Argentina and France are unlikely opponents for the Fifa World Cup's first Round of 16 encounter in Kazan, Russia.
Both teams have been unconvincing to a certain degree in the World Cup thus far. While Argentina’s midfield and defence have been in shambles for large parts of the World Cup, the French offence has failed to click, with only three goals in three games. On the positive side though, France has only conceded a solitary goal thus far, while Argentina conceded five, defensive errors influencing most of these goals. The return to form of Messi, and the introduction of Banega though, make this high profile tie close to an even matched one.
In the high pressure situation of a must win match, Jorge Sampaoli chose to change his lineup by starting the enigmatic No 10, Ever Banega. Known for having ample time on the ball, Banega has the ability to ping long balls as well as thread the needle with killer through passes. His awareness of space and velvet first touch ensures that Banega is always in the midst of attacking ventures. These qualities though were offset by Banega’s lack of work rate and discipline in the early years of his career. A move to Sevilla in the summer of 2014 revived his faltering career. Under Unai Emery, the playmaker started delivering on potential, instrumental in two Europa League wins and Sevilla’s first quarterfinal appearance in the European Cup/Champions League since 1958. Viewers saw the renewed Banega in his display against a youthful and highly motivated Nigerian team. He delivered effective long range passes aplenty in the first half, the best among them being a assist to Messi for the first goal, and a raking grounded through pass to Di Maria at the stroke of halftime. His creativity and calm on the ball meant that Messi could occupy more attacking positions on the pitch, and impact the game as we have been accustomed to - by scoring goals. In the second half though, Banega showed familiar signs of weariness and lack of fitness as Nigeria clawed back in the game by winning the midfield battle, and forcing Argentina into silly defensive errors, equalising with a penalty and only losing to an unlikely equalizer by Marcos Rojo. Apart from Banega, Sampaoli made 6 changes to the lineup that faced Croatia against the Nigerians. These changes brought mixed results. Franco Armani was assured in front of goal, and Gabriel Mercado was solid at right back, delivering the assist for the match winner, Rojo, who himself was reinstated at centre back. Enzo Perez, and Angel Di Maria, starting as wide midfielders performed defensive tasks well but did not offer attacking thrust, while Higuain who replaced Sergio Aguero, again went missing in the big matches as he fluffed two clear chances. It is safe to assume that Sampaoli will make quite a few changes against France too. Armani, Rojo, and Mercado are likely to retain their place while Enzo Perez might start as well due to the defensive discipline he offers coupled with Sampaoli’s tactical aversion to pair Paulo Dybala with Messi .
Angel Di Maria unlike Perez isn’t in the team for defensive steadfastness but for the attacking threat he possesses, and after two lacklustre displays from him, there is a strong case for Boca Juniors starlet, Cristian Pavon to start the match at left wing. Kun Aguero, who scored a clinical goal in the opener, could replace the misfiring Higuain to bring sharpness to the finishing. Sampaoli, who is virtually learning about this team on the job, has a big enough sample size to figure the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and shall look to maximise the former at the cost of the latter.
If sample sizes are to go by, Didier Deschamps has amongst the largest in the surviving pool of managers. At the helm for 6 years, Deschamps’ tenure has been solid but unspectacular. France were World Cup quarter finalists in 2014 and finalists in the 2016 European Championships, but failed to dazzle offensively by and large. The last two years have seen a proliferation of young French talent such as Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar and Benjamin Mendy to name a few, while the likes of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Samuel Umtiti, Hugo Lloris and N’Golo Kante have gone on to further their reputations as stars of European club football. Yet, the Les Bleus manager hasn’t been able to integrate these immense talents into a cohesive footballing unit which plays with a defined style. Bordering on the pragmatic, the French team looked bereft of attacking ideas with the game against Denmark providing an interesting opportunity to experiment with the likes of Steven Nzonzi, Dembele and Lemar. But the dull nil-nil result means that Deschamps has more problems than solutions before facing Argentina. The defence looks settled though France may opt to start Djibril Sidibe at the expense of Benjamin Pavard to expose the Argentine left back, Tagliafico. It is in midfield and attack where France have looked uncertain. Pogba and Kante should be safe picks to start after their assured displays in the first two games. They might either be paired with Blaise Matuidi, the ever reliable multipurpose central midfielder on the left, or by Sevilla midfielder, Steven Nzonzi, at the base of a midfield diamond. France could eschew width for attacking penetration in the shape of the exciting No. 10 Nabil Fekir, or could play Mbappe as a right wing option in a 4-2-3-1. Leading striker, Antoine Griezmann has lacked service and Deschamps may look to address that issue by picking Fekir, though if his track record is to go by, he might as well fall back on the tried and tested method of minimising error at the cost of offensive intent. The game against Argentina may well prove to be the ultimate litmus test of Deschamps’ reign.
Player to Watch Argentina Javier Mascherano: Record cap holder Javier Mascherano was under the pump against Nigeria. He misplaced many passes in crucial areas of the pitch and was defensively unstable as he conceded the equalizing penalty. But even in such an unconvincing display, it was Mascherano who was key in rallying the midfield when Banega ran out steam as he recovered the ball constantly and gave his utmost to ensure it wasn’t the last game for Argentina in the World Cup. A typical Mascherano moment in the Nigeria game was when he carelessly gave the ball away as Argentina were chasing a win in the dying stages of the game, but instantly went on to make a sliding tackle to win the ball back for his team. Against formidable midfielders like Pogba and Kante, an inspired performance by Mascherano could prove the difference. France At his best, Mbappe can do it all. Run past defenders, shoot from distance, engage in close link up play as well as help defensively. His goal against Peru was illustrative of his desire to scrap for chances, and against a weak Argentine defence, his technical abilities and goal scoring knack could be crucial to unlock the potential in a talented French team. With so many qualities befitting a centre forward, Deschamps could do worse than start Mbappe and Griezmann in a dynamic strike partnership with Nabil Fekir as a classical number 10 behind them. France seeking an electric start to the game will hope Mbappe is on song in his first knockout game for France. Kylian Mbappe: Predicted Lineups Argentina: 1-4-2-3-1 Armani-Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico-Mascherano, Banega- Perez, Messi, Pavon- Aguero France: 1-4-1-2-1-2
Lloris- Sidibe, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez- Nzonzi- Kante, Pogba- Fekir- Mbappe, Griezmann