so it’s an opportunity to show what you can do. There’s no better place to show your ability.”
Didier Deschamps, after the prickliness of the first couple of weeks of the tournament, cut a far more relaxed figure, joking about the fact Mbappe was born in 1998, five months after France, under Deschamps’s captaincy, had won the World Cup.
“This was a good year for him to be born, even if he didn’t see much of the 1998 World Cup,” he said. “But he adores football. He knows everything on clubs and players, and I’ve always said he’s very good. I’m very happy for Mbappe to be a French citizen, and he has a lot of room to make progress. But in such an important match, he’s shown all his talent. And even if he was supposed to defend, he still did attacks, and very good ones.”
That last line was presumably said in jest, although with Deschamps it's often hard to be sure. This, though, was a far more relaxed Deschamps than he has been over the past two weeks, and he was even prepared to indulge comparisons of Mbappe and the Brazilian great Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo was a forward player who was very, very quick,” he said. “But I think Kylian is even quicker. He needs more space as well, even if he can play as a forward player, and he’s also in the central part of the field. But this is somebody who was a world champion compared to a young player who has lots of abilities.”