Rumble in Kazan as France, Argentina Battle for Q’Final Ticket

0
Kunle Adewale reporting from Moscow, Courtesy Star Times
Two former champions, France and Argentina will this afternoon at the Kazan Arena, in pursuit of a quarter-final ticket of the 2018 World Cup.
Both teams had contrasting results to their booking a place to the knockout stages. While France easily topped the Group C with seven points, Argentina needed a Marcos Rojo’s last-minute gasp against Nigeria to qualify as Group D runners-up with a meagre four points.
With both sides still unconvincing that they are capable of lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy on July 15, they, however, head into today’s encounter with the chance to progress through to the quarter-finals.
Finishing at the top of the World Cup group generally results in plenty of optimism ahead of the knockout stages, but that is not the case when it comes to France, who have had to battle their way through to the last 16.
There are positives to take from seven points being recorded from three games without getting near to a performance which would have been deemed acceptable by their supporters, but France’s flair players are yet to show up at this tournament.
Les Bleus showed a touch of class with their winner against Peru but aside from that, their other two goals – both against Australia came from a controversial penalty and an own goal, and three halves of football have now passed since France’s last goal.
Didier Deschamps will not be too concerned because his priority is not winning this tournament, but there is a large abundance of talent in his squad – chosen from arguably the deepest crop of quality in world football and it is currently perceived that Deschamps and his players are not meeting expectations.
On the flipside, convincing performances may not have been the best preparation for attempting to negotiate this side of the draw. The winner of this tie goes on to play whoever prevails from the Uruguay and Portugal encounter, and both matches have the potential to be a war of attrition.
Deschamps has also kept the majority of these players involved with 20 of his 23-man squad having all spent time on the pitch, although there was little benefit from featuring during the final 30 minutes of the Denmark game in which both teams barely played above walking pace. That is perhaps the biggest challenge for Deschamps – he now has to prepare a team who are ready to go into battle against opposition who have already received strong criticism back home and have overcome adversity to progress through their group.
At some point, these two sides will showcase the kind of football that the world is expecting, but today’s match could come down to desire and France will have to step up their performance to match an increasing belief within the Argentina camp.
While there has been an element of control about the way that France had progressed through their group, the same cannot be said of Argentina who required a goal from an unlikely source to maintain their interest in this competition.
Most of the attention has been focused on the indifferent performances of Lionel Messi, the treatment of Sergio Aguero and goalkeeping errors from Willy Caballero, but Rojo’s well-struck volley during the later stages against Nigeria got Argentina and manager Jorge Sampaoli out of jail, for the time being at least.
La Albiceleste and their passionate fans will not be satisfied with scrapping their way through to a stage of the World Cup which is still not regarded as the bare minimum, but there will equally be an air of relief with getting through to the knockout rounds.
There is no getting away from the fact that Argentina have been desperately below par and that the outings from their backline will only provide encouragement for future opponents, but a win such as the one over Nigeria can unite a squad.
Doubts remain over the strength of the relationship between Sampaoli and his players. However, the reality of the situation is that Sampaoli was minutes away from losing his job but Rojo’s perfectly-timed strike in more ways than one leaves the national team coach still in contention for unlikely success over the next couple of weeks.
Argentina find themselves in the toughest half of the draw but unlike in their previous matches where they have come up against opposition who do not necessarily stimulate motivation and pride, games against France, Portugal or Uruguay and potentially Brazil in the semi-finals are fixtures where Argentine players are prepared to live and die by the sword.
The demands are there for the players to rouse themselves, but supporters will also be eager to see what answers they get from Sampaoli, who continues to divide opinion when it comes to his team selection and tactics.
There does not appear to be a set strategy going forward, although that does not mean that this Argentina team should be written off. France are marginal favourites to progress this weekend but an underdog tag is not something which you would usually associate with Argentina and they could relish it.
Meanwhile, in other semifinals of the day, Uruguay and Portugal will meet in Sochi, with Uruguay the only team alongside Croatia from the completed groups at Russia 2018 to boast a 100 per cent record.
La Celeste’s strength is based on the twin pillars of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front and Atletico Madrid centre-back pairing Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, who will face up to a familiar foe. “They have great players like we do, but we have the best player in the world,” Cedric Soares told FIFA.com, with Cristiano Ronaldo set to equal ex-Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger’s record of 38 appearances combined in World Cup finals and European Championships.
“We will study them. They’re a strong team but we also have our qualities and we will try to win the game.”
Ahead of their return to the Black Sea coast, the more prosaic feel that ran throughout their slow march to Euro 2016 glory has returned, with Ronaldo giving Portugal an early lead it hung on to against Morocco before Ricardo Quaresma’s sublime strike illuminated a VAR-fueled 1-1 draw with Iran.
Uruguay, by contrast, seems to be easing its way through the gears after an unblemished group stage that suggests the best is yet to come. Gimenez and Suarez were respectively responsible for unremarkable 1-0 wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia but the Barcelona striker and Cavani were both on target as host Russia was exposed to a gulf in class and a 3-0 defeat.
“We are facing a very strong and powerful team,” Inter midfielder Matias Vecino, who has started every game so far at Russia 2018, told FIFA.com “The match will be defined by details and we will try to limit their forwards.”
Players to watch
Paul Pogba
Pogba will return to the starting XI after France’s fringe players failed to impress in the horror show with Denmark. Argentina’s midfield has looked ponderous so far and an in-form Pogba could wreak havoc.

Lionel Messi
Who else? Argentina’s captain, inspiration and best player by a country mile. The Barcelona superstar has faced criticism for his performances in Russia but his opening goal against Nigeria showed class is permanent.

Facts
•Today’s showdown will represent the 12th meeting between these two nations, with Argentina recording six victories and France prevailing on just two occasions.
•Their first clash came at the first World Cup in 1930, while two matches have taken place since France emerged victorious in a friendly in 1986.
• Argentina has gone past the first round for the 12th time in its last 13 World Cup appearances, the only exception coming in 2002. Its last four knockout games in the tournament have produced only three goals (2 goals for, 1 against).
• Penalty shootouts excluded, France has lost only one of its last 11 games in the knockout stages of the World Cup; that came against eventual winners Germany in July 2014.
• France only conceded five shots on target in three group games at World Cup 2018. The only goal it let in came from the penalty spot (Mile Jedinak for Australia).
• Argentina forward Lionel Messi has never scored in the knockout stages of the World Cup: 666 minutes, 0 goals. He is the last Argentine player to score against France, back in February 2009 in a friendly
• France’s Olivier Giroud has failed to score in his last 357 minutes at a major tournament, with his last goal dating back to the Euro 2016 quarterfinal against Iceland. He’s yet to register a shot on target at this year’s World Cup, having spent 200 minutes on the pitch.
•Didier Deschamps will be taking charge of his 80th game as France manager, a new record as he overtakes Raymond Domenech.