France and Argentina took different paths to the knockout stage but have much in common at this World Cup.
Both teams are filled with big-name players, both like to play an entertaining style and both have failed to impress so far.
Forty years after their last meeting at soccer’s biggest tournament, the former champions meet on Saturday in Kazan for a spot in the quarterfinals, needing their best players to come to the fore.
With its armada of star players, France qualified unbeaten from its group but has yet to find the right rhythm in Russia. In three matches, coach Didier Deschamps’ team has lacked ambition and intensity. Les Bleus have not made the most of their huge attacking potential, while the poor form of striker Antoine Griezmann, the top scorer at the European championship two years ago, has been a major concern.
Argentina’s path to the knockout stage was shakier. The two-time world champions were thrashed 3-0 by Croatia and avoided the humiliation of an early exit with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Nigeria in their final game. That dramatic win, courtesy of Marcos Rojo’s volley with four minutes left, eased criticism of coach Jorge Sampaoli, who has come under fire for hesitancy and questionable tactics.
In that context, the match at Kazan Arena should be an intriguing and balanced contest between two teams looking to put their problems aside.
”It’s tough for everyone,” Deschamps said when asked about his team’s offensive struggles. ”Spain or Germany, with their reputations for attacking football, have also been struggling. Will things open up more in the round of 16? I don’t know. I hope so.”
Goals can be at a premium at the World Cup, and stopping Lionel Messi will be essential for the French.
The Barcelona striker struggled in Argentina’s first two matches but came to life against Nigeria, scoring an exquisite goal from a long pass over the defense. Messi opened his account at the tournament in a flash of brilliance, first controlling the ball on his thigh, then taking one touch before firing it home.
”Nobody on this planet is capable of stopping Messi. The answer should be collective,” France defender Presnel Kimpembe said.
The French are not planning any particular anti-Messi plan but are insisting on the need to put on a solid block, and to limit the space in between defensive lines.
”It does not make sense to try man-to-man marking on Messi. He is too strong on one-on-one,” said former France defender Bixente Lizarazu, now a commentator. ”They need to cut the link between Messi and the other forwards. Because Messi is a striker, but also a playmaker.”
WHERE IS GRIEZMANN?
The Atletico Madrid forward has failed to make an impact in France’s group matches, being substituted in all three.
He is not worried, though, and expects to gather momentum against the two-time world champions.
”I’m pretty sure I will soon reach the level everybody expects me to be,” he said. ”It was the same at the 2016 Euros. I only started to feel good from the last 16.”
In the goalless draw against Denmark, Griezmann made wrong tactical choices and gave the ball away too often while his partnership with Olivier Giroud did not produce any fireworks.
France has other options up front in Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele.
”We are going to play against a team with great individual players,” Sampaoli said. ”They are among the very best contenders and we will need to be very consistent to come out on top of a very difficult match.”
WHO’S THE BOSS?
France has yet to find a consistent style of play, but at least there is no doubt Deschamps is in charge.
For Argentina, there are questions about Sampaoli’s leadership. TV footage from the Nigeria game showed the coach speaking with Messi before Sergio Aguero’s substitution. The Barcelona forward nodded his head in approval in response to his coach, who was apparently asking if he should bring on the Manchester City striker. After the win, Sampaoli left for the dressing room without celebrating alongside his players, but Messi came to hug him.
”Leo’s gesture with me makes me proud. He knows all the passion I put into everything I do,” Samapoli said. ”We share the dream of coming to Russia to achieve something important for Argentina.”
FIXING THE DEFENSE
Having conceded five goals in three matches, Argentina needs a quick fix for its defensive problems.
Argentina has dominated possession in its group games, but the high pressing imposed by Sampaoli has not been working well and opponents have exploited the space behind Marcos Rojo, Nicolas Otamendi and fullback Nicolas Tagliafico. Sampaoli needs to find a solution to control Mbappe’s speed.
France and Argentina met for the first time at the World Cup during the inaugural tournament in Uruguay in 1930. The South Americans won 1-0 in Montevideo, and did it again at home in 1978 on their way to the title, defeating France 2-1.