One can’t simply ask for a better way to start the knockout stage of the 2018 Fifa World Cup as former world champion Argentina and 1998 edition winner France face off in a heavyweight clash in Kazan Saturday. Although both the teams boast some great talents in the shape of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero, among others, all the limelight will be on Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game.
The Albiceleste will once again look to the Barcelona legend for inspiration, much like the way he performed against Nigeria in a must-win Group D clash in Saint Petersburg. The Les Blues therefore will be hoping the Rosario lad has an off day Saturday.
The Europeans have a dominant record against the south Americans in the greatest show on earth. However, on the eve of the clash, France manager Didier Deschamps said they’ll be very much on their toes against the two-time world champion, saying, “I would say (we have to watch out for) Messi's efficiency and the Albiceleste's temperament. But it has no influence on my choices."
As far as numbers are concerned, Argentina have the worst record among the 16 teams who have qualified for the knockout stage. The Sky Blues progressed with four points and a goal difference of -2. Only Japan advanced with four points and a neutral goal difference. Even Iran and Senegal, who have already been eliminated, had a better group stage record than the Argentines.
With that said, only the result will matter in the last 16, and not the other stats. Win it, and go through to the quarter-final. And the man who has all the limelight upon him is treating the France game very seriously.
"France are a very good team with very good individual players. Their defence, they have good midfielders and very good forwards. They have very fast players who can make a difference. They also have [Barca] team-mates that I know well,” said Messi after the Nigeria game.
France qualified for the second round with relative ease, registering two wins and a draw. However, they are yet to face any significant challenge so far. But Saturday, they will be up against the last edition’s runners-up side, and France captain Hugo Lloris, who recently won his 100th cap in Les Blues colours, said they are fully aware of the tough task awaiting them.
"We are preparing to play in a last 16 game against Argentina, so we have to be at our top level," he told reporters during the official press conference Friday.
"We've studied their group games, which gives us an indication, but we know players like Messi can step up to his own level and decide the fate of the match, as he does with Argentina and Barca. We need collective answers, to give it our all individually and collectively. We need to be outstanding to go ahead."
He added: "Argentina have a lot to prove. They've had difficult times and still qualified. I'm sure they feel like going much further in the competition.
"They've won the World Cup in the past so it will be a big, difficult match and we'll have to step up our level."
When queried, Lloris refused to compare Messi with Kylian Mbappe. PSG star Mbappe bagged France’s winner in their 1-0 win over Peru and Lloris expects the young attacker to shine bright once again against Argentina.
"Messi is unique, you can't compare anyone to him," said Lloris.
"Kylian has huge quality and potential, he's fast, explosive and needs space. I think [against Argentina] he'll have more space than the first three matches and as we go on in the competition the level will step up and will have less room for mistakes.”
In the World Cup, France have lost twice against the Albiceleste but this time around, the Les Blues will try their best not only to frustrate Argentina but some 35, 000 Sky Blues fans who have travelled to Kazan.