Buenos Aires Times

sports WORLD CUP: ANALYSIS

Reality hits home as Argentina come up second best against France

It was painful and tense and for a few minutes, the Selección dared to dream. But in the end, a superior France side illustrated the collective difference between their team and the Albiceleste.

Saturday 30 June, 2018
Lionel Messi congratulates France's Kylian Mbappé at the end of the match between France and Argentina at the Kazan Arena in Kazan on June 30, 2018.
Lionel Messi congratulates France's Kylian Mbappé at the end of the match between France and Argentina at the Kazan Arena in Kazan on June 30, 2018. Foto:AFP-LUIS ACOSTA

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It was painful, agonising, tense, perhaps even unfortunate. But it was also football justice being served.

Argentina gave absolutely everything on Saturday against but it was not enough; Lionel Messi and co. were beaten by a team that were superior across the board and France deserved to advance into the World Cup quarter-finals after a gripping 4-3 victory in Kazan.

While Argentina's runaway train ride through Russia has been pored and analysed across the world, Didier Deschamps' team cruised into the knockout stages almost unnoticed. That low profile is a virtue.

What Les Bleus lacked in cavalier attacking spirit and drama in the group stage, they made up for with intense organisation and an all-round talent that places the nation among the very best in the world. Those are precisely the virtues that Argentina have lacked in four chaotic years since battling to the final in Brazil – and despite the tight scoreline, those differences were all too clear to see.

On a day that the Albiceleste absolutely had to avoid making the individual errors that have cost the side so dear these past two weeks, a pair of gross mistakes immediately had their backs against the ropes.

Ever Banega's botched control left the pitch open for the brilliant Kylian Mbappé, who left the Argentina defence in the dust with an incredible sprint that was only checked by the clumsiest of challenges from Tuesday's hero Marcos Rojo. The penalty decision was inevitable and – having rattled the bar with a free-kick just moments earlier – Antoine Griezmann sent Franco Armani the wrong way to put France in the ascendancy.

Jorge Sampaoli's latest tactical innovation appeared unable to fight back against a supreme defensive effort in the first half. Messi, ostensibly on the pitch as a 'false nine,' appeared more often out on the wing near the halfway line, building passages of play that too often ended at the feet of a France defender or with the ball spiralling harmlessly out of action.

Devoid of collective coherency once more, the only way through seemed to be a moment of individual inspiration, and so it proved; Ángel Di María levelled the game with a brilliant curling finish from outside the area just before half-time and the Albiceleste's abundant support in Kazan were sent into ecstasy when a Messi snapshot deflected kindly off Gabriel Mercado and past the flailing Hugo Lloris. For a few minutes, the Selección dared to dream.

Reality, however, soon hit back. A slow, lumbering Argentina backline was exposed time and again by the incursions of Lucas Hernández down the left, and the full-back eventually connected with the excellent Benjamin Pavard, who slammed home a volley to level up the game.

Even at 2-2 the Albiceleste had time to slow down the game and regroup, but those all-too fragile egos and defensive failings would not allow even that brief grace period. Running riot against a flat-footed backline that was manna from heaven, Mbappé swooped to hit twice in quick succession and effectively put the game out of reach, despite a late hit from substitute Sergio Agüero that at least guaranteed a lively few minutes before the final whistle sounded.

There were tears aplenty from Argentina's stars, espeicially from Javier Mascherano, who announced his retirement immediately after the match. The players' had given their all. But the inescapable conclusion is that their all, when unaccompanied by fluent collective play and with Messi suffering under the burden of carrying an entire team, was never going to be enough.

Logic dictated a France victory against a dishevelled Argentina side that never really clicked in Russia; and while it was thrilling to the end, the result reflected the very different realities of one squad that has everything it takes to gun for the World Cup title and another that objectively were lucky to make the last 16 at all.

The adventure is over and now the real challenge, of rebuilding a gutted national team, must begin in earnest.

Op-Ed

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