(BBC) – Kylian Mbappe announced himself on football’s biggest stage with two fine goals that gave France victory in a classic World Cup encounter with Argentina, and a place in the quarter-finals.
Though much of the focus before the game was on Argentina superstar Lionel Messi, it was Mbappe who produced a brilliant performance that will linger long in the memory.
Mbappe’s second-half double turned the game decisively in France’s favour, and inflicted more pain on Argentina in what may be their final chance to win the World Cup during Messi’s prime.
In doing so, the 19-year-old became the first teenager to score two in a World Cup match since Pele netted twice for Brazil against Sweden in the 1958 final.
Antoine Griezmann had already hit the bar with a free-kick by the time he put France ahead from the penalty spot in the ninth minute, following a searing Mbappe run that was ended by a clumsy Marcos Rojo foul.
Argentina looked unable to reply for much of the first half, until Angel di Maria hauled his side level with a stunning long-range curler shortly before the break.
Thousands of raucous South American supporters were sent into raptures when Gabriel Mercado diverted a Messi shot past Hugo Lloris to give Jorge Sampaoli’s side the lead.
But Benjamin Pavard’s stunning strike levelled the scores, and 11 minutes later Mbappe had scored twice – two clinical finishes that ensured the 2014 beaten finalists would be going home at the last 16.
For the first he swept body and ball into space before driving past Franco Armani to score, while the second was swept in crisply at the end of a counter-attack as Argentina chased another leveller.
Substitute Sergio Aguero did get a late consolation – a low header from a pin-point Messi cross in the 93rd minute.
But this defeat will raise many questions, including about Messi’s international future, and that of manager Sampaoli.
France, meanwhile, will go on to play Uruguay, who beat Portugal 2-1 in Sochi.
Les Bleus warming to Russia after sluggish start
Despite their obvious attacking talent, there were still plenty of questions around this France team after a group phase during which they never really hit their stride.
Les Bleus qualified comfortably as Group C winners but laboured to a win over Australia, beat Peru unconvincingly then played out a dire draw with Denmark, the only 0-0 of the tournament so far.
They must have just been waiting for the knockout stage to start, because here we finally witnessed the kind of blistering display many expected sooner, with Mbappe the embodiment.
His run for the penalty was sensational, pure athleticism coupled with bravery and belief as he drove past defender after defender; all Rojo could do was haul him down. His two goals were not bad either.
Responding to concerns about his team’s style, manager Didier Deschamps had made the point that under his watch tournament progress is only building in momentum.
In 2014 there was the World Cup quarter-final loss to winners Germany, then the Euro 2016 final defeat by Portugal in extra time.
And the Portuguese could be next for a team looking very dangerous indeed.
What now for Messi and Sampaoli?
This is an Argentina team around which there seem to have been so many major issues, with rumours of dressing room discontent, reports Messi was calling the shots in team selection, and a sense they were simply not getting the best from the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
During the nine minutes after the Mercado goal that put them ahead early in the second half, all was forgotten in the stands packed with light-blue-and-white striped shirts.
But Mbappe’s brilliance – after Pavard’s stunning equalising goal – brought them crashing back to reality.
That reality is this could well be the end for a generation that has failed to win a major title despite promising so much.
This last-16 exit follows three consecutive defeats in major finals – the World Cup in 2014, the Copa America in 2015, and the special centenary Copa America in 2016.
After that third final defeat, Messi announced his retirement, before changing his mind a month later. Six days ago he turned 31.
Following the final whistle here, all of the Argentina players lingered long on the pitch, only leaving after France had. Messi was first down the tunnel, with his head bowed and the captain’s armband in his hands.
‘I won’t decide my future today’ – what they said
Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli: “This is very painful, especially because the players have made a huge effort.
“It was a very difficult game but we have not achieved our goal here in Russia. I’m sad, I’m frustrated – I think that’s quite normal.
“I won’t decide my future today.”
France boss Didier Deschamps: “Our team is much younger, but it’s there. 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.”
Man of the match Kylian Mbappe: “It’s flattering to be the second teenager to score twice in a World Cup match after Pele but let’s put things in context. Pele is another category, but it’s good to be among these people.
“As I’ve already and always said, at a World Cup you have all the top-level players, so it’s an opportunity to show what you can do and what your abilities are. There’s no better place than a World Cup.”
Messi yet to score in World Cup knockout stage – the stats
* Messi has played 756 minutes of football in World Cup knockout-stage matches, but has failed to score.
* Messi is the only player to have delivered an assist in each of the past four World Cups.
* This was just the fifth time Argentina have conceded four or more goals in a World Cup match, and first since losing 4-0 to Germany in the 2010 quarter-finals.
* France scored with all four of their shots on target. They had scored three goals from 12 shots on target in the group stages.
* There were eight yellow cards, equalling the most shown in a single game so far at the 2018 World Cup (also Belgium v Panama).
* Seven of the eight shots on target were scored, with the exception Messi’s in the 85th minute.
* France have never lost an international match in which Griezmann has scored.
* At 30.16 yards, Di Maria’s equaliser for Argentina was the longest-range goal scored so far in the 2018 World Cup.
* Pavard’s goal was his first for France, in his ninth appearance.