Game to watch – France v Argentina
Messi, Griezmann, Dybala, Mbappe, Banega, Pogba… this should be an attacking feast for the eyes on Saturday afternoon. But, despite promising so much, neither side has yet delivered in Russia.
Both managers have big puzzles to solve and the group stages have left them more bereft of answers than perhaps they were upon landing in Russia. Despite having that in common, France and Argentina qualified for the last 16 in vastly different circumstances, with Les Bleus doing the absolute bare minimum to progress without fuss, while La Seleccion were all about the drama.
With no momentum to speak of, Didier Deschamps was able to rest some of his key men for Tuesday’s snoozefest against Denmark in the hope that his fringe players might spark some life into their campaign. None of the five outfield changes screamed ‘pick me!’ though Nabil Fekir enhanced his prospects with a bright 22-minute cameo off the bench. How, though, does Deschamps cram Liverpool’s most wanted into his starting XI at the Kazan Arena without dropping Antoine Griezmann? Despite his predilection for rotation, and Griezmann’s failure to sparkle so far, dropping the playmaker appears to be a change too far even for Deschamps. For now…
France will be looking for a kick-start against a side that have already had theirs. Argentina were minutes away from returning home in shame before Marcos Rojo dangled his swinger – not a euphemism – before Gabriel Mercado’s cross. After a miserable group C campaign, that must surely be the catalyst for Jorge Sampaoli’s men to get their sh*t together.
But, despite the individual brilliance within Argentina’s squad, you just never know with this rabble. However little input Sampaoli had in the tactical tweaks made ahead of the must-win group finale on Tuesday, the changes had the desired effect of freeing up Lionel Messi. But at the back, they still offer the permanent impression of sheer panic.
Team to watch – Uruguay
Oscar Tabarez’s side were picked as many people’s dark horses this summer, with one of our own even backing them to go all the way. Three wins out of three during the group stage suggests they were a sound tip, but only in the final match did Uruguay show any kind of form to reassure those who put their faith or money in La Celeste.
They came to Russia with tried-and-trusted formulas in defence and attack but the biggest buzz around Uruguay centered around their young and exciting midfield. Their engine room struggled to find right balance during the wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but against hosts Russia in the battle for top spot, Tabarez cracked it.
The veteran manager made four changes to his midfield over three games but the inclusion of Lucas Torreira finally made the difference. On his first international start, the Arsenal target offered the reassurance of a seasoned veteran, giving the platform for Rodrigo Bentancur to bridge the chasm between the midfield and Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Now Tabarez has found a shape that suits in the nick of time, Uruguay – with more strings to their bow than in recent years – can get on with doing what they do best against opponents more obligated to attack than the Pharaohs and Saudis.
Player to watch – Lionel Messi
Perhaps both the player and manager to watch if it is true that Messi carries more sway with the Argentina squad than Sampaoli. It certainly appears that way, and his majestic three-touch finish that opened the scoring against Nigeria seemed to do more to lift his team-mates than the coach ever could.
Eventual match-winner Rojo praised Messi’s leadership and encouragement in the wake of their escape from the group stage and though the nature of their progression provoked euphoria throughout Argentina’s ranks, it merely papered over the cracks that threaten to compromise whatever ambitions Messi and his mates may have had in Russia.
Against Nigeria, at least Messi saw more of the ball in areas that he can cause most chaos, with Ever Banega’s inclusion key. Prior to that, he appeared a shadow of the superhuman we know him to be and watching him toil while he towed his team-mates was an uncomfortable experience. The catastrophe of a group exit has been averted but the burden on Messi remains. If there is anyone capable of carrying it all the way to Moscow next month then it is him, but not even Messi can perform magic without the ball.
Manager to watch – Fernando Hierro
The stars appear to be aligning for the caretaker boss. Spain have, on paper at least, a relatively smooth path to the final, with the 2010 winners falling in the half of the draw that sees them avoid any of Uruguay, France, Argentina or Brazil before they complete their journey to Moscow on June 15.
But, like many of the favourites, Spain have their problems that could derail their ambitions of a second triumph. They qualified top of group B, as they would have expected, but an uncharacteristically leaky defence made the process a lot trickier than Hierro would have anticipated, even allowing for the shambles that led to him becoming head coach on the eve of the tournament.
“I have to say that we were lucky to finish first,” admitted Hierro after the 2-2 draw with Morocco – their second in three games. “Conceding five goals in three matches is not the way forward, and it’s what I’ve told my players.”
Hierro is reportedly unwilling to wait to see if his rearguard straightens itself out. David De Gea’s place is said to be under threat, but equally surprisingly, the Spain coach is considering using Nacho Fernandez in midfield. The Real Madrid defender played everywhere across the back four for his club last season but never any further forward. Presumably Hierro reckons the 28-year-old, who scored that thunderb*stard from right-back in the opener against Portugal, could offer Sergio Busquets a hand in screening the defence, with Thiago apparently the man to make way.
“The key is to change as little as possible,” said Hierro upon stepping into Lopetegui’s shoes. A fortnight later, it seems he is considering a couple of huge alterations that could make or break their prospects. At the halfway point of the tournament, while the pieces around them fall into place, it is clearer than ever that the biggest threats to Spain’s hopes are Spain themselves.
One-v-one to watch – Pepe v Luis Suarez
The World Cup has already seen some world-class bastardry but just as the group stage sifts away the less-talented nations, it also weeds out those whose villainy just can’t cut it too. Now it’s business time, and the round of 16 has spewed up a Fisht fight that FIFA would be within their rights to move from Sochi on Saturday night to a pub car park.
Uruguay v Portugal will not be one for the purists. There are potential flashpoints all over the field, with Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez ganging up on Cristiano Ronaldo – Atletico v Real – at one end, but each side’s sh*house-in-chief will face off with the other.
If Pepe v Suarez doesn’t end in carnage amid worldwