World Cup Round of 16: Will we see maximum overdrive from France and Argentina, group stage minimalists?
What better way to kick-start the business end of the 2018 FIFA World Cup than an epic heavyweight clash between France and Argentina. Both sides square off at the Kazan Arena on Saturday, with the victors expected to make a deep run all the way to the finals. In the meantime, either of Uruguay or Portugal awaits the winner in the quarter-final.
To reach this round, these nations endured contrasting fortunes. France did so quite convincingly with a game to spare. Les Bleus enjoyed a smooth yet patchy sail in Group C, picking up seven points from nine. Didier Deschamps team banked on VAR and an own goal to beat Australia, while they were lucky to hold onto a slender 1-0 lead against Peru, thanks Kylian Mbappe’s strike. Then, they switched off completely against Denmark.
Argentina, in contrast, went all the way to hell and returned with a second chance. The Albiceleste will count themselves fortunate to still be in Russia after failing to impress. Jorge Sampaoli was on the brink of losing his job, but Marcos Rojo’s winner against Nigeria earned him another shot at their first title since 1986. Before that, they were tamed by Iceland and then received massive bashing from Croatia.
Yet Sampaoli will be fascinated by his team’s imposing record against the 1998 champions. Argentina has lost just twice in 11 contests with France. Twice they've met at this tournament and all ended in their favour. If that’s not sufficient enough, then the fact that the Albiceleste hasn’t exited at this stage in 16 years is.
Group C Winners
Les Bleus have been efficient and at same time underwhelming so far. The French side would flaunt some beautiful attacking piece only to cap it up with extremely shoddy finishing. Despite hugely blessed with attacking talents, Deschamps hasn’t quite gotten it right in the final third. Aside Mbappe's goal, the other two weren’t actually choreographed.
Against Denmark, France didn't even show up. With a point enough to seal passage for both, they understandably switched off to produce the tournament's first goalless draw to the displeasure of goal-thirsty fans at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Although yet to hit top gear in attack, Les Bleus have held their own at the back. No team has penetrated the French wall – in fact, none in five World Cup matches. They’re unbeaten in seven straight games at this competition.
Samuel Umtiti remains a doubt but is expected to be fit in time as Deschamps is set to make sweeping changes to the side that played in the dour stalemate with Denmark. Hugo Lloris, Mbappe and Paul Pogba are among those hoping to return to the starting XI, while Lucas Hernandez should keep his spot despite his 50th-minute withdrawal in the stalemate.
France could miss the services of midfielders Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Corentin Tolisso should they make it to the last-eight. The trio is only one booking away from suspension.
France predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Kante, Pogba; Matuidi, Mbappe, Griezmann; Giroud
Group D Runners-up
With reigning champions Germany out of the picture, La Albiceleste would fancy their chances of going one better this time. The 2014 beaten finalists know they must make good of their second chance in Russia as most squad members unlikely to return for the next edition.
Lionel Messi, in particular, will be out to prove his doubters wrong. Once again, the Barcelona superstar has been dragged into the debate with Cristiano Ronaldo after failing to lift his team against Iceland and Croatia. The Portuguese, meanwhile, had notched four goals in his opening two matches.
However, the Barcelona forward showed a glimpse of his alien abilities against Nigeria and would be aiming to build on that. Messi produced an inspiring display, capping it with a superbly taken opener - his first of the competition. Rojo did the rest after the Super Eagles pegged back from the spot.
Without any pressing injury crisis, Sampaoli would likely name the same XI that started the win over Nigeria on Tuesday night. This would see Ever Banega and Franco Armani keep their places in the side. So would Enzo Perez, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain up front alongside Messi.
However, Argentina must approach the game with caution as five players risk missing the next round if they make it through. They include Banega, Gabriel Mercado, Javier Mascherano, Marcos Acuna Nicolas Otamendi and talisman Messi.
Argentina predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Armani; Mercado, Rojo, Otamendi, Tagliaficoi; Mascherano, Banega; Di Maria, Perez, Messi; Higuain
Argentina will come all out with a point to prove on Saturday. Messi and co would be under immense pressure to make a point. A very youthful, balanced French team, meanwhile, may approach the game the opposite manner. The likes of Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele would be out just to have fun. Having had extra days off, Les Bleus will be better refreshed and energised.
The game won't produce too many goals, though, particularly as both sides have notched just three apiece - averaging one per game. France's solid defence will be the difference, considering the South Americans seem to concede every single game. That said, Les Bleus to progress by a slender one-goal margin.