A matchup many could have pegged as a potential World Cup final next month will instead be a scrap to merely make the quarterfinals as France faces Argentina on Saturday in Kazan.
Both teams underachieved to a degree in group play, though Les Bleus had little drama in claiming Group C honors with two wins and a draw. Argentina, however, compensated for France’s straightforward approach with a high-wire act in Group D that did not determine its fate until Marcus Rojo’s goal in the 86th minute saw the two-time champion advance with a 2-1 win over Nigeria as runner-up behind Croatia.
As is always the case, all the breathless talk around the Albiceleste surrounds Lionel Messi. His exquisite goal on three touches that opened the scoring versus Nigeria on Tuesday made him the second player in World Cup history alongside Mia Hamm to score a goal in his teens, his 20s and his 30s, and it also lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders.
At some point after this tournament, it will be revealed just how much pressure was on the Argentine superstar at this tournament in which he all but dragged the South American side into the knockout round.
How he needed to atone for his missed penalty against Iceland in the opener and his indifferent play in an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Croatia that had Argentina on a knife’s edge of crashing out for group play for the first time since 2002. Whether there was a locker room revolt against coach Jorge Sampaoli that left Messi in charge of dictating both formation and personnel.
Right now, however, he and his team have been given a second chance, and they look to make the most of it.
France was a team struggling to get out of its own way offensively as coach Didier Deschamps was his own worst enemy personnel-wise as it scraped past Australia in its opener. He made changes against Peru, most notably the introduction of Olivier Giroud as a target forward, for the second match, and while the play was better, the scoreline failed to reflect such improvement in a 1-0 win.
There’s not much to be said for Les Bleus’ third match as both they and Denmark played to a turgid draw that saw both teams advance and remains the only scoreless match at this World Cup. The Danes played five at the back, and a revamped French side resting six regulars, including keeper Hugo Lloris and midfielder Paul Pogba, failed to find any creases while effectively shutting down Denmark playmaker Christian Eriksen.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 16 — France 2, Australia 1 (Griezmann 58′ (PK), Jedinak 62′ (PK), Behich 81′ (og))
June 21 — France 1, Peru 0 (Mbappe 34′)
June 26 — France 0, Denmark 0
June 16 — Argentina 1, Iceland 1 (Aguero 19′, Finnbogason 23′, Messi PK miss 64′)
June 21 — Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Argentina 2, Nigeria 1 (Messi 14′, Moses 51′ (PK), Rojo 86′)
This was France’s most effective lineup, the 4-2-3-1 Deschamps used in the win over Peru. The introduction of Blaise Matuidi to work in tandem with N’Golo Kante behind the attacking four serve as an effective buffer in the midfield, and Giroud’s ability to hold up play and set up Griezmann and Kylie Mbappe for knock-down passes gave both structure and dynamism to the offense.
While Argentina list its formation as a 4-3-3, it’s more like a 4-1-2-3 with Mascherano serving as a defensive midfielder that allows Banega to be creative further up. Messi is on his favored right side up front, with Higuain serving as a traditional striker and Di Maria playmaking on the left.
Armani did enough in his first international appearance, conceding only a penalty, to warrant staying between the sticks over Willy Caballero.
Despite all that talent, both teams faced opponents who were content to try and hit them on the counter. France and Argentina combined for just 27 shots on goal in their three matches. The Albiceleste, though, allowed 11 shots on frame while Les Bleus conceded just four, with one of them Jedinak’s penalty.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
France has no injuries and lost no players to yellow card suspensions for this match. Matuidi, Pogba and Corentin Tolisso will have their cautions expunged if they get through this contest without adding a second.
Argentina also appear to have no injury concerns, though six players (Banega, Mascherano, Messi, Marcos Acuna, Gabriel Mercado and Nicolas Otamendi) carry a booking into this contest.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
France – Hugo Lloris (GK)
Lloris was a spectator for France’s last game, though one could argue he could have had a similar role had he been between the sticks against Denmark. The Tottenham Hotspur No. 1 already reached a personal milestone in group play with his 100th international appearance for Les Bleus, but there is a lingering feeling of dread Lloris is the one who will make the mistake that put France out of a major tournament.
He really has not been tested since France arrived in Russia, and with one of the world’s best players in Messi bearing down on him in this contest, Lloris can ill-afford another high-profile blunder.
Argentina – Ever Banega (MF)
For such a wonderful goal that Messi scored, it would have not been possible without Banega’s raking pass over the top of Nigeria’s defense. The Sevilla midfielder did not play in the disastrous loss to Croatia after a lively 36-minute stint off the bench against Iceland. He is arguably Argentina’s most creative midfielder and may need to stay wide to stretch France’s midfield pairing of Kante and Matuidi to open up gaps in front of France’s defense.
WORLD CUP HEAD-TO-HEAD HISTORY
1930 (Uruguay) Argentina 1, France 0 (Monti 81′)
1978 (Argentina) Argentina 2, France 1 (Passarella 45′ (PK), Platini 60′, Luque 73′)
Both of Argentina’s World Cup wins over France came in group play, with the 1978 victory one of five La Albiceleste recorded en route to their first World Cup title.
Per Ladbrokes, France is a slight favorite with 5/4 odds, while Argentina is listed at 9/4. The odds of the match going to penalties and being listed as a draw are 19/10. Unsurprisingly, Messi is the odds-on favorite for first goal-scorer at 4/1, followed closely by Griezmann at 9/2. Giroud and Sergio Aguero are listed at 5/1, while both Higuain and Mbappe are slightly longer at 11/2.
That is the question Argentina must ask itself heading into this match, whether it has anything left to give after an emotionally draining win with so much at stake. La Albiceleste’s starting XI versus Nigeria averaged 30 years and 189 days, and goals by Messi and Rojo aside, it was still a very mediocre side who simply punished the Super Eagles for their wastefulness considering the African squad appeared more likely to grab a match-winner before Rojo struck.
Mascherano is going to have his hands full in front of Argentina’s back four, and the fact he gave away a penalty against Nigeria is not a good sign considering the pace of Griezmann and Mbappe as they play off Pogba. Otamendi and Rojo will have plenty of familiarity with Giroud from their Premier League clashes and know the France No. 9 will be a challenge.
France’s biggest need in this match is to exert control early. The more Les Bleus starve Messi of the ball through possession, the more he is likely to backtrack out of dangerous areas to collect the ball in the midfield. That allows Kante and Matuidi to be effective when Argentina do try to start offensive moments and potentially hit on the counter.
Then there is Sampaoli. It is next to impossible to determine what his role, if there still is one, is on this team. It appeared Messi was dictating who and when to make switches, though leaving Aguero and his work rate on the bench for 80 minutes bordered on criminal regardless of who is in charge of personnel.
It would not be surprising to see the Manchester City striker leading the line again over Higuain, but La Albiceleste are so dysfunctional, leaving the Juventus striker in the lineup because they won the previous match probably is good strategy in their eyes.
Everyone hopes Argentina will wake up and be the sum of its parts now that group play is over, but nearly every power at this World Cup has shown there is no vast jump in quality play to be had from match to match, there is no flipping of a switch. One need look no further than Germany.
Look for a well-rested France side to put Argentina out of its misery and trigger a seminal moment for the South American side in which Messi will once more contemplate his international fate with La Albiceleste as well as an expected housecleaning of their coaching staff.
PREDICTION: FRANCE 2, ARGENTINA 0
The winner of this match will play the winner of the Uruguay-Portugal match in the quarterfinals July 6 at Nizhny Novogorod.