France roared back against Argentina to reach the World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday as wonderkid Kylian Mbappe sent Lionel Messi home from Russia empty-handed following a seven-goal thriller.
The 1998 champions won 4-3 and looked a totally different side from the one that struggled to find their cutting edge in the group stage, pouring forward with pace and purpose to stretch the ageing Argentine defence in Kazan.
Antoine Griezmann gave France the lead from the penalty spot but the South Americans levelled with a sweet hit from Angel Di Maria and edged ahead shortly after half-time through Gabriel Mercado.
But defender Benjamin Pavard equalised with a thunderous strike to pull France level and once more change the complexion of the game.
That set the scene for 19-year-old Mbappe, who netted two goals in four second-half minutes to become the first teenager to score at least twice in a World Cup match since Pele in 1958.
Sergio Aguero gave Argentina late hope but they ran out of time and head home after a rollercoaster ride in Russia that ultimately ends in bitter disappointment for the two-time former champions.
Man-of-the-match Mbappe brushed off comparisons with Brazil great Pele.
“I’m very happy, and it’s flattering to be compared to a great player like Pele,” he said.
“But he’s in another category. Still, it’s great to join the list of players that have achieved such feats.”
Mbappe was born in the Paris suburbs in 1998, the year Les Bleus secured their first World Cup title under captain Didier Deschamps.
Deschamps — now manager — praised his team’s character to fight back from 2-1 down.
“If I am a coach it is because I want to live this: a full stadium, highly experienced teams. Our team is much younger, but it’s there,” Deschamps said.
“We answered the call, we have a lot of character and it was not easy as we were leading, then there was an equaliser, then we were 2-1 behind, but we kept fighting.
“There is an excellent mentality in this group and we did everything to go further. Since I am responsible for everything, particularly when it doesn’t go well I’m very proud.”
– Ragged Argentina –
Beaten finalists four years ago, Argentina only reached the last 16 by the skin of their teeth after a shambolic group phase and despite a brave effort against France, their ageing squad and lack of balance ultimately caught up with them.
Messi has spent the tournament trying to hold his squad together, even apparently bypassing coach Jorge Sampaoli to give coaching instructions in the 2-1 win against Nigeria that saved the South Americans from a humiliating group-stage exit.
He has scored only once and Argentina’s campaign so far was defined as much by Diego Maradona’s erratic and emotional outbursts.
The Barcelona star, at the age of 31, may have played his last World Cup game in a career curiously unfulfilled at international level despite his astonishing achievements with Barcelona and his multiple individual awards.
France will play either Uruguay or Portugal in the last eight, with the chance to gain revenge for their defeat at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo’s team in the Euro 2016 final.
Ronaldo — with his eternal rival Messi now out of the way — will be looking to further burnish his reputation against Uruguay in Sochi in the later game on Saturday as he bids to overtake England’s Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot.
Ronaldo tore out of the blocks in Russia, smashing a hat-trick in his first game against Spain and he added another goal in the 1-0 win against Morocco.
But Portugal’s problem against a Uruguay team with the meanest defence of the tournament could be their over-reliance on the 33-year-old five-time world player of the year.
“We have to play as a team. If Ronaldo plays alone we will lose,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said.
Uruguay won the last of their two World Cups in 1950 but they have high hopes thanks to their stingy defence and two of the world’s most prolific strikers, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez.