Dreams can endure only so long before they are overwhelmed by reality – and there are few realities quite so brutally uncompromising as the pace and finishing of Kylian Mbappé, who scored twice and won a penalty in France’s 4-3 win.
After a grim trudge through the group stage, France, finally, are off and running and looking like potential champions. Lionel Messi, for all the hopes freighting his slight frame, will not be winning the World Cup this time.
Quite how Argentina have ended up as this strange botch-job of parts that don’t quite fit together, bound together by nothing more than the magic of Messi, is a question that cannot straightforwardly be answered but the fact is they are and, as such, were never likely to survive a meeting with a side that looked into their eyes and wasn’t cowed by their self-romanticising will to progress.
That will, though, remains ferociously strong. Until the midpoint of the second half, when they opened up a two-goal lead, the game was underpinned by the question of how France didn’t already have it won.
There had been talk of conjuring the repeat of 1990 when defeat to Cameroon inspired a defiant spirit that carried Argentina to the final and in some of the cruder challenges, it felt Argentina may be following the template rather too closely. But the difference between then and now is that that team could actually defend; this side can merely struggle.
The deployment of Messi as a false nine as Jorge Sampaoli, or whichever cabal of senior players picks the side these days, opted for a fourth different formation in four games, served only to deny the wide men a target when they got the ball in crossing positions.
Certainly it did nothing to add a defensive stability. Is all very well to play, as Sampaoli promised they would, with a knife between their teeth, but only if you can actually catch your opponents to use it. Argentina’s lack of pace is a problem that will never easily be resolved, and certainly not by playing the sort of high line they attempted early on. Perhaps Didier Deschamps’s France have become a fluent attacking unit; perhaps Argentina just made them appear so.
Thirteen minutes had gone when Ever Banega miscontrolled 30 yards from the French goal, allowing Mbappé to burst forwards. Nobody came close to catching him until Marcos Rojo hauled him down. Antoine Griezmann, who had already pinged a free-kick against the bar, rolled in the penalty. Six minutes later, Mbappé’s pace almost undid them again as he raced onto a quickly-taken Pogba free-kick and was tripped on the edge of the box by Nicolás Tagliafico, who was perhaps fortunate to receive only a yellow card. For them to play so high with defenders so slow against an attack so quick seemed mystifying.
Then, from nothing, four minutes before half-time, came a goal of preposterous brilliance, Ángel Di María unleashing a left-foot drive from 30 yards with just enough bend to take it away from Hugo Lloris’s clawing left hand and into the top corner. For the slightest fraction of a second there was a disbelieving silence and then an otherworldly roar from a stadium that was 90% albiceleste. Logic? There was none, but the scores were level.
Having scored one brilliant goal, Argentina, as they had against Nigeria, then added a second with the least implausible body-part available to them, as Messi’s ball back into the middle was deflected in by the left foot of Gabriel Mercado. Could they cling on? They could not, and didn’t even come close.
It took just nine minutes for Benjamin Pavard to conjure a goal the equal of Di María’s, cuffing a volley from the edge of the box into the top corner. Seven minutes after Argentina were cut apart on their right once again – the full-back areas have been a major problem all tournament. Lucas Hernández’s cross fell for Mbappé and he turned sharply to score again. As Argentina chased, the gaps simply grew wider and, from Olivier Giroud’s touch, Mbappé capitalised again. At 19, he is already a wonderfully efficient footballer.
Yet still Argentina were not quite finished, Sergio Agüero heading in a late third. From the grave, the hand thrust up through the soil, but it got no further. Argentina at last were done.
Deschamps’s side has been criticised for its ungainliness and its caution, for being too much about substance and not enough about style. On the day he became the longest-serving manager in France’s history, Deschamps could perhaps reflect that a little planning and a little stodge goes a lot further than a slow and shambolic defence and a nostalgic faith in a bastard spirit.
Source: The Guardian