France because the first team to reach the quarter-finals at the 2018 World Cup as Kylian Mbappé inspired Les Bleus to a sensational 4-3 victory over Argentina in the Kazan Arena.
The 19-year-old, who struck twice in four second-half minutes to become the first teenager since Pelé to score a World Cup brace, was in electric form and a constant source of concern for the Argentina back line, whose only tactic to stop his marauding runs led to France’s opening goal.
After bursting forward from his own half, Mbappé was floored in the area by Marcos Rojo and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Antoine Griezmann stepped up to stroke past Franco Armani having rattled the bar from a free-kick moments earlier.
Argentina lacked a clear strategy and France, led by N’Golo Kanté, kept Leo Messi firmly under wraps throughout. With their talisman tied up by the Chelsea midfielder it fell to Ángel di María to find a moment of inspiration as he found the corner with a cracking effort on 40 minutes.
That galvanized Argentina and they carried the momentum into the second half and took the lead two minutes after the restart when Messi turned in the area and fired a half-chance towards Hugo Lloris’ goal. The ball’s flight was initially headed straight for the Spurs keeper but Gabriel Mercado, intentionally or not, altered its path to leave Lloris flat-footed.
France were rattled by the turnaround but found themselves level 10 minutes later when Stuttgart defender Benjamin Pavard unleashed an unstoppable effort from the edge of the area, wrapping his boot around a rising shot that curled beyond the grasp of Armani.
With the scores level the scene was set for a hero to emerge and Mbappé embraced the role, first stealing through the Argentina defence to fire low through Armani’s left glove and moments later running onto an Olivier Giroud ball to hammer a shot off his other boot past the River Plate keeper.
The introduction of Sergio Agüero transformed Argentina, the Manchester City striker providing a more direct outlet and running at the France defence, who had been mostly comfortable against Sampaoli’s starting attack and able to force Messi away from the danger area with the Barça star receiving little in the way of support.
The two combined in stoppage time to provide a lifeline for Argentina but it proved to be too little, too late as France held on for victory.
Mbappé chooses grandest stage to burst Messi's legacy
Messi also added a little footnote of his own, becoming the first Argentina player since Diego Maradona in 1986 to provide two assists in a single World Cup, but will leave Russia with a sense of destiny unrealized. Unlike his predecessor in the famous number 10 shirt, Messi was unable to drag a fairly ordinary Albiceleste to World Cup glory single-handed, as the Cosmic Barrel did in Mexico.
But it will be Sampaoli who faces an inquisition in the Argentinean media on Sunday, one that is likely to be brutal and uncompromising. The Argentina coach failed to settle on a system or a starting XI in Russia and laid all his hopes on a Messi miracle. The mess that ensued was encapsulated when he was apparently caught on camera asking his captain’s advice on substitutions.
Messi may not pick the Argentina team but there will be around 43 million armchair tacticians who believe they could have done a better job than the former Chile manager, who forged his reputation by taking an unfancied side to Copa América glory and who has now shattered it by overseeing Argentina’s worst World Cup campaign since 2002.
For France, the winners of the game between Uruguay and Portugal await. For Mbappé, the Golden Ball is looking like a very real possibility as the 19-year-old continues to carve his legend into the annals of the game. That he did so at the expense of a player regarded as the finest of his generation is perhaps fitting. Messi’s history with his national side may prove to be just that after Kazan while Mbappé is the poster boy of a Les Bleus squad who are now joint favourites with Brazil to go all the way in Russia and which contains 15 players who are 25 or younger.