Kylian Mbappe announces himself on the World Cup stage
EKATERINBURG -- Only as a 19-year-old can you have such nerves of steel and fearlessness as Kylian Mbappe, who played the most important game of his (very) young career on Thursday.
France's Group C encounter against Peru, in the cold of Ekaterinburg, was bigger than anything he had experienced. The pressure was huge. Bigger than the game against Australia five days ago, even though that was his World Cup debut. Bigger than a Champions League semifinal against Juventus with Monaco or, after a controversial transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, a round-of-16 clash with Real Madrid.
After his poor performance against the Socceroos, Mbappe's critics were brutal. Is he too young? Are we expecting too much too soon? Should Didier Deschamps drop him? Is he ready for this level?
The questions needed to be answered and boy did Mbappe respond in style. His winning goal sealed a place for France in the next stage of the competition and he showed all his class as he was quite rightly named man of the match.
Miguel Trauco, the poor Peruvian left-back and his direct opponent, did not know where to look. Going right, left, with little chops, step overs and accelerations, Mbappe beat him continually and made a difference almost every time he touched the ball. He provided a spark and was involved in everything France created.
The return by Deschamps to a 4-4-2 formation seemed to liberate the teenager. Unlike against Australia, where he looked lost as part of a three-man forward line, he stayed on the right-hand side and took advantage of the space ahead of him.
Mbappe reaped the benefits of having Olivier Giroud as a target man, holding the ball up and flicking it on. The contrast to Blaise Matuidi on the opposite flank, who admittedly was playing out of position, could not have been greater.
The performance today was another grand chapter in an incredible career for Mbappe and the goal he scored, tapping in from close range after Giroud's shot was parried, saw him break yet another record: At 19 and 183 days, he became France's youngest World Cup scorer. The previous holder was David Trezeguet, who set the mark in 1998 and was in Ekaterinburg stadium to see it broken.
Against Australia, Mbappe became the youngest World Cup player for France and these new milestones will be added to the old ones, including youngest to score a brace for Les Bleus, as well as youngest to play and score for Monaco, beating a certain Thierry Henry.
At the same age, Henry was nowhere near the level Mbappe has shown. The comparisons between them will continue for a while but, more and more, the Parisian is making a name for himself around the world. Not that he is saying too much.
"I am happy. It was my dream to play in a World Cup and I am realising it," he said after receiving his match award. "To score as well is even better. I hope many more goals come."
Mbappe refused to talk to the press in the mixed zone after the game and is clearly not happy with criticism he has received.
"He has so much talent and people expect so much from him," said Paul Pogba. "He is only 19 and he is already a great. He will always be under scrutiny because he is so good. The best answer to his critics is on the pitch and he did it. He played well so you will praise him. When he won't play well, you will criticise him. That's the way it is. His job is not to play football anymore, it is to shut people up.
And therein lies a warning to the young star. On the biggest stage, Mbappe impressed but, if he wants to keep growing, he must learn to deal better with both praise and criticism.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.