In the Round of 16 stage at the 1998 World Cup in France, Argentina were taken apart as an 18-year-old upstart from England announced his arrival on the international stage. After Argentina took the lead in the sixth minute, Liverpool's Michael Owen won England a penalty before scoring possibly one of the best individual goals scored at the World Cup — dancing his way past seasoned Argentine defenders to smash the ball into the top corner. Argentina managed to draw level and win the match on penalties, but 20 years later, they could do nothing as they watched another teenage sensation tear them to shreds.
As Lionel Messi toiled on the other end, Kylian Mbappe routinely cut through the Argentinian defence like hot knife through butter. Ronaldo, the Brazilian one, watched on from the stands along with Diego Maradona as Mbappe went about justifying the comparisons made with O Fenomeno himself. Only two years into his professional career, Mbappe has become the costliest teenager ever and the second-most expensive player after Paris Saint-Germain shelled out 198 million euros for his services.
Compared to compatriot Thierry Henry when he burst onto the scene during Monaco's title-winning season in 2016-17, Mbappe has since, on the back of his goal-scoring exploits at PSG and his style of play, earned comparisons with Ronaldo himself. The sudden burst of acceleration, the ability to weave his way through packed defences and the knack to evade burly tacklers, Mbappe shares a lot in common with Ronaldo. But there's also a certain simplicity to his game. There's almost no showboating. No tendency to attempt multiple step-overs or exorbitant tricks and flicks. For a youngster trying to prove himself, he is surprisingly unselfish and is content with letting his teammates grab all the plaudits.
At the Kazan Arena, Argentinian players hacked at, pulled back and tried to outmuscle Mbappe off the ball. Three of the five Argentine players booked on Saturday paid the price for trying to stop the 19-year-old from Bondy, Paris. Mbappe just seemed to glide through thin air as he sashayed past his opponents. On Saturday, he propelled France to the quarter-finals in what has been his best performance in the colours of France.
Mbappe gave a preview of what awaited Argentina when in the seventh minute, he picked up the ball in the Argentinian third and ran at the defence. With his defence scampering behind, Javier Mascherano flew into a challenge and brought Mbappe down within striking distance of goal. France came close as Antoine Griezmann rattled the crossbar from the subsequent free-kick.
Four minutes later, try as hard as he could, Mascherano could do nothing to stop Mbappe as the PSG man pounced on a loose ball in his own half and sprinted, nay, blazed through the Argentinian midfield. A light touch took him to the right in the box and past a flapping Marcos Rojo. Rojo brought him down and became the first Argentinian to be booked. Les Bleus took the lead as Griezmann duly converted from the spot. Cue, the now familiar, Fortnite celebration.
Minutes later, Nicolas Tagliafico became the second player to be booked for a foul on Mbappe. It became clear to Jorge Sampaoli that his side would not finish the match with 11 men and he hauled off Rojo at halftime for Federico Fazio.
While Mbappe was harrying the Argentinian defence, his teammates in defence were having a better outing, until Angel Di Maria struck just before halftime. N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba were slow to close down on Mbappe's PSG teammate and Di Maria scored only his second World Cup goal with a curler into the top corner.
Argentina took the lead in the second half as Messi's shot took a deflection off teammate Gabriel Mercado to wrong-foot Hugo Lloris. As Argentina fans dreamt of a quarter-final clash against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or Luis Suarez's Uruguay, Mbappe showed exactly why PSG had splashed the cash for him. He did what Owen couldn't do way back in 1998. He won the match for France.
Argentina were undone as Mbappe struck twice within the space of four minutes to help France open up a two-goal lead. For the first goal, he showed good close control as Blaise Matuidi's shot from inside the box was blocked. Mbappe pounced on the loose ball. A deft touch took the ball away from the defender before Mbappe squeezed it past the helpless Franco Armani. The second goal came as France tore their opponents apart with just five passes. Lloris to N'Golo Kante, Kante to Griezmann, Griezmann to Matuidi, Matuidi to Olivier Giroud, Giroud to Mbappe. Without breaking his stride, Mbappe slotted the ball into the bottom corner. Like Ronaldo, Mbappe not only has searing pace and dribbling skills, but also deadly finishing. In Russia, all five of his attempts have been on target with the 'keeper failing to stop three of them.
In his fledgling career, Mbappe has played second fiddle to more illustrious strikers — Radamel Falcao at Monaco and Neymar and Edinson Cavani at PSG — while in his 19-match international career, Griezmann has hogged the spotlight. On Saturday, Mbappe undoubtedly was the star of the show.
After the match, Deschamps was quick to dismiss comparisons between Mbappe and Ronaldo. "People feel like comparing players. Ronaldo was a forward player who could be decisive, he was very quick — I think Kylian is even quicker.
"Ronaldo played in the centre of the field, but this is someone who was a world champion compared to a 19-year-old. He has made a lot of progress and I am happy with how he played," Deschamps said.
Like any other manager trying to keep his best player grounded, Deschamps is doing all he can do insulate Mbappe from the hype surrounding him. However, on the back of his stellar show, Mbappe is on course to emulate the Brazilian legend, if not surpass him.
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Updated Date: Jul 01, 2018 19:40:24 IST