This was meant to be a tight, timid World Cup second round fixture between two sides maligned for their underwhelming performances in the group stage. But instead it was Kylian Mbappé’s game.
On a pitch that possessed Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and, briefly, Sergio Aguero, Mbappé shone. The youngster was outstanding and any doubt that this World Cup would come too early for his already meteoric powers were swiftly diminished every moment he dragged his side further towards the quarter-finals.
The first half was reminiscent of a high-profile boxing match between two heavyweights. Both happy to offer small jibes but equally largely in favour of keeping their fists close to their own face.
Angel di Maria sought to stretch the France back four in the first five minutes, but his cross was high and wayward the maiden time he found himself one-on-one with right-back Benjamin Pavard.
Each further cross from the Argentines increased the sense of pure bemusement. They began without a typical number nine, dropping the misfiring Gonzalo Higuain and instead allowing Messi to roam in a free role – but he rarely advanced further than the two wide players, instead moving deep to receive the ball.
Griezmann offered the first major blow. The Atlético Madrid forward rattled the crossbar from 25 yards with a stunning free-kick, and the shaken woodwork epitomised the Argentina defence, particularly when Mbappé received the ball.
On twelve minutes the 19-year-old earned possession halfway inside his own half, he strode forward, gliding past experienced internationals like a a cheetah escaping its prey.
It was 20 years to this day since a young Michael Owen did the same to an Argentinean defence, but that time the then Liverpool striker wasn’t upended. Mbappe was needlessly in the box by Marcos Rojo and Griezmann coolly converted the resulting penalty to give Les Bleus the advantage.
Just once did Messi touch the ball in France’s penalty area in the first half and their lack of purpose in the first half. But it was scarcely a problem when Di Maria received possession 30 yards from goal, used his studs to edge the ball into his stride, and thumped it into the top corner.
And the next time Messi received possession inside the penalty area, it was 2-1 to his side – symbolic of this magician’s ability to impact a game even when he is rarely involved. His effort was admittedly tame but its route towards the hands of Hugo Lloris was diverted into the corner of the goal by Gabriel Mercado.
That lead lasted just nine minutes and the previously high chance Di Maria had of winning Goal of the Game were reduced by the right foot of Pavard.
Lucas Hernández’s cross evaded each of those in the box, but when it reached the young Stuttgart defender he cut across the ball with wonderful technique and it subsequently spun majestically across goal and into the top corner.
At 2-2 the game needed someone to take control. Messi could have done so for Argentina. Griezmann could have done so for France.
But instead it was Mbappe. Not content with his penalty-winning contribution, an excellent display of skill and close control saw him guide his way around a tight and compact Argentina defence in the box and direct a left-footed effort under Franco Armani to swing the direction of the game back in France’s favour.
And Mbappe netted his side’s fourth with almost his next touch, barely breaking stride to meet Greizmann’s pass before seamless side-footing the ball past Armani. His celebration, grinning and arms aloft, was more akin to a kid scoring against his mates in the playground, but perhaps Mbappe’s playground is against a stricken Argentina in a World Cup last 16 – such was his comfort on this stage.
He would cease to get an historic hat-trick, being withdrawn with five minutes to go, while his side suffered a late setback when Aguero headed home two minutes into stoppage time.
Messi had one final chance but failed to produce enough power to beat Lloris in what was quite possibly his final World Cup appearance.
The Barcelona forward will be 34 at Qatar 2022 and most likely will no longer be at the peak of his powers. Mbappe, meanwhile, will be 23. And four years of improvement for Mbappe is a scary prospect. This game could just have been a changing of the guard.