Not since France 1998 has Argentina faced a teenage problem quite like the one they faced against France in the late afternoon heat of Kazan in southwest Russia. Back then, they found a way to solve that problem, just about. Michael Owen, barely of legal age, had run rings around Roberto Ayala. He won a penalty off him that Alan Shearer scored. He then beat Ayala for pace – again – and found the top corner of Carlos Roa’s goal. To keep their World Cup hopes alive, Argentina pulled out all the tricks and employed their superior experience to defeat England on penalties. Exactly 20 years later, they had no answer to a fleet-footed, galloping teenage sensation born just 6 months after that infamous night in St. Ettienne.
Kylian Mbappe, the French wonderkid turned up to the Round of 16 clash with Argentina in his giddy teenage grin, caused absolute pandemonium on the pitch, won a penalty, scored twice and walked off like a boss, leaving behind an Argentine wreckage and, in the process, breaking millions of Argentine hearts and spirits. Since France 98, the FIFA World Cup had not seen a teenager almost single-handedly prove as decisive in the knock-out stages of a World Cup game as Kylian Mbappe did.
In the 7th minute, Mbappe picked up a loose ball in the Argentine half. He put his head down and took off towards the box. It took a Javier Mascherano lunge to impede him 25 yards out. From the resulting foul, Griezmann hit the post. It was a sign of things to come.
Barely 5 minutes later, Mbappe was at it again. After Argentina lost possession for the umpteenth time in the French half, he latched onto the loose ball, set off with that galloping stride with the ball at his feet, sidestepped Marcos Rojo leaving him with only two options. Give up the fight or bring him down for a penalty. He did the latter. A booking and a conversion by Antoine Griezmann had France in the driving seat. It was reminiscent of Michael Owen doing the exact same thing for England against the same opposition those many years ago.
Then, in the 20th minute, Paul Pogba was fouled deep in his own half. As he got up to restart the play, he saw that man again, Kylian Mbappe, making a run from inside the French half into the heart of the Argentine defence. Pogba played a stupendous 60-yard pass that fell perfectly into Mbappe’s path. His first touch was so so delicate and soft. His second touch almost took him clear. Almost. Because once again, he left the Argentine defence with no choice. Nicolás Alejandro Tagliafico brought him down just inches outside the box. Deja Vu.
The second half started without Marcos Rojo. The Man Utd defender had battled courageously but he ended up battered, bruised and unable to keep up with the relentlessness of Mbappe. Frederico Fazio took his place. In the 68th minute, Kylian Mbappe got his goal and France’s third. He latched onto yet another weak clearance by Argentina. As the defence was going one way, he went the other, creating space in the box and slotting the ball past Armana. A goal borne of quick feet and quick thinking.
— 🌙☆) (@murtalaarz) June 30, 2018
His closing act and the second goal to his name that sealed the victory was also my favourite. Quick interplay between Kante and Matuidi released Olivier Giroud. He lifted his head and saw acres of space behind the left back Tagliafico. Approaching from Tagliafico’s blind side and in full flight, Mbappe didn’t even break his stride. He found the bottom corner of the far post. Game over.
That Kylian Mbappe is an otherworldly talent is never in doubt, but it’s his ability to prove decisive when it matters most that truly elevates his special talent above and beyond his peers. Here, he was more than decisive. Because by strangling the Argentine quest for glory with his mercurial performance, he also ensured that his opposite number, Lionel Messi, would leave Russia without the holy grail. And so as Argentina’s number 10 exits the stage, perhaps it’s the French number 10 who is destined to take his place among the pantheon of great players.