The first knockout tie to be played is the biggest – France against Argentina, two of the early favourites for the tournament, meeting in the round of 16.
While Argentina will just be glad to have made the knockouts at all, France will be cursing their luck. They have talent, endless ranks of the stuff, and there was a positive feeling in France and around the world about the youthful exuberance and attacking intent this side could bring. Could being the operative word, as it turns out.
Meanwhile, the mess that the Argentine men’s national side are in is finally becoming apparent. They shouldn’t need to rely on Lionel Messi, but they do. Every time.
This will be a game that both teams will want to win for reasons beyond making the quarter-finals. In victory, and good performance, both will be hoping to find themselves as well.
How they got on in the groups
France were underwhelming in Group C but at least they won. Single-goal victories against Australia and Peru put them through after two games and set up the first goalless draw of the tournament against Denmark, a result that suited both sides.
They averaged just under 12 shots per game – a dismal effort considering the danger they possess in attack – but in doing so they kept their defence tight. Only seven shots per game slipped through the net, joint third-least in the tournament.
Argentina’s troubles – being on the verge of crashing out early like fellow World Cup 2014 finalists Germany – have been well documented. A draw against Iceland and 3-0 defeat to Croatia were deserved results, but so was the 2-1 win against Nigeria.
Messi was their squad leader in expected goals and expected goals assisted, so the reliance on him is still there (as it was in 2014), but the team seemed a more coherent unit in their final game.
Whether this cohesion was down to tactics or mentality, only the Argentines themselves will know. Against Nigeria, Messi spent a lot of time towards the right touch-line and then drifting inside.
However, in the game against Croatia, he was made the central attacking midfielder, and there may be an argument that making Messi the focal point of your attack actually hampers him.
Firstly, it means that he’s more likely to be the focus of the opposition defence. Secondly, Messi loves drifting.
He walks into space in a way no other player does, he spends the first minutes of games figuring out how a defence is working and where their weak spots are. Messi is water – he will drift around to find a hole, he will fill it, and he will cause irreparable damage.
How Argentina will line up against France, though, is anyone’s guess. They may well keep the same shape as they used against Nigeria seeing as that worked, but they may try and adapt more to France’s system.
France are likely to play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, as they always do, against Argentina. Didier Deschamps, the cautious tactician that he is, will probably play a system designed to quieten Messi, similar to how his side were content to defend against Germany at Euro 2016.
“We need to defend well, be compact, have tight lines,” Steve Mandanda said in a press conference on Wednesday. “He [Messi] is capable of anything, we know that, we’ve been warned.”
Facing Argentina may give France the opportunity to sit back, defend, and then counter-attack, possibly getting the best out of their speedy forwards.
A lot depends on what kind of Argentina turns up. They’ve played three different formations in their three games so far under Jorge Sampaoli – or, depending who you believe, the players themselves against Nigeria. Who will be in charge of the line-up against France?
Meanwhile the French are still waiting for their team to come alive. Dissatisfaction is at a consistent, low-level grumbling, such that questions are continually asked about Deschamps’ future.
President of the French Football Federation Noël Le Graët confirmed on Thursday that, yes, Deschamps would be coach until 2020. But, as L’Équipe asked at the end of their article, will Le Graët take the same line if France are knocked out by Argentina?