June 30th, 2018. The Kazan Arena, Russia. Not only did Russia’s staging of the FIFA World Cup offer a mouth-watering first knockout stage encounter, but from a stylistic standpoint, it felt perfect.
Didier Deschamps’s France coasted through an untroubled and largely untested group stage, where a 2-1 win over Australia, 1-0 victory over Peru and a 0-0 draw opposite Denmark secured their qualification top of group C.
Meanwhile Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina narrowly avoided complete humiliation in their final group stage match over Nigeria, where a late Marcos Rojo goal gave them a 2-1 win, dragging the South Americans through what was an admittedly very tough group in second place.
That result followed a measly 1-1 draw with Iceland and a 3-0 humbling via Croatia, where goalkeeper Willy Caballero, coach Sampaoli and pretty much the entire squad were ridiculed by fans and media alike.
As the teams took the field at 5pm local time, few would have predicted the enthralling game that would unfold.
It was, predictably, ‘Les Bleus’ that took control early. Antoine Griezmann striking the opposition crossbar from a well struck free-kick, and Paris Saint-Germain teenager Kylian Mbappé being scythed down unceremoniously by both Javier Mascherano and Nicolas Tagliafico.
After several minutes the South Americans began to find some sense of sustainability given their current predicament both on and off the pitch, but the opening goal came against the run of play.
Argentina lost possession deep in French territory, and when the ball came to Mbappé he was never going to be caught.
He effortlessly breezed past the 34-year-old Javier Mascherano before Marcos Rojo hauled him down, somewhat stupidly inside his own box considering he could probably have fouled him outside. Regardless, Griezmann stepped up, 1-0 France.
Four years prior in Brazil, under Alejandro Sabella, Argentina reached the final in a manner that can be likened to that of the French side we were witnessing.
Organised and resolute in defence, a hardworking and organised midfield, and a ferocious forward line, albeit Argentina’s attacking exploits diminished greatly in Brazil when Aguero and Di Maria both picked up injuries.
However, the side on display in Russia shared ominous similarities to that led by Diego Maradona in South Africa in 2010.
There, they too played open, expansive, some would say chaotic football, which ultimately proved their downfall when Joachim Löw’s Germany took them apart, dismantling them 4-0 in a dominating display of class and control in the quarter-final.
And now here, having gone behind early to a similar European heavyweight, moulded on the same principles as the last two tournament winners, the same result beckoned for Sampaoli and his side.
Time and again after the opener France attacked down their right-hand side, Griezmann, Mbappé and marauding full-back Benjamin Pavard causing big problems for left-back Tagliafico and Rojo.
The game was, for Argentina, developing a rather worrying pattern. Their attacks, being focused out wide through Cristian Pavón and Angel Di Maria, were blunted without much concern by the French backline.
Meanwhile, every France counter-attack threatened with clear-cut opportunities, Olivier Giroud causing chaos at the heart of an extremely unconvincing centre-half partnership of Rojo and Nicolás Otamendi.
If Argentina were to get back into it, they were in desperate need of individual inspiration. When it did come, it was well worth the wait.
With five minutes remaining in the first half, an Argentine throw deep in France territory found its way to Evar Banega, who got his head up and picked out Di Maria.
The winger, whose effort was impeccable but, as is usually the case, too inconsistent throughout the half to make any real impression, picked out the top corner from all of 30 yards.
‘A goal from the heavens’, as the commentator described it. A gift from the Gods for a desperate Argentina.
Suddenly the game took on a whole new complexion. The fragile Argentines, who had failed to fashion one clear cut chance prior to Di Maria’s equaliser, were inexplicably level at half-time, and their almost rapturous celebrations were about to get even better.
The talent of Angel Di Maria is undeniable. The one frustrating aspect of his game being his inconsistency.
However, his wonderful strike bred new life not only into him, but into his side as a whole.
