I consider France's 4-3 win over Argentina as one of the greatest World Cup matches of all time. Not every high scoring match at the elite level is an all-time classic. But in this match, it was champagne football all the way — fluctuating fortunes, sublime passing, explosive speed, silky skills and above all great goals that will always be remembered.
France won because of individual brilliance combined with a collective endeavour. All of France's goals came from an established game plan, speed, quick passing and rotation of the ball and constant interchange of positions.
Argentina had great individual brilliance — Lionel Messi's sublime diagonal cross for Sergio Aguero to head the third goal, in which the ball seemed to float and hang in the air was a touch of genius. However, their ageing defence was exposed by the speed of the new superstar Kylian Mbappe, the non-stop endeavours of N' Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, and the slick passing of the whole French team.
In the space of twenty minutes, from the 48th to the 68th minute, there were four sublime goals, incessant box-to-box attacks and rapidly fluctuating fortunes. The ebb and flow, the sheet pace and intensity of those twenty minutes will remain etched in memory forever.
All great matches must have great goals and in the 41st minute, Angel di Maria equalised for Argentina with an exquisite long-range curling shot. After Gabriel Mercado 's 48th-minute lucky deflection goal, Argentina had the upper hand and it seemed the young French team would crumble.
But France came back stylishly. Right-back Benjamin Pavard’s blockbuster equaliser came at the end of an attractive flowing move and a cross of utmost athleticism. The quality of his sublime angular volley from the edge of the 18-yard box showed exemplary courage and great technique. It was proof of the great coaching systems that France have at their national training centre at Clairefontaine where they develop young talent.
In the four-minute phase, from the 64th to the 68th minute, Mbappe's blistering pace, opportunism and sheer exuberance led to him scoring a brace and establishing himself as the new superstar of World football. The 19-year-old Mbappe is the first teenager to score a brace in the World Cup since the incomparable Pele, who achieved the feat as a 17-year-old in 1958.
On Saturday, at the Kazan arena, a new superstar was born. After the Messi-Ronaldo era, it will be the Mbappe era.
Was it the greatest World Cup game of all time?
Italy's 3-2 win over Brazil in 1982, in which Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick eliminated one of the most charming and gifted sides Brazil had ever produced, will have its advocates. Those of an older generation may feel that Italy's 4-3 win over West Germany in the semi-final of the 1970 World Cup was the Game of the Century, whose five goals in extra time set a record that still remains unbeaten.
Though the above two matches were great, the France vs Argentina match was special. It was the first 4-3 scoreline in World Cup history to not require extra time. Of the eight shots on target in the game, seven resulted in goals. The only man to have a shot saved was Messi, who exited his fourth World Cup empty and broken, still without a knockout goal and still without an international trophy to his name.
Don't cry for me Argentina should be the theme song of the 2018 World Cup. Coach Jorge Sampaoli's constant shuffling of his team and experiment of playing with three central and several young players misfired. Wing-backs Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna or Nicolas Tagluafico and Gabriel and Mercado did not retreat quickly and left gaps on the flanks which were exploited. Midfielder Enzo Perez was overawed in most matches. Javier Mascherano was now slow and his passing was awry.
Japan played one of the best matches ever by an Asian team in the World Cup, even though they lost a 2-3 thriller to Belgium. Their fitness, discipline, running off the ball and organisation was awesome to behold. Japan's performance is a triumph for Asian coaches. Their coach, 63-year-old Akiira Nishino, took over from the Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic just seventy days before the World Cup and transformed the team focussing on teamwork and precise connecting play. Vahid had wanted a more direct and aggressive approach which did not suit Japan.
Japan only lost this match because coach Nishino was not as street smart as his Belgian counterpart Roberto Martinez. Japan led 2-0 till the 68th minute and should have played defensively.
Martinez changed tactics and introduced the tall Marouane Fellaini and resorted to crosses from the flanks to use the height advantage of Romelu Lukaku and Fellaini.
After the second Japanese goal, Martinez remain composed, spotted that his left wide player, Yannick Carassco was tiring (as was his marker, Hiroki Sakai) and instructed the replacement player, Nacer Chadli to make the darting runs. Chadli kept outpacing Sakai and the Japanese citadel started showing gaps. Japanese central defender, Maya Yoshida, had to forcefully move laterally to cover Sakai. This gave ample opportunities to Eden Hazard, Fellaini, Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne to make forays down the middle.
Nishino failed to visualize the imminent danger and persisted with the on-field players instead of ringing in the changes. He should have used Jose Mourinho's famous "Park the bus strategy" and played ultra defensively.
The World Cup is unique because it’s hard to imagine another single event that means so much to so many people and fixes so many eyes on the same spot. Eight losing teams in the Round of 16 including Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and 2010 Champions Spain will go home richer by Rs 82 crores each.
However, money cannot compensate for the glory of not reaching the last eight of the Greatest Show on Earth.
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Updated Date: Jul 04, 2018 19:19:33 IST