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Earning a last-gasp ticket to the Round of 16, Argentina arrived in Kazan, the industrial hub on the confluence of Volga and Kazanka, on the wings of a million prayers, desperate to repeat their coup, this time against the French on Saturday.
France, guided by their 1998 World Cup-winning captain Didier Deschamps, cruised to the Round of 16, rather relaxed, but their placidity has led to a lot of criticism back home. On the contrary, Jorge Sampaoli just about managed to pull Argentina through to the knockout stage – in the face of rumours of getting sacked, player rebellion and “fighting for reality against the virtual”. Lionel Messi finally shed his cloak of despair for factory overalls and Marcus Rojo’s 86th-minute winner carved Argentina’s passage to Kazan.
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Despite having attracted unappetizing headlines back home, the easily-distracted Frenchmen have not lost the desire to fight and look unusually focused. Leave alone unrest, not even a word of whining has emerged from the French fortress. Samuel Umtiti, Messi’s Barcelona club mate, said: “We’re working to improve, to play a bit better, because we can do it. But the most important thing will be to win, because if we go all the way, even if most people are not pleased by our football, everybody will be happy and we won’t hear any more that the football was lacking.”
Having spent most of his Thursday’s press meet discussing Messi, Umtiti admitted knocking Argentina out would give him added satisfaction.
It sounded like routine talk, like France’s two wins and a draw in the group phase, in contrast to the dramatic life of their opponents. Fumbling against Iceland, thrashed by Croatia, Sampaoli struggled through the chaos to get his first XI right.
Gerard Houllier, who assisted Aime Jacquet in his successful 1998 World Cup campaign, has made an interesting point in his column for a French publication. The former Liverpool manager argues that Argentina run the risk of an emotional meltdown after their last-minute high to secure qualification. He has cited the example of Germany who failed to muster up enough energy against South Korea following their miraculous victory over Sweden.
Criticised for not having set the tournament on fire, Deschamps knows how to go about it from personal experience. The pace of Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe down the flanks is the newest weapon most defenders are wary of. The worrying point for Argentina is that Gabriel Mercado and Nicolas Tagliafico are not known for handling pace well. Even Nicolas Otamendi and Javier Mascherano struggled to keep an eye on Ahmed Musa the other night in Saint Petersburg. With Pogba, Ngolo Kante, and Blaise Matuidi in midfield, and twinkle-toed Antoine Griezmann up front, France look upbeat. Still, Les Bleus do not have a Messi who takes a wink to come alive, sensing before anyone that Ever Banega has found his range.