With little over a minute gone in the second half, he cut inside from the left past Benjamin Pavard, the first time all game he got the better of his marker, who in turn hauled him to the ground.
The resulting delivery was poor but found itself at the feet of Messi, who swivelled on to his left foot and shot.
His effort was equally as disappointing, but the outstretched leg of right-back Gabriel Mercado deflected the ball past Hugo Lloris, who had committed to the initial strike. 2-1 Argentina.
To say the Argentine reaction was euphoric would be an understatement.
Having stared elimination in the face seemingly all tournament, here they found themselves 2-1 up against a side that were heavily favoured and took an early lead.
But for all the celebration, there was always a sense of impending capitulation at the back.
Federico Fazio, on amongst the craziness for the booked Rojo, almost handed France an immediate equaliser thanks to a misunderstanding with goalkeeper Franco Armani.
When Griezmann failed to slot the ball in to an empty net, replays showed that VAR should have awarded another penalty, Fazio almost taking Griezmann’s shirt with him in an attempt to preserve the lead.
Moments later, left-back Lucas Hernandez ran on to the ball in acres of space and swung in a cross. It evaded everyone and when it seemed like it would be cleared, a nonchalant effort from Tagliafico allowed Pavard to take aim and volley home an outrageous effort of his own.
With more than 30 minutes still to play and the score level at 2-2, the momentum suddenly shifted back into the corner of the French.
Although they were hanging on to an undeserved lead, Pavard’s glorious goal sealed Argentina’s fate.
The already brittle team never recovered.
It took only seven minutes for France to breach them again. Hernandez once more crossing from the left, and although this time it was an Argentine on the end of it, it was never dealt with.
After a brief game of pinball in the box, it fell to Mbappé who, in a moment of brilliance, shifted himself and the ball on to his left foot, and fired straight at Armani.
The River Plate shot stopper, the best of a bad bunch of goalkeeper’s selected by Sampaoli, only received a call-up as an emergency replacement following an injury to number one Sergio Romero.
Despite it being entirely saveable, the effort found the back of the net.
With Argentina 3-2 down and chasing the game, the pitch opened up even more and France put their opponents well and truly to the sword, slicing through their almost non-existent defence with rapier-like precision.
Blaise Matuidi drove forward from midfield and found Giroud, who had dropped slightly deeper. He let the ball roll and toe-poked it in to the path of Mbappé, who made no mistake with the finish.
Replays show the ball going under the glove of Armani, as well as the gaping gap he left to his right-hand side, suggesting that he could have done better yet again.
Nevertheless, France led 4-2 and did so deservedly.
This led to more of the same from Argentina. Sampaoli threw on Sergio Aguero for midfielder Enzo Perez, abandoning whatever hint of shape and organisation they had as a team.
Maxi Meza was also introduced, although the fact he has only made one friendly appearance since this competition suggests how awful a tournament he had.
Much like before, chances came few and far between for Argentina, the clearest of which a tame effort by Messi on his weaker right foot which was struck straight at Lloris.
Then, in the dying embers, came their glimmer of hope.
Messi picked up the ball in the inside right channel and, untroubled by any opposition player, proceeded to place the ball directly on to the head of the aforementioned Aguero who had picked up space between the two opposition centre-halves and made no mistake from close range.
At 4-3 there was a sense of edginess surrounding the French defence for the first, and in hindsight probably only time during the tournament, and it showed.
In the fourth and final minute of injury time a hopeful punt towards goal was chested down by Aguero and into the path of Meza.
He took a touch to set himself for the cross and, with Fazio waiting for a header, Di Maria took a swipe at it and blazed it over the bar.
That was their moment, their chance to force extra-time, and they had blown it.
Seconds later the referee blew his whistle, drawing an end to Argentina’s tournament and ultimately Sampaoli’s time in charge of the national team, while France would go on to defeat Croatia 4-2 in the final.
Full-time: France 4-3 Argentina