*But the old guys almost pulled it out, somehow? How did that even happen?
Well, that went exactly as I expected, except all the parts that i didn’t expect, which were almost enough to change the outcome. It’s amazing to think that this could have gone the other way, and that’s a bit worrying to me if I’m a French supporter.
First, Argentina were extremely fortunate not to be out of this game in the first 20 minutes. Rojo’s foul is a red card, I’d say. Arguably you could say it wasn’t a PK, but the only argument was that perhaps Mbappe’s last touch took him too wide. The gap in speed between the French and Argentina was on display right away, and an open Argentina was always there for the taking. Mbappe has all the cut of Neymar in the open field, but more direct; he doesn’t have the touch or trickery for the smaller spaces, but maybe more killer instinct, and he’ll give any team trouble--but this one in particular came as no surprise. When Pogba and Griezemann can get into open space--and Griezemann's such an intelligent off-ball player), they're dynamite.
Second, we saw brilliant attacking France but also enigmatic, and unenergized France. They got very little from Giroud until the final pass (a beauty, true) for Mbappe, and one wonders why they can’t possess more, especially as good as the backline and Lloris are with the ball. I’d put that in part on Pogba, which isn’t to say he had a bad game at all. At times he can be brilliant with the killer pass and maybe even better when he uses his speed and strength to surge forward with the ball. That said, he tries to play that pass when it’s not on, and his infatuation with the lofted ball sometimes really takes away from the need to the ball on the ground for quicker play. They were at their best when they got the ball in to Griezemann (or spaces he vacated), whose movement all around the backline is superb--the last goal was a thing of beauty, and it was the Kante to Griezemann pass that unlocked it--well, that and valorous but foolish contesting by Otamendi. The space given to Di Maria for the shot, and then somehow not picking up Aguero on the 3rd? The latter in particular suggests a certain callowness, a sense that it’s more important to deliver something sensational (when up 4-2) rather than kill a team that, to a certain extent, was ready to be put out of its...well, misery isn’t really the right word, but it was a frustrated group. As good as France can be, it’s not hard to see how they get beat.
Two things stand in the way from that collapse: the cool Varane and the omnipresent Kante. Varane’s all in tackle on a poor back pass on Messi was as pure of a 50-50 as exists. They both arrived simultaneously, Varane risking a DOGSO of his own, and Messi so brilliant at keeping his engine going and digging those ball out. Varane’s win was emphatic. He’s a level-head, pulling the French back from their fury at the Otamendi disgrace. Kante, alas, is the key to the whole operation, that anti-star whose tracking and ball-winning are legion, and whose sure distribution pumps the blood through Les Bleus. What separates him from the other masters of the craft is that almost never fouls to get this job done. Matic and Casemiro strike me as the next best, but I'm pretty sure that Messi would agree that Kante's an exceptional player.
Going forward, I’m sure they’ll stick with Giroud, which I don’t like but there it is. They have to replace Matuidi, though, whose industry I’ve come to appreciate and was quick to release Giroud on the 4th.. Nzonzi’s the staid choice, Tolisso the more interesting one. We shall see.
Argentina played one of the strangest games I’ve seen, as if even they were perplexed by the lead that they eventually took. They looked completely out of their league in the first 20 minutes, as if they knew they were doomed by the French pace, and Messi’s wandering mirrored the anarchy of the Croatia game. Without Higuain or Aguero, Enzo Perez became a frontline player for stretches, and odd place for the 32-year old River Plate midfield to set up shop. Banega saw almost none of the ball, and they really didn’t look anything like the pretty humming side we saw in the previous match. Di Maria hung on the flank despite an unconvincing show against Nigeria, but he turned out to be crucial today. He took his chance beautifully from 28-yards out, breathing life into Argentina, and then tricked Pavon into a foul which led to Mercado’s deflection off of Messi’s shot. A singular player, Di Maria, a guy that seems to need some space to operate, but can be enormously effective when he gets there. He almost did it, didn't he?
Their best pure goalscorer on Argentina, Aguero, finally came on, and brilliantly finished his chance; almost lost in it all was that Messi picked him out. I’d figure he wasn’t a starter because he wasn’t fit enough to go 90, but who can say with this lot? I feel pretty good about preview that I wrote; I thought France would runaway with it, and they almost did, but credit to Argentina to finding goals. Essentially, while Argentina was a train wreck, they managed against Nigeria to give us a strong performance and the magic moment from Messi, and restore some dignity. This could have been a complete evisceration, but thanks to some moments of quality from the old guard and reds still in the pocket (even as Otamendi almost begged for it, just as they’d gone 4-3! Perhaps he felt so certain about the result, he thought he’d go down in flames, but the referee wouldn’t oblige), they managed stem some of the Croatia horror show. I don’t think Messi will ever play for Argentina again; it just seems to hurt too much at this point. Some things are just not meant to be. This game was never meant to be, but the 3 touches against Nigeria render you immortal. As for the Argentines, as Bob Dylan wrote, "Strike another match, go start anew, 'cause it's all over now, Baby Blue."
If France draw Portugal, I think they’ll thrash ‘em. Uruguay could be another story, because they won’t give France the kind of space they saw. That would be a very interesting one to see.