After a day to rest and recuperate following an exhausting yet brilliant group stage, the knockout rounds were always going to kick-off with a bang on Day Sixteen.
Of the four days we’re about to witness of last sixteen action, this looked to be without doubt the most exciting and hotly anticipated for the neutral. All eyes were on two of the world’s best in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, as the pair looked to lead their respective nations to the quarter finals and set up a mouthwatering and almighty showdown between two of the game’s all-time greats in the process.
But having a keen eye for drama – as we’ve already witnessed throughout this incredible tournament – the scriptwriters of Russia 2018 didn’t appear to be on the same page.
Fabulous France hit top form to end Messi dream in Kazan thriller
France seared to the quarter-finals with a dominant display to displace Messi’s Argentina in what was probably the game of the tournament thus far.
A double from Mbappe added to goals from Griezmann and Pavard saw France cruise past Argentina, who had a couple of bright spells, but said spells were few and far between.
France started the game in electrifying fashion, taking the game to an Argentinian side that was supported in abundance by many avid Argentinian supporters, making vast noise.
Kylian Mbappe, who was the poster boy in France leading up to the World Cup, started the game in style. He walked on to the pitch with a smirk on his face and his mood surely remained high as he caused all sorts of problems for the Argentine defence.
In the first ten minutes, he drew a foul on the edge of the box with his extremely quick feet. Griezmann and Pogba stepped up to the set play, with the former’s effort rattling the crossbar.
The free kick was inches away from perfection, as it struck the woodwork, slightly above the top corner. Armani in the Argentina net was rooted to the spot.
Minutes later, Mbappe was the man to break down the Argentine defence that looked shook by the teenager’s pace. The PSG man picked up the ball deep into his own half, and just ran. Past one, past two, past three, past four, penalty.
I’m sure there will be a statistician with a World Cup pace record, but Mbappe’s run must have come very close.
Antoine Griezmann stepped up to the penalty on the exact spot he opened his World Cup campaign against Australia two weeks ago. The Atletico striker neatly tucked away his spotkick and celebrated with his trademark ‘Fortnite’ dance.
Before Argentina could catch their breath, Mbappe was at it again. Paul Pogba, who was excellent in the first half for the most part, measured a lovely lofted through ball over the top which Mbappe’s touch killed dead, inviting a foul just on the edge of the box. Pogba took the free kick but skied his effort, much to the disappointment of his brothers, Mathias and Florentin, who watched from the stands.
Sampaoli’s Argentina looked completely bereft of ideas, with their only chance coming as Messi went to ground in the box. Replays showed it was not a penalty, and an Argentina goal looked miles away.
That was until the ball rolled across the box to Angel Di Maria who was in all sorts of space. The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder took a touch, made a glance at goal and unleashed a rocket of a shot. Within the blink of the eye, the thousands of Argentines in the Kazan Arena were sent into euphoria as Di Maria’s strike flew past Lloris to make it level at 1-1.
It was a goal that is a worthy candidate for goal of the tournament, but more importantly for Argentina, it gave them a lifeline heading into the break.
They were given more of a lifeline five minutes into the half, when Di Maria danced through French defenders to win a foul. The free kick was defended but only fell as far as Lionel Messi, who struck an effort which Gabriel Mercado deflected into the French goal.
Argentina, who looked bereft of ideas in the first half, were remarkably ahead.
But not for long. Earlier in the game, we mooted Angel Di Maria’s strike as a contender for goal of the tournament. Benjamin Pavard took this with a pinch of salt, raising the stakes again.
From one full-back to the other; Lucas Hernandez got forward well down the left and crossed. It evaded everyone in the area, but came out as far as Pavard.
The Stuttgart man hit the ball right in the sweet spot on the half volley with awesome technique, firing a bullet into the top corner. France were level and Di Maria’s submission for goal of the tournament was ripped up and topped, thanks to a strike of sheer power and finesse.
And having gained inspiration from Pavard’s wonder-strike, Les Bleus were back in front less than ten minutes later.
Hernandez was enjoying plenty of space down the left flank and was involved again. His cross was hit first-time by Blaise Matuidi, blocked, but fell for the feet of Mbappe.
Every good striker comes alive in the box and reacts quicker than the defenders they face. The 19-year-old did exactly that, bringing it down almost instantaneously, before jinking past his man and firing a low left foot shot in past Armani, who in truth should have done better.
The star of the show then turned it on yet again a few minutes later. France found acres of space in the Argentine half with their opponents pushing for an equaliser, and Olivier Giroud perfectly measured a first time flick to Mbappe who passed the ball into the goal with power past Armani.
France were in dreamland, whilst the Argentines were left stunned, as the television cameras continued to pan to the expressionless face of their helpless hero, Messi.
He and substitute Sergio Aguero had half chances here and there, with the former hitting a tame right-foot shot straight at Lloris late on. It was an effort that summed up Argentina’s campaign as a whole – lacklustre.
The pair did manage to combine to great effect in stoppage time however, as in one final bid to keep his World Cup dream alive, Messi curled a peach of a cross onto the head of Aguero, and the ball was in for 4-3.
Argentina did have one final opportunity to incredibly force the game into extra time, but a driven cross was deflected over and the referee blew for full-time.
The Argentine dream is over for another year and we await to hear news of the inevitable fall-out that will follow, but for France, a free-flowing attacking display – which will possibly go down as one of their greatest ever in a World Cup – has reinforced the view that they could go all the way to Moscow.
