France and Argentina will lock horns for a place in the quarter-finals on Saturday. THT looks at three key battles that could shape this Round of 16 tie.
The Round of 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup will kick off with a battle of the heavyweights as France and Argentina meet at the Kazan Arena on Saturday, with a place in the quarter-finals on the line. Neither side has been at their best thus far, which potentially makes this a highly unpredictable encounter.
While team work and individual brilliance will need to go hand-in-hand on the day, it is also important to remember that players from each side will be looking to nullify the threat of the other. With that in mind, here are three key battles that could end up deciding the match on Saturday.
Lionel Messi vs Samuel Umtiti
Teammates they may be at the club level, where the Barcelona duo have showed remarkable camaraderie on and off the pitch. But, on Saturday, Lionel Messi and Samuel Umtiti will have to put their friendship aside with the pride of their country as well as a quarter-finals place on the line.
Messi delivered for the Argentina National Team when they needed him the most, scoring the 100th goal of the tournament while constantly posing the biggest threat for his side. He might not have got the winning goal on that night in Saint Petersburg, but with a tight game on the cards on Saturday, La Albiceleste could end up looking towards their talisman for more inspiration.
Standing in his way will be Umtiti, who has endured a somewhat rocky World Cup campaign thus far. The 24-year-old was directly responsible for the goal that Australia scored in France’s opening group game, and came off second best in his personal battle with Peru captain Paolo Guerrero as well. But, he will need to be at his best on Saturday, if France are to come out on top.
That Umtiti is struggling with a minor injury could mean he will be off pace slightly on Saturday, which Messi of all players knows how to take advantage of. The Argentina talisman’s blistering change of pace and runs off his shoulder could leave the French defender back pedalling. If Umtiti fails to anticipate the threat posed by his Barcelona teammate, Hugo Lloris could be in for some trouble.
N’Golo Kante vs Ever Banega
This is a duel between France’s colossal presence in midfield versus a player who was arguably the game changer for Argentina on Tuesday. This midfield battle between N’Golo Kante and Ever Banega will go a long way in shaping up the match in Kazan.
Kante has, by far, been the best player for France at the 2018 FIFA World Cup thus far, constantly running all across the middle of the park to stifle the opposition attack before it even reaches his side’s backline. With 29 recoveries so far in the tournament, the most by any player who has reached the knockout stages, there’s no denying the fact that the Chelsea man has bossed the midfield.
To put things into perspective, no France player made more recoveries after five matches in Brazil four years ago. But, Banega will look to be the man to spoil the party for Kante and France. It goes without saying the Sevilla midfielder’s introduction in Argentina’s final game was key, as his presence allowed Messi to take up more advanced positions while he dictated the play from midfield.
If Kante is able to stem the passes from Banega on Saturday, it is likely that France will have won half the battle as that would force Messi to drop deep, easing the pressure on the French defenders. Banega though, is more intelligent than any of the players Kante has faced thus far, and this will be a battle of wits as much as it will be physical.
Olivier Giroud vs Nicolas Otamendi
A battle that Premier League fans have witnessed from time to time in recent seasons. This is a duel between a striker who is more than just a goalscorer for France against the supposed defensive leader for Argentina who has faltered massively at the 2018 FIFA World Cup thus far.
Olivier Giroud has been seen as the key to unlock Antoine Griezmann, but neither has managed to deliver, yet. However, the Chelsea striker could take heart from Mario Mandzukic’s performance against Argentina earlier in the group stage to see how he could bully their defence and release Griezmann, Mbappe and others in the final third.
Meanwhile, Otamendi arrived in Russia on the back of a brilliant season with Manchester City, but it has been all downhill for him in Russia. The 30-year-old has been found wanting for pace, while also failing to organise a disjointed Argentine defence. Another disastrous performance at the back though, could spell doom for La Albiceleste, and the time to raise his performance is now.
While most of the battle will be played out on the ground, it is in the aerial situations where both Giroud and Otamendi are seen as colossal figures, and whoever comes out on top there could pave the way for their side’s victory on the day.