The World Cup knockout stage begins with two matches that includes three World Cup winners and four sides that have all won their continental titles. France and Argentina will be the first in another moment of truth for Lionel Messi, followed by Uruguay playing Portugal, boasting Messi’s “nemesis”, Cristiano Ronaldo, attempting to make history in the World Cup as well.
France vs Argentina
A little bit of statistical history: This will be the third time Argentina and France play each other in the World Cup. In both previous meetings, Argentina won (1930 and 1978) and went on to play in the final of the tournament. In 1930 they lost to Uruguay, in 1978 they won at home to become World Champions for the first time.
Is it going to be different this time? France are definitely the favorites going in. Despite not shining bright during the group stage, they went in comfortably to the last match knowing they’re through, and played a boring draw with Denmark in which both teams didn’t really try to break the deadlock.
For Argentina, making it through on a potentially historic Marcos Rojo goal, it obviously has to be more than Lionel Messi, who’ll try to do things from the right side, and leave the middle for Gonzalo Higuain. The Juventus striker might not be as clinical as Sergio Aguero, but his ability to hold up play and be a long ball target helps Argentina be more flexible offensively.
Will Sampaoli, if he evens calls the shots anymore, have the guts to start with the inexperienced but talented Cristian Pavon? In his three substitute appearances, he has done more for the side than Angel di Maria. More importantly will be Argentina’s midfield tendencies – give the ball as much as possible to Ever Banega, while Javier Mascherano should play where he fits best – somewhere between DM and centre back, depending on the situation.
If this is to be a tight match tactically, it’ll be up to Kylian Mbappe to be the difference maker. The young PSG winger is France’s youngest player ever at the World Cup, and one who scored the winner against Peru. His relation on the pitch with Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud will be instrumental in breaking down Argentina’s combative yet vulnerable defensive schemes. If Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kante are capable of dominating the midfield alone, this will allow Paul Pogba to venture forward as much as he likes, which could be difficult for Argentina to cope with.
Prediction: We don’t see this turning into a high scoring affair, and a 1-1 that goes into extra time and even penalties, or a 2-1 win for France, seem like the logical outcome.
Uruguay vs Portugal
Statistical history 2.0: Uruguay are poised to become the first side since Brazil in 1986 to not allow a goal through their first four matches in the tournament. In fact, they’ve only been threatened with shots at goal 6 times in the tournament thus far. For Portugal, it’s about changing the course of history in the tournament, and especially for Ronaldo, who has yet to score a knockout stage goal in the World Cup.
So is this Ronaldo vs Suarez? Probably not. Not for Uruguay at least, presenting a formidable back four and lethal attack, making up for the inconsistent play in midfield. Uruguay have scored from set pieces time and time again in this tournament, while Portugal have shown a tendency to break down against quality dead ball play.
Despite the present talent besides the Real Madrid phenomenon, it’ll be up to him once more to carry this team through. Ronaldo has 4 goals in the tournament, and one might say he has stopped playing since his early goal against Morocco. Coming off an abysmal performance and penalty miss against Iran, Portugal can’t afford a disappearing act from their main man, especially as one has to wonder for how long their defense can hold Cavani, Suarez and co. at bay.
While Uruguay do not aggressively attempt to take over the midfield, the absence of William Carvalho (if he indeed doesn’t play) could spell problems for Portugal, relying on his ability to boss the middle of the park and launch long balls to Ronaldo, Quaresma and Joao Mario. Iran found a way to deal with him in their 1-1 draw, and Uruguay paying attention, thus keeping a man on him at all times could be a decisive factor in this match.
Prediction: Both teams don’t mind sitting back and waiting for a clinical little poach to take them through. While Portugal boast the world’s best in that particular category, Uruguay are probably better equipped to best this match. A 1-0 for La Celeste seems very reasonable.