FT World Cup 2018: Round of 16 Preview [Argentina vs France]
France vs Argentina is a salivating matchup on paper, as both nations boast a wealth of talent across the pitch, especially in midfield and attacking positions. As underwhelming as each team has been through in the group stage though, one must remind themselves that France and Argentina are familiar with this stage of international competition. In recent memory, France reached the Finals of Euro 2016, and the Quarter Finals of World Cup 2014 and are more than overdue a major international trophy. The same could easily be said about La Albiceleste, who reached the Copa America Final in both 2015 and 2016 only to lose to Chile on both occasions. Argentina also made it to the World Cup Final against Germany in 2014, ending up losers again in a 1-0 extra time drama. Even though each may have underperformed thus far in Russia Here are our three reasons for each nation on why we believe they could progress to the 2018 World Cup Quarter Final.
They have the best player on the field
As it has been for each of Argentina’s games in the tournament so far, Messi has been the best player on the pitch. Against France, it will be no different. It is no secret that France will field a more talented side than Argentina on Saturday, but Argentina will take solace in the fact that similar to themselves, France has looked uninspired and disjointed at times. Lionel Messi is a man ready to seize the moment and has proven that time and time again over the course of his career. His 3-touch majestic goal against Nigeria in a must-win situation should be more than proof that the Barca man could prove a match winner at any moment.
They will have momentum after the huge win
France hasn’t played poorly by any means so far in Russia, but they haven’t exactly impressed either. At times they have even played down to their competition during the group stage, which could be a sign that they have yet to receive a stern enough test. Argentina experienced need the opposite in their journey to the Round of 16. Argentina was tried, tested, and bullied around in each of their matchups against Iceland, Croatia, and Nigeria. In a must-win match against the Naija Boys, they rose to the occasion through a late Marcus Rojo winner which will surely give them confidence that anything can happen for them this tournament.
As much has been said about Soampali and his controversial control of “his” men during the group stage, maybe his biggest mistake in the first match was not starting Ever Banega over Lucas Biglia. Everybody and their mum knew that Iceland would remain compact and up to the task of defending behind the ball against Argentina in Round 1, so it shocked Parnell and me when we saw Biglia’s name on the starting lineup sheet next to Javier Mascherano, already a more than a capable holding midfielder. In this appearance later that game, and especially against Nigeria, Banega has shown his quality, and could easily be regarded as Argentina’s 2-3 most influential player thus far in the tournament. Even if Deschamps adjust France’s tactics to press Banega and attempt to shut down his playmaking abilities, Argentina should still see this as a positive as it will divert France’s (mainly Kante’s) attention away from Messi at times.
They have a more balanced squad and more depth
We have all seen the mock team sheets and memes at this point of France’s B and C teams. Their depth of talent in the tournament can only be rivaled by Brazil or Spain, and whatever starting XI that Deschamps selects will be full of technical ability, pace, and industry. Cohesion is the one adjective that has so far evaded Les Bleus in Russia, but if they find juice on Saturday, as we already saw against Croatia, Lionel Messi can’t play in goal as well.
Antoine Griezmann vs Javier Mascherano
Masche put in vintage and inspirational performance in Argentina’s dramatic win against Nigeria on Tuesday. He was everywhere Argentina needed him to be and then some, as he harassed Nigeria’s midfield and front men, refusing to let any opposing player in the attacking third feel comfortable on the ball. Nigeria has no shortage of talent in their team, but they don’t have a Griezmann. As deadly a finisher the Atletico forward can be in and around the box, he is a player who’s the best quality may be his clever movement and ability to create space for himself. To make matters worse for Argentina and Mascherano, France has a wealth of players who can break lines and push forward past the midfield third, which makes it easier for Griezmann to drift and occupy space in dangerous areas. Even if Masche marshals him well, it may only take one chance for Griezmann to make the Argentinians pay for leaving him open.
Pace, pace, and more pace
We have seen Argentina’s midfield and defense struggle to adapt to a few tactics in Russia, but perhaps what is most indefensible for them will be the genuine and industrious pace of France. Nigeria may have possessed a similar weapon, but ultimately broke down in the final third a bit too often to finish off Argentina in their gutting 2-1 loss. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t get into the dangerous positions in the first place. France has more than enough pace through the likes of Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele to stretch Otamendi and Rojo and allow Pogba and Matuidi to burst forward and create numbers in the oppositions half. Even though Banega could prove a big asset for Argentina going forwards, he will have to do his fair share of tracking if Argentina hopes to retain defensive numbers against France’s attack.