The notion of a supremely talented number 10 carrying an entire team on his back through to the World Cup quarter-finals figured heavily ahead of France’s game with Argentina, but it was Kylian Mbappe — and not Lionel Messi — who made the difference on Saturday.
The 19-year-old ravaged Argentina from start to finish in France’s thrilling 4-3 win in Kazan and the South Americans’ only recourse to halt his lethal bursts forward was to take turns in fouling him.
By the end, they were powerless to stop Mbappe, who restored France’s lead midway through the second half with a clever low shot and sealed the win — and Messi’s fate — four minutes later, with a ruthless strike into the bottom corner of the net as France again ripped open their opponents’ fragile defence on the break.
Mbappe, rather like France as a whole, had not really got going in the tournament until the game against Argentina, with French media saying he was so angry after his insipid display against Australia in their first game that he refused to speak to reporters.
But he finally came alive in Kazan, rising to the big occasion while his opposite number, Messi, froze, proving that not even one of the best players ever can paper over the cracks of a shoddy team.
Clearly, Mbappe belongs to a far stronger team than Messi does, and when he took to the pitch he was surrounded by fellow world-class players, including Juventus’s Blaise Matuidi, Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann.
Messi, meanwhile, had to make do with Cristian Pavon and Enzo Perez, who play in Argentina’s bruising top flight, and a haggard Javier Mascherano who is seeing out his career in China.
France looked set to dominate the game as Mbappe gave his opponents early nightmares with his rampant runs forward, which led to Mascherano hauling him down and Antoine Griezmann hammering the crossbar with the resulting free-kick.
Marcos Rojo had the same cynical response when Mbappe came haring into the area minutes later, Griezmann putting France ahead from the penalty spot this time. And the youngster was later hacked down again, this time by Nicolas Tagliafico.
France should have taken that extra step to kill off their sorry opponents but instead found themselves trailing to Angel Di Maria’s outrageous long-distance strike, which no French player attempted to stop, and Gabriel Mercado’s deflected effort.
For around 10 minutes, they were staring at a defeat which would have been a huge waste of the enormous collective talent they possess.
Instead, their most exciting player of all answered the call, and Argentina, not even with Messi, had no response.