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30th Jun 2018

Angel Di Maria gave Lionel Messi the help he needed but Kylian Mbappe stole the show

Jack O'Toole

Angel Di Maria was just another pawn on Jorge Sampaoli’s ever changing chess board.

Sampaoli entered Saturday’s second round tie with France with his 15th different line-up in what was his 15th game, and potentially final match, in charge of the Argentine national team.

The Paris Saint-Germain winger did not appear to be central to his plans but he was nevertheless a more pivotal figure to the cause than the ousted Sergio Aguero and the ostracised Paulo Dybala.

Di Maria had been largely poor in the group stages. He had been dropped for the Croatia loss and was substituted off in both the draw with Iceland and the win over Nigeria, but Sampaoli persisted with him.

He had been largely overshadowed in the first-half in Kazan by his PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe who had been running riot against the Argentine defence as he terrorised their left flank with a series of surging runs through the middle of the park.

Di Maria floated around with not a great deal of intent and then he received a ball outside of the box from Ever Banega minutes before half-time and he turned his tournament upside down.

With one touch, one shot and in one foul swoop he fired Argentina back into the game and propelled himself into the tournament.

Argentina entered the half-time break tied at 1-1, after Antoine Griezmann had opened the scoring with a penalty from a superb Mbappe run, but Argentina had the momentum at the break.

Di Maria came back out in the second-half with newfound confidence and attacked the French defence to win a free-kick on the edge of the area just minutes after the restart.

Banega delivered a free-kick into the box and the ball was cleared by Paul Pogba before finding Lionel Messi who then turned and fired the ball back towards goal where it was redirected into the bottom right corner by Gabriel Mercado.

Argentina had taken the lead, the momentum and had seemingly left behind them all the problems that had plagued them throughout the group stages until Kylian Mbappe ruthlessly exposed them again within a matter of minutes.

Benjamin Pavard fired France back into the game with a cracking volley inside the far post before Mbappe struck twice in the space of five minutes to pull Les Blues back into the lead.

His first goal, a low struck shot past Franco Armani after the ball had pin balled around the box from a Lucas Hernández cross, the second, a rampaging run down the right wing to finish off a brilliant move by France and a perfectly timed ball from Olivier Giroud.

France have been widely criticised for the style of football they have played under Didier Deschamps having scored just 18 goals in 10 games in the World Cup qualifiers, but their fourth goal was a spectacular example of what a team loaded with this much talent can do when it all comes together.

The Euro 2016 finalists trudged their way through the group stages but Saturday’s win over Argentina put the rest of the World Cup on notice.

Kylian Mbappe entered the World Cup as a teenager tipped by many to be one of the breakout stars of the tournament and he may leave Russia as one of the very best players in the world.

France may have to overcome Brazil, Portugal, Uruguay or possibly Belgium to ensure that he leaves as a World Cup finalist but everyone left the round of 16 tie with Argentina having watched one of the great finals performances in one of the great World Cup matches.

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