David Lee in Russia: France way too good as they punish Argentina to enter quarter-finals

KAZAN - On a clear and sunny day when the temperature hit 30 deg C, there were shades of 1998 as France showed their World Cup title credentials on Saturday (June 30) by beating Argentina 4-3 at the Kazan Arena to move into the quarter-finals, where they will meet the winners between Uruguay and Portugal.

Like how England's Michael Owen tore Argentina apart 20 years ago before the Three Lions lost on penalties, Les Bleus' double hero Kylian Mbappe was the star of this blockbuster round-of-16 clash.

The teenage sensation announced his arrival in this tournament as he turned on the turbo in his jet heels to leave Ever Banega, Nicolas Tagliafico and Marcos Rojo in his wake before the latter brought him down in the box just 11 minutes into the game.

"I'm very happy and it's flattering to be the second teenager (to score twice in the knockout rounds) after Pele, but let's put things in context: Pele is another category, but it's good to be among these people," said Mbappe later, who coincidentally, was born in 1998, the year France won their lone World Cup title.

"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."

From the ensuing penalty, Antoine Griezmann sent Franco Armani the wrong way two minutes later following VAR confirmation to open the scoring.

Angel di Maria and Gabriel Mercado struck for Argentina on either side of half-time to give them a shock lead. But that was as good as it got for La Albiceleste.

Benjamin Pavard drew the French level in the 57th minute with a lovely strike off the outside of his right boot.

The £166 million (S$299 million) Mbappe was a constant thorn in the flesh of the Argentina defence, and when they could neither catch nor foul him, the 19-year-old Paris Saint-Germain forward punished them with two clinical strikes in the 64th and 68th minute, as Lionel Messi will go home with no goals in the knockout rounds from four World Cups.

Sergio Aguero scored a third for Argentina in the 93rd minute but could not change the result.

There was drama aplenty before that, as the awful Argentinians somehow managed to make it 1-1 through di Maria's 41st-minute 25m stunner, and even take the lead when Mercado diverted Messi's shot past Hugo Lloris in the 48th minute.

But long-range shots and luck could take Argentina only so far, and France never panicked as they were in control even if they had just 39 per cent possession.

Sweat and tears streamed down the faces of Argentina fans after the final whistle, reducing the flags painted on their cheeks into a messy blur, much like how incoherent their team were on the pitch. They never looked likely to keep their lead, much less extend it.

As the lone forward in the starting line-up, Messi continued to look isolated and distant as Jorge Sampaoli once again failed to find the right strategy to make the most of his talisman's talents.

As a result, the 30-year-old had to drop deep so often he resembled a midfielder, while defenders like Nicolas Otamendi surged forward to bypass their hollow engine room.

Cristian Pavon, preferred to Gonzalo Higuain, had not even registered a shot on target in the group stage, and a cross that went behind the net summed up his match.

France, and particularly Mbappe, gleefully exploited their unbalanced opponents with a lethal mix of pace and precision as they upped a gear from the previous round with the wealth of talents they have in every department.

Right-back Pavard had legendary World Cup scorers Diego Maradona and Ronaldo, seated in the VIP area below the media tribune, amazed and muttering "Golazo" with a vicious, swerving drive to make it 2-2 after 57 minutes.

Mbappe then took over as Armani delivered his best Willy Cabellero impersonation and the Argentina defence was being their usual bungling self.

Substitute Aguero grabbed a late consolation, but unlike against Nigeria, there was to be no silver lining, no place to hide, and no more second chance.

Prior to the game, some Argentina fans approached this reporter for tickets to this game as they had wrongly banked on their team to top Group D and had balloted for the round-of-16 match in Nizhny Novgorod instead.

But others had been wise enough to hedge their bets to also get tickets for this game and they formed more than 80 per cent of the 42,873-strong crowd in the stadium.

Many were also optimistic they could return to Nizhny for the quarter-finals, but were left speechless after the painful defeat. Some recovered to loyally serenade their team but as the players filed past without acknowledging them, a few indicated their displeasure by jabbing their own temples and thumping their chests before throwing their jerseys in the direction of Javier Mascherano and Messi.

It will not matter now, they are all going home and with the morale-boosting way they came back to win, France will believe they can go all the way.