Uruguay through to last eight as clinical Cavani punishes Portugal
Uruguay reached the quarter finals of the World Cup for only the second time since 1970 thanks to an Edinson Cavani brace against Portugal.
The South Americans have lost out in the semis on the last two occasions they’ve reached the last eight, but they’ll be hoping to go one better and reach the final in Russia after once again putting on a display of defensive solidity to eliminate the European champions.
Much of Portugal’s hopes, as expected, hinged on their leader Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Real Madrid star rarely threatened on a night that just didn’t belong to him.
Uruguay first started to look like genuine contenders after trashing the hosts 3-0 in their last group game having struggled in the first two against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but they were off the mark early in Sochi through one man whose tournament has also been a bit of a slow burner.
Cavani scored his first goal of this summer’s World Cup late against the Russians, but picked up where he left off in that game after just seven minutes this evening, with a goal that was carved out solely between two strikers who know each other’s games inside and out.
The PSG forward and Luis Suarez have been playing up top together for twelve years, and when the former pinged a cross-field ball out wide left towards the Barcelona man, he knew exactly what his long-haired compatriot expected from him.
As Cavani got on his bike, Suarez cleverly held the ball up, teasing Portuguese full-back Ricardo Pereira. He waited and waited, and finally, as he saw his buddy bursting into the penalty area, the 31-year-old cut inside and drilled in a venomous cross which Cavani managed to get on the end of and power past the helpless Rui Patricio in rather unorthodox fashion – with his face.
It was a typical Cavani and Suarez double act goal, and one that the thousands of Uruguayan fans inside the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi were thrilled by.
First half chances were few and far between after that barring a couple of free-kicks for either side. Suarez tried to recreate his low effort against the Russians, albeit from a greater distance, but was denied by good Patricio goalkeeping, whilst Ronaldo was also in the mood for a bit of group stage nostalgia, but his effort was fired straight into the wall.
Portugal were struggling against a famously resolute Uruguayan defence, but finally found their moment ten minutes into the second half.
Uruguay were eliminated at this stage four years ago against a classy Colombian side and their misery was compounded that day by a stunning James Rodriguez strike which later went on to win the goal of the tournament accolade, but the way they conceded tonight couldn’t have been any more different.
Oscar Tabarez’ side were asleep. A quick short corner from Portugal saw full-back Raphael Guerreiro with plenty of time to pick out a cross, and that he did. His ball in was met by the head of centre half Pepe, who managed to ghost in unmarked and power a low header past Fernando Muslera. Game on.
That was the first goal Uruguay had conceded in 2018. They needed to respond.
And boy did they.
It took Cavani seven minutes to fire Uruguay ahead at the start of the game, and it took him the same amount of time to restore their advantage. A long ball forward from the back broke kindly for midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, who picked out his striker with a perfectly weighted pass, and Cavani did the rest – caressing the ball with sheer power and accuracy first time into the corner. It curled well beyond Patricio’s reach, and Portugal were stunned.
Fernando Santos’ European champions struggled considerably after that, and the best opportunity they had to level the tie for a second time fell to Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva twenty minutes from time.
The impressive Guerreiro floated a ball in from the left which Ricardo Quaresma was unfortunate not to get his head to. Muslera came rushing out, but spilled the ball, and it broke to Silva. Unfortunately for him and the millions of Portuguese back home willing him to fire it home, it was blazed over with the goalkeeper way off his line.
Following that lucky escape, Uruguay were comfortable. The Atletico Madrid pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez dealt with anything and everything Portugal could throw at them in the latter stages, and the South Americans survived, setting up an intriguing quarter final tie against France in the process.
Player of the Day – Kylian Mbappé (France)
Edinson Cavani’s brace may have single-handedly sunk Portugal, but the man of the moment on Day Sixteen is a different kind of two-goal hero – someone at the other end of the spectrum, with his whole career ahead of him and the world at his feet.
Heading into this summer’s tournament, one of the most exciting young prospects fans couldn’t wait to see on the international stage was Kylian Mbappe – as you’d expect, for a teenager who French side PSG valued at close to 150m euros.
The striker racked up his first World Cup goal in his country’s narrow 1-0 win over Peru, and despite previously impressing at club level for both AS Monaco and his current Paris-based side, it was this afternoon that a star was born, as the boy became a man and officially announced himself to the world.
At the age of 19, Mbappe already possesses all the attributes football scouts across the globe are frantically looking to find in a striker. He has pace, he has power, he has skill, he has that clinical touch. He has it all, and to have that at his tender age is quite remarkable. You’d be forgiven for thinking he was a freak of nature.
Mbappe terrorised a slow and lackadaisical Argentina side for fun all afternoon, and could probably have done it all over again an hour later.
He breezed past players effortlessly, won free-kicks, and has now shown he can even score goals and win games against the very best. Without a shadow of a doubt, this 19-year-old has what it takes to go right to the very top.
His two goals this afternoon make him the first teenager to score a World Cup brace in 60 years. The last man – or boy, if you’d prefer – to do it? None other than Pele himself. Not bad company to be in.
Brazil’s mesmeric legend may have trumped Mbappe for now, with his brace coming in a 5-2 World Cup final victory against Sweden in 1958, but who’s to say with more performances like today that PSG’s young and hungry striker couldn’t repeat the feat?
He sits on three goals heading into France’s quarter final date with Uruguay; just two behind the current leader in the golden boot race – England’s Harry Kane.
If the French go all the way, he could be key, and become the first teenager in history to win world football’s most prestigious goalscoring award.
Now that would be a record he could boast about to Brazil’s all-time great.