Day sixteen of the World Cup saw the arrival of the much-awaited knockout stages, and after a whole day of NO FOOTBALL (!!!!), two mouth-watering ties lay in wait for the world’s faithful viewers. First up it was France versus Argentina, two teams that had polarised fortunes in the group stage; France cantered to top spot, while Argentina slipped through the back door at the last moment.
This face-off proved to be a classic, the action starting early with Antoine Griezmann striking the crossbar from range from a challenging free kick. Shortly after, Kylian Mbappé pounced on an Argentine error before bursting through the midfield and being fouled in the penalty area by Marcos Rojo, after a few moments, VAR confirmed the penalty. Griezmann dutifully stepped up and rolled the ball into the back of the net, giving France a 1-0 lead in the thirteenth minute. The French continued to threaten to no avail, which proved costly just four minutes from the half-time whistle, when Angel Di Maria stepped up to level from distance with an absolute rocket past French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
The Argentinian team talk clearly worked wonders, as just three minutes after the restart they took the lead after a Lionel Messi shot was deflected in off the left foot of their defender Gabriel Mercado. This lead lasted for only nine minutes, when French right back Benjamin Parvard arrived on the edge of the Argentina area and unleashed an unbelievable sliced volley to level the game at 2-2. If you haven’t seen the goal, pause your reading and go and watch it, it is without doubt the goal of the tournament.
This incredible game was far from over, Mbappé taking charge of things again, this time producing some seemingly impossible close control in the Argentina box to set up a shot, a relatively tame shot that went underneath Argentina keeper Franco Armani’s body, much to his own disappointment. Four minutes later, man of the match Mbappé was on the scene once more, this time calmly dispatching an Olivier Giroud pass to clinch the match for the French side… Or so they thought. With ninety-three minutes on the clock, Lionel Messi provided a beautiful lofted through pass onto the head of Sergio Aguero, who calmly headed into the bottom left corner to give Argentina slim hope; a dream that very nearly came to be realised when with the last touch of the match, a drilled crossed was agonisingly turned behind by an Argentine knee. The final whistle blew just seconds later, breaking the hearts of a nation and sending France through to face the winners of the day’s late game between Uruguay and Portugal.
This one got off to a flying start, taking only seven minutes to burst into life thanks to Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani. Cavani started the move himself, sending a lofted cross-field pass out to strike partner Luis Suarez, who returned the ball with a whipped cross for Cavani to expertly head past the new Wolves signing Rui Patrício in the Portuguese goal. Patrício kept Portugal within sight of Uruguay when he got down brilliantly to keep out a Suarez free kick which was cheekily put under the defensive wall soon after Cavani’s brilliant opener.
Portugal had not offered much in the first half until they were awarded a free kick, which naturally had the billions of fans watching worldwide jumping forward to the edge of their seats in anticipation, the image off Cristiano Ronaldo’s thunderbolt free kick against Spain fresh in their minds. However, despite the hitched-up shorts and extreme bravado from CR7, the free kick summed up his game, going straight into the wall.
Portugal came alive after the break, former Real Madrid defender Pepe rising above everyone to score a bullet-like headed equaliser, setting up the rest of the tie excellently. In the face of this set back, Uruguay rallied well, dragged back into the lead very quickly by their talisman Cavani. In a day of beautiful goals, his second lived up to the fresh legacy of Parvard and Di Maria’s efforts earlier in the day, expertly bending the ball into the bottom right hand corner first time after receiving a Rodrigo Bentancur pass on the edge of the penalty area.
The remainder of the game saw Portugal rarely threaten thanks to the dogged resistance of the South Americans, Bernardo Silva spurning their best chance over the bar after a terrible error from Uruguayan goalie Fernando Muslera, the last major talking point of the match, which ended 2-1 to the South American side, who now face France in the quarters.
Day sixteen saw two of the game’s all-time greats, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, bowing out of the game’s greatest competition for what will likely be the last time. It also saw the emergence of the future in Kylian Mbappé, and reaffirmed the present. Day sixteen reminded us why we love football and why we adore the World Cup… and there is still so much more to come.