In perhaps his final match for the national team, Lionel Messi couldn’t create enough inspiration and magic to carry Argentina on his back against, let’s face it, a more talented and better France team, pulled forward by the speed and youthful talent of Kylian Mbappe.
We mentioned Mbappe in the preview, and the PSG winger put on a show to remember for years. His Ronaldo-esque (Brazilian Ronaldo) charge that led to a penalty kick in the first half, his turn and finish that put France back in the lead, and his impeccable finish to put France up by two goals, capping off a wonderful 11-minute comeback, galvanized by Benjamin Pavard’s wonder strike to make it 2-2.
France struggled creating consistency on offense throughout the tournament, scoring only 3 goals in the group stage. But their physical advantages and rare tactical accuracy provided plenty of opportunities for Antoine Griezmann, Mbappe, Paul Pogba and others to shred the Argentine defense, which was no match despite its tenacity and honestly, dirty antics that were slightly ignored by the compassionate approach of referee Alireza Faghani.
Despite not scoring, Messi left his mark. Two assists, including a genius pass to Sergio Aguero in injury time, sparking a bit of hope as France entered a complacent phase a bit too early. The French team played exactly how you should against a side with little to no ingenuity besides one player. Their midfield sat close to the defensive line, rarely allowing Messi a change to make his infamous runs at defenders one on one. You can’t contain Messi completely, but it felt that aside from his slightly lucky first assist to Mercado, his decision making and execution in those moments was lacking.
A national side is built in many ways. There are long term projects, like Germany following their disappointing 2004 Euro, followed by two semi finals and a 2014 title, with a head coach that stays, regardless of short term disappointments. One might say Uruguay are in the same type of method, possibly at the end of their phase.
There are golden generations as well. Often beginning with a youth side that wins a continental tournament, and progresses to carry on at the highest level together. Portugal of the early 2000’s, before Cristiano Ronaldo, were such a side.
Argentina is neither. No long term oversight or plan, and no golden generation. Talent and depth is always there, but guidance, with someone to pinpoint the faults and strengths just simply doesn’t exist. Over reliance on Messi? Perhaps, but the problems for the national side seem to stretch beyond their all-time leading goalscorer. They were there to see in the losses to Croatia and France; even in the win over Nigeria.
France? In this World Cup, anything can happen, and it might be happening for a French side many disregarded because of their manager and because of their inability to come up with the goods in the money time since Zinedine Zidane left with a thundering headbutt.
But Deschamps, who played for the French team that made history 20 years ago, despite the players he didn’t call up for reasons that sometimes have more to do with dressing room unity than on-the-pitch ability, could be the one who does what others, some more highly regarded than himself, have failed to do, finally finding the right balance between talent, youth, experience and leadership.