The grotesque, shambling, undead monster that modern day Dr Frankenstein, Jorge Sampaoli, somehow fashioned from some rather more appealing raw materials than his fictional predecessor ever had at his disposal, was finally put to rest in the first of the last 16 fixtures at World Cup 2018 by a rather more lively and coherent French side as the knockout phase got off to a spectacular start.
World Cup 2018 Diary: Out With The Old.
By Dave Bowler
That Argentina had made it that far at all was through force of will rather than force of football and all their myriad failings were laid bare by a French side that demolished them much more comprehensively than the final 4-3 scoreline suggests.
When they sit down to assess the game, that will be the disappointment for a French side who, in so many ways, looked outstanding. The midfield of Kante, Matuidi and Pogba, rising to the occasion and showing why so many think so highly of him, ran the show, didn’t give Argentina a kick and were endlessly creative. Then up front, in their contrasting ways, Griezmann, Giroud and the enthralling Mbappe were simply unstoppable.
How then, were France not already out of sight before Di Maria rifled one in from 30 yards and equalised things up from out of nowhere? And how did they somehow find themselves 2-1 down early in the second half?
They’ll be able to point to the way they then responded, tortured Argentina and, fully rampant, scored the best goals of the tournament in turning the game around in a handful of minutes, and that will be huge for self belief. But if you can concede three goals to a side as dysfunctional as Argentina, you need to question your ability to see off a proper team – always providing they come up against one which is by no means certain in this tournament.
What is certain is that as an attacking unit, they are fearsome. Griezmann’s ability to link play together is outstanding, Gironde offers a mobile and intelligent focal point and Mbappe has made it clear that he is a Ballon d’Or winner in waiting.
His electrifying pace and directness demanded the early penalty which Griezmann despatched supremely, his superb running off the ball and hunger to get into position allowed him to complete what was an exceptional move, from back to front, and his predatory instincts were also present and correct in sniffing out a chance in the box, producing a fine first touch and a decisive shot.
Add to that Pavard’s magnificent spinning, swerving strike from the right after Argentina had been opened up by Hernandez down the left, and you have a lethal looking attack. But if you can’t keep the back door shut, history suggests you can’t win. Work still to do on the training ground for Deschamps and his men.
What Lionel Messi’s continuing (comparative) failure in the Argentina shirt represents on a bigger scale is that the World Cup has now been usurped by the Champions League as the arbiter of greatness. Whatever has happened over the last fortnight, whether he returns for a fifth crack at the World Cup four years hence, Messi’s status as one of the all-time greats is assured. But that all rests on football played at FC Barcelona, none of it on his work at a World Cup.
With the exception of George Best, that is pretty much unique since Brazil and Pele really invented the modern version of the competition in 1958. Since then, the litany of the absolute giants – Pele, Bobby Charlton, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Zidane, Brazilian Ronaldo – have been anointed at World Cups, the crowning glories of great careers. Others, such as Zico, have been denied access to the pantheon thanks to underwhelming World Cups.
Messi has, by those standards, been mediocre at the greatest show on earth. He, like Cristiano Ronaldo – another failure in World Cup terms, but with at least the consolation of winning the Euros to ease his disappointment – has built his memorial by scoring goal after goal and winning game after game for his club in the Champions League. Perhaps that will be their lasting legacies, that they made club football the supreme form of the game once more.
No Crown For Ronaldo
There will be no World Cup crown for Ronaldo either, though the Portuguese star fancies himself to play at least one more of these finals. He was largely underwhelming, much like his team, against a Uruguayan outfit that were everything that Argentina hadn’t been, embodying that dogged South American spirit but allying that to a sound game plan, good organisation, everybody aware of their job and doing it well.
They have perhaps the best defender at the competition in Godin and, in Cavani and Suarez, they gave two world class strikers coming to the boil at the right moment. The two played an outrageous long range one-two over 60 yards back and forth, ended with Cavani pounding a leaping header into the roof of the net.
Then, after Pepe had dragged Portugal back into it with an equaliser, Cavani found a sumptuous finish from the edge of the box to win it. That he limped off injured was the only blot on the landscape for Uruguay, for if he misses the quarterfinal, their chances diminish sharply.
Today’s games underlined that the real quality in this World Cup is in the top half of the draw and that tie between France and Uruguay is tough to call. Potentially the best attack against certainly the best defense. The level of Cavani’s fitness might be the decisive factor.