France v Argentina – 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ – Match 50
KAZAN, Russia — Did that remind you of anyone? As Kylian Mbappe set off, capitalising on Ever Banega’s bad touch and scorching away from his pursuers in such a manner that it was clear nobody could hold any hope of stopping him legally, a figure from the past loomed into mind. Has anyone caused defences this much terror when in full flight since the best centre-forward of the past 20 years, the magnificent Brazilian Ronaldo?
Hyperbole can be tiresome, but the problem was that this occasion lent itself to bold statements. “People feel like comparing players,” France manager Didier Deschamps said in his postmatch news conference before opting to satisfy the first journalist who brought up the “R” word. “Ronaldo was a forward player who was very, very quick. I think Kylian is even quicker. But this is somebody who was a world champion compared to a young player who has lots of abilities. He’ll make a lot of progress, but I’m already very happy with the way he played.”
He was right to be. Deschamps was probably unaware that Ronaldo was watching from the stands, sitting next to Diego Maradona and probably watching his companion boil over with a mixture of apoplexy and admiration. Argentina could not handle Mbappe, barely landing a legal tackle on him in the first half and then failing to lay a glove by fair means or foul as he outstripped them to score twice after the break.
At times, when Mbappe was coming through at Monaco in the 2017-18 season, it seemed a degree of caution should be reserved in the expectations set for a player who turned 18 halfway through the season. The £166 million fee Paris Saint-Germain subsequently agreed for him appeared to be asking for trouble. But a performance like this on the highest stage suggests something tantalising: that all the hype could not be more real.
“He adores football,” said Deschamps, who was clearly delighted by the way in which his tactical setup had allowed Mbappe to be so thrillingly effective. “He knows everything about clubs and players, and I’ve always said he’s very good. He has a lot of room to make progress but, in such an important match, he’s shown all his talent. And even if he was supposed to defend, he still made attacks — and very good ones.”
Kylian Mbappe announced himself on the World Cup stage with two goals vs. Argentina. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
That hinted at perhaps the most exciting element of Mbappe’s potential. Those who have worked with him speak glowingly of his seriousness, his intelligence, his contentment with working to a plan. He did just that, as his manager said, doing the dirty work here and picking his moments to cut loose. Perhaps that was easier in the knowledge that, whenever he did, he would have a creaking Argentina side on toast. On the left, down the right or through the middle — Jorge Sampaoli’s players could not cope when faced with him and it will be hard to find a more complete individual performance for the rest of this tournament.
France may need one close to it, though. They will not face as obliging a defence as Argentina’s in the quarterfinals and certainly have enough mistakes in them — as shown through their sluggishness in closing down Angel Di Maria for his goal here — to ensure that their front men are required to be on song. Those who like omens will note that Mbappe was born in December 1998, the same year France last lifted the World Cup. If they want to take things further they might note that it was 20 years to the day since Michael Owen, with a solo run of his own that bore resemblance to Mbappe’s pitch-length sprint, made his own indelible mark on the world stage. The signs are good, but it will have been particularly encouraging for Deschamps that Antoine Griezmann was on song here, too, and that Paul Pogba — who released Mbappe with one breathtaking 60-yard pass in the first half — appeared well in tune with the needs of his quicksilver teammates.
“The Argentinian team is much better in attacks than in its defending,” Deschamps admitted afterward, but he and his players deserve considerable credit for the manner in which they exposed that fact so brutally. He said such a young group, 14 of whom had not been part of a World Cup before, needed “a little patience, a little indulgence” to succeed. “Now, everyone has to be top-notch [if we are to succeed],” he continued. Expectations will naturally go through the roof from hereon, though, and it is difficult to see a side that can match the tempo France set here if they can keep it going for another fortnight.
Mbappe held a short news conference of his own before Deschamps’ arrival; he was obliged to do so after being named man of the match. He was instantly informed that, with Pele, he is one of only two teenagers to have scored twice in a World Cup knockout game. “Let’s put things into context, Pele is another category,” he said. Perhaps it was best that he was not around several minutes later to dampen the Ronaldo buzz. Pick your favourite legendary Brazil forward: Mbappe is progressing at such a rate that comparisons with either may one day be borne out after all.