ROUND OF 16
France v Argentina
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KAZAN • For the first time in this World Cup, two former winners will collide as France take on Argentina in a fixture befitting a final. Yet the last-16 clash in the Kazan Arena today is also between two underachieving sides.
The similarities do not end there. Both teams are counting on their talismans, Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi, to finally be in full flow.
Messi underlined his importance with a sublime opener against Nigeria on Tuesday. But it only partly made amends for his penalty miss against Iceland in a lacklustre 1-1 draw that dampened Argentine hopes from their opening match.
The Barcelona forward was then virtually missing in action when Jorge Sampaoli's men suffered the chastening 3-0 defeat by Croatia.
Kylian (Mbappe) has huge quality and potential, he's fast, explosive... He has the potential to make the difference in difficult moments.
HUGO LLORIS, France captain, believes they have the firepower to beat Argentina.
LaLiga expert Guillem Balague, who authored Messi and Pep Guardiola's biographies, believes the five-time Ballon d'Or winner does not have enough quality players around him. Balague also suggested that rumours of Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli's influence waning are not unfounded.
"When you have (Angel) di Maria, (Maximiliano) Meza, even (Javier) Mascherano, then Messi will struggle because what he needs - like (former Barcelona manager) Pep Guardiola once said - is to be kept happy," he told 888sport. "There are players there who can do that, of course, and I feel now the Argentina players are having more of a say in what the line-up should be and how Messi can be protected."
Former France defender Marius Tresor is confident Les Bleus can neutralise Argentina's captain. "Against Messi, they will have to play intelligently," he said. "If Messi comes through the middle, we have a guy called N'Golo Kante, who doesn't let people past him easily.
"On his (Messi's) right side there's (Atletico Madrid defender Lucas) Hernandez, who knows him well from the Spanish league."
Hernandez's club-mate Griezmann is also facing increasing scrutiny two years after his six-goal, seven-assist tally steered France to the final of Euro 2016, where they lost to Portugal. He has one goal - from the spot in the 2-1 win over Australia - from nine attempts in Russia, and his cause has not been helped by the lack of creativity flowing from midfield. Still, he expects to hit form today.
"I hope to raise my level again in the last 16," he told French television following the turgid 0-0 draw with Denmark. "It was the same at the Euro. It wasn't until the last 16 that I hit my stride. So we'll see. I have confidence in my game."
While Argentina lean heavily on Messi, France feel they have other weapons should Griezmann misfire. Skipper Hugo Lloris backed 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe to trouble Argentina's ageing defence.
"Kylian has huge quality and potential, he's fast, explosive and needs space," said the goalkeeper.
"He'll have more space than the first three matches... Mbappe has the potential to make the difference in difficult moments."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE