France v Argentina. Enough of the minnows parking the proverbial bus, the David and Goliath stories; the real stuff starts here. Two colossal footballing nations, both former champions and steeped in World Cup history, come head to head in the last 16.
Both of these heavyweights have stuttered to this stage without ever finding their rhythm. France qualified easily enough from a group devoid of serious quality, and Argentina needed a late winner against Nigeria to scrape through on the coattails of the impressive Croats.
But there are no more second, or even third, chances now. This is do-or-die, death or glory, knockout football.
France v Argentina Preview
A little unbelievably, this is the first World Cup meeting between these sides in 40 years. The last time they met was in the 1978 group stages, where Argentina won 2-1 and went on to win the whole thing.
The French will be favourites to win this clash though. The 0-0 draw against Denmark was their seventh unbeaten game in a row, part of a run of just one loss in 15. They’ve kept seven clean sheets during that run.
Conversely, Argentina have only won three of their last seven and conceded 15 in that time. The limp draw against Iceland – not helped by Lionel Messi’s missed penalty – was compounded by an abject performance against Croatia. Modric, Rakitic and company utterly dismantled a leaky Argentine defence, and France will no doubt be looking to do the same in Kazan.
The View From the Sideline
It seems that the world’s best player in Messi has decided to turn his hand to management already. His half-time team talk was widely broadcast, as was a clip of him supposedly telling actual manager Jorge Sampaoli that Sergio Aguero was coming on.
The squad is the oldest at the tournament, and the unpredictable changing of personnel and formation has stunted any cohesion. The introduction of Ever Banega against Nigeria helped the team’s balance, and his assist for Messi’s marvellous opener is underrated. But Mascherano appears to be more of a hindrance than a help, Marcos Rojo is a liability at best and Willy Caballero is just downright shaky.
The winning formula? Get the ball to Messi as quickly and as often as possible.
France haven’t fared much better, mainly because Didier Deschamps doesn’t know his best system. Antoine Griezmann started on the left against Australia, then in behind Olivier Giroud against Peru and then as a central striker against Denmark.
4-3-3? 4-4-2? 4-2-3-1? Who knows.
What is clear is that France have strength in attacking depth, and getting their forwards the ball will be the main concern. Too many sideways passes from Steven N’Zonzi and N’golo Kante made them predictable against Denmark, so it’ll be down to Paul Pogba to glue everything together.
For one of these teams, Saturday will bring an early exit and spark a mini-crisis within their ranks. Before the tournament, both teams would have been expected to make the quarterfinals at the very least, and a last-16 departure represents failure.
France v Argentina will go one of two ways: an edgy, nervous encounter with few risks; or an open, attacking goal-fest with some of the world’s best players on the planet trying to keep a dream alive. Let’s hope for the latter.
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