Istra (Russia) (AFP) – Teenager Kylian Mbappe was the star turn in France’s thrilling World Cup victory over Argentina that confirmed their status as potential champions, but the outstanding goal came from the previously unheralded Benjamin Pavard.
The right-back’s sweet strike on the half-volley that brought his side level at 2-2 early in the second half set France up to go on and win 4-3 and is a contender for goal of the tournament so far.
Back home, it saw 22-year-old Pavard being compared with Lilian Thuram, France’s most-capped player, who also produced a rare goal-scoring cameo for his country in a huge World Cup game.
In Thuram’s case it was a double strike in the 1998 semi-final against Croatia, which France won 2-1 on their way to lifting the trophy. He won 142 caps, but they were his only two international goals.
They were also the last World Cup goals scored for France by a defender, but Thuram bowed to the beauty of Pavard’s sumptuous strike at the Kazan Arena.
“I couldn’t imagine myself scoring a goal like that,” Thuram, now 46, said in an interview with AFP.
“Hugo Lloris has said that in training he scores goals like that. But I could never dream of scoring a goal like Pavard’s — I wasn’t conscious of what was going on, and I never scored in training.”
Pavard has been suddenly elevated to the role of first-choice right-back in Didier Deschamps’ side, the latest successor to Thuram in that position, due to Djibril Sidibe’s fitness problems.
He had only won three caps before being named in France’s squad for the tournament after his impressive performances in Germany for Stuttgart.
“It is a really good thing for him. It is not always easy to come into the side in a tournament when you were not a first-choice starter before,” added Thuram, who watched the Argentina game on his native Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
“That happened to me at Euro ’96. He is performing well at the top level. I congratulate him, but not just for his goal — defensively he is very good too.”
Thuram called Pavard’s goal a “game-changer”, as it set Les Bleus up to go on and win with Mbappe scoring twice as Lionel Messi and his shellshocked Argentina teammates were blown away.
France will now face Uruguay in the quarter-finals on Friday in Nizhny Novgorod in what is set to be a fascinating match-up.
Pavard can expect to keep his place in that game, and his progress has come as no surprise to Thuram, who watched the young defender play in the same French under-19 team as his son Marcus.
The 22-year-old with the distinctive curly hair, who started out at Lille, had only ever scored two goals since turning professional before his strike against Argentina.
On Sunday he could not hold back the tears as he was shown a congratulatory message from his parents live on French television.
– ‘Mbappe relishes space’ –
But Pavard is just one of a host of talented youngsters in Deschamps’ squad, led by the brilliant Mbappe.
“What he is doing is only what he has always been doing, since Monaco,” said Thuram of the 19-year-old forward who moved to Paris Saint-Germain in a 180-million-euro ($210-million) deal, and was not even born when France won the World Cup in 1998.
“When a player is extremely quick and the opposition leaves him space, of course he is going to relish it.
“He is young, and young players really enjoy themselves when the standard of the opposition increases.”
Thuram is also confident that his old teammate Deschamps will get more from this France side as the tournament advances, after they struggled to impress in the group phase.
“There is much more tension in the group stages, while knockout matches you either win or lose, so you need to be at your best,” he said.
“I still think like a player, and as a player you want to get through the first round, and you want to win the World Cup. You are there to get results.”
Of the Uruguay game, he added: “It will be tighter. We need to have faith in Didier Deschamps and the players. But psychologically the Argentina game was very important for their confidence.”
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