David Lee in Russia: Argentina need to get World Cup selection, formation right to beat France

Argentina's Lionel Messi (left) competes for the ball during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Nigeria and Argentina at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, on June 26, 2018.
Argentina's Lionel Messi (left) competes for the ball during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Nigeria and Argentina at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, on June 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

ST PETERSBURG - It seems a mouth-watering clash on paper, as France face Argentina in the round of 16 at the Kazan Arena on Saturday (June 30), but that will be a classic only if the South Americans make vast improvements over the next few days.

They were minutes away from a 1-1 draw with Nigeria and elimination at the St Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday, before Marcos Rojo volleyed in Gabriel Mercado's 86th-minute cross to send his team-mates into the next round and his countrymen into raptures.

Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli spoke about the Nigeria game as the first of five finals and this thrilling finish guarantees they have at least a second. A third, however, is highly unlikely given the way they have spluttered at this World Cup.

One may argue France also have not clicked into gear yet, but they cruised through as Group C winners, while Argentina have looked like they forgot where they parked their Ferraris and barely stumbled home in their stupor as Group D runners-up.

In Sampaoli, La Albiceleste has a dead man walking for a coach.

For the 14th time under him, Argentina had a different starting XI and he proudly declared at the post-match press conference that he is in charge and would make the necessary changes against France.

That is, if you even believe he is selecting the team anymore.

The joke in the press room was that Lionel Messi had won his first match as player/coach as Argentina made five changes to the side humbled 3-0 by Croatia last Friday and switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2. It seemed to hint that rumours of the captain calling the shots may not be just idle talk.

Regardless of the team selection, some of their defending was still as shambolic as ever.

 
 
 
 

There was no communication when three Argentina players went for the same Nigeria long throw and conceded a corner, from which Javier Mascherano held back Leon Balogun, and Victor Moses scored from the resulting 51st-minute penalty.

At 34 years old, Mascherano is both a leader and a liability. There is no doubt he is a warrior, as shown when he battled on despite a deep gash on his face. But he is past his prime and his stray passes and unnecessary fouls will be punished by France's Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante.

The recklessness extended to their defenders as Rojo was lucky not to concede two penalties when he went in for a high-boot challenge on Kelechi Iheanacho in the 44th minute, before heading the ball onto his own arm in the 75th minute.

On the wings, Angel Di Maria and Enzo Perez were so ineffective they were replaced by Maximiliano Meza and Cristian Pavon, who were slightly better against the tiring and inexperienced Nigerian full-backs.

France, with some extra hours of rest and being able to take it easy in the 0-0 draw against Peru in the earlier game, will be a different kettle of fresher fish.

No discussion about Argentina would be complete without Messi, who was surprisingly crowned Man-of-the-Match despite just two moments of brilliance.

The first was when he showed exquisite control to take Ever Banega's long ball on his left thigh, prod it to his right before a confident finish with his weaker foot in the 14th minute.

Messi then curled a free kick against the post 20 minutes later, and that was about it.

After the game, Rojo reportedly said that the captain had rallied his team at half-time, urging all of them to take any chance they had.

Talk of such urgency, however, did not quite gel with Messi's own body language on the pitch - he didn't show any sense of urgency unless he got the ball, he gave away the ball, and he generally looked detached from his team-mates until Rojo's winner.

Messi jumped onto the defender's back in the celebrations, a rather appropriate move as the talisman is not the one carrying his team for once.

Such has been the speculation about Messi that Sampaoli - despite the hint of a rift with his captain - had to refute the notion that Messi doesn't enjoy playing for his country.

"People have said he doesn't enjoy playing for Argentina. That's not true and you saw it today," Sampaoli told reporters. "He needs the support from his team-mates, only then he will be able to show his best. A coach who trains Leo knows everyone around him needs to make him feel secure."

This victory will paper over the cracks for some, but it also showed how Argentina can overcome the odds to get past France and into the quarter-finals.

They have to come to terms with the fact that they are no longer the world-class team they were touted to be.

And then show more of that desperation - backed up by the electrifying atmosphere tens of thousands of Argentina fans make with their passionate Spanish songs and furious flinging of their forearms - which can drive them to achieve the extraordinary, if only every player is willing to take matters into their own hands, instead of always leaving it at the feet of Messi.