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Kylian Mbappe fuels France past Argentina in bonkers World Cup knockout match

When France won its first and only World Cup title on July 12, 1998 – when its triumph on home soil gave rise to its current generation of in-their-prime superstars – Kylian Mbappe had not yet been born.

Less than 20 years later, he’s the toast of the nation. He’s the second-youngest player at the 2018 World Cup. He’s also one of the best. He joins Pele as the second teenager to score multiple goals in a World Cup knockout round match. And he’s the reason France is moving on to the quarterfinals.

Saturday was the day Mbappe announced himself to the world. He created one goal and scored two, one of which was the winner in a wild 4-3 victory over Argentina.

The 19-year-old saw France through an absolutely insane match that lived up to every last ounce of hype it had produced. It offered up dueling wondergoals and lead changes. It featured functional tactical schemes and malfunctioning ones. It featured megastars shining. And none shone brightest than the youngest on the field.

Mbappe – already the second-most expensive player in the history of the sport, already a catalyst for one of the world’s best club teams – did not necessarily need a coming out party. But France, relatively uninspiring throughout the group stage, did need one. Mbappe delivered.

Kylian Mbappe celebrates his winning goal for France against Argentina in the 2018 World Cup Round of 16. (Getty)

Mbappe takes over with more than just speed

Mbappe was the story of the first half. He was the reason France was ahead for most of it, and emblematic of the difference between the two teams.

Argentina was plodding, slow on the ball and off it. Mbappe was anything but. He picked off a loose Argentinean touch deep inside his own half and went coast-to-coast to create the opener. His accelerative burst in midfield was otherworldly. His touches were perfectly weighted. And his understanding of how and when to use his pace – the recognition to push the ball 20 yards out in front of him, past Marcos Rojo – is what makes him so special.

Rojo was hopeless. He would later be subbed out at halftime. His decision to take Mbappe down, with the contact carrying into the box, was terrible. Antoine Griezmann converted from the penalty spot.

Mbappe again got in behind the Argentinean defense minutes later, and could have drawn a red card. Paul Pogba put a 50-yard ball right on his foot from a quick free kick. Nicolas Tagliafico brought him down right on the edge of the area, arguably as the last man. But Tagliafico saw yellow rather than red, and Pogba blazed the free kick over.

Argentina was almost exposed on a few other occasions as well. Pogba broke through the middle. Through 40 minutes, there didn’t look to be any way back into the game for the underdogs.

Argentina’s false 9 ploy

Argentina started with Messi as a so-called “false 9” – in the striker position, but not performing traditional striker duties. The thought was that Messi would float between the striker position and deeper midfield positions, drawing France center backs out as he alternated between the two. That, theoretically, would leave space for wingers Angel Di Maria and Christian Pavon in behind.

In one early sequence, it nearly did just that:

Messi checks to the ball, French players follow him, Di Maria darts in behind. (Original video: Fox Sports Go)

But the scheme was not functional overall. There was a glaring lack of penalty box presence. Even with Di Maria in behind, there was no Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero to get on the end of his cross.

Messi tended to drift out to the right rather than tug on the center backs’ attention and focus. There, he was mostly contained by a combination of left center back Samuel Umtiti, left back Lucas Hernandez, defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante and left midfielder Blaise Matuidi.

Out of nowhere, though …

Argentina’s comeback

The goal had nothing do with Argentina’s shape or tactics. With Messi hanging out on the right, Di Maria decided to let fly. And he unleashed a rocket. Shortly before halftime, Argentina, somehow, was level.

And shortly after halftime, it was ahead. Messi’s shot was cleverly re-directed by Gabriel Mercado. French keeper Hugo Lloris sunk to the turf, helpless. The turnaround was complete. France was in trouble.

But La Albiceleste was second-best all day. It showed why it was an underdog. And France showed why it’s a World Cup contender. Because it is overflowing with talent.

France’s turnaround

Fourteen months ago, Benjamin Pavard was playing in the German second division. Even two months ago, the 22-year-old ball-playing center back was a World Cup roster long shot.

On Saturday, as a starting right back, he scored the wondergoal that kick-start France’s turnaround. He cut across the ball, just as Nacho – also a natural center back playing out of position – had done for Spain against Portugal 15 days earlier. And he produced a majestic swerving half-volley that will be in contention for goal of the tournament:

Mbappe then took over once again.

But the sequence that led to his first goal would not have been possible without Pogba, who easily could have forced a straight through-ball down the heart of the Argentine defense. Instead, he sprayed a pass wide to Hernandez, who had time and space to cross.

The second ball squirmed to Mbappe, who showed once again that he’s much more than just pure pace. He burst past Argentine defenders with a lovely touch to his left, then finished past a slightly-at-fault Franco Armani:


And he sealed the deal on the break, when he’s at his best. Olivier Giroud poked an inviting pass into Mbappe’s path. Mbappe’s finish was confident and precise:


Sergio Aguero scored in stoppage time to bring Argentina back to within one at 4-3. Messi supplied him with a wonderful cross.


And the final few minutes were nervy. Di Maria saw a potential equalizer flash off his right leg on the six-yard box.


France held on – barely. Messi and Argentina are out – the superstar perhaps out of the World Cup for good. The French are through. And, unless Saturday was an outlier, their attacking talent has finally been unshackled.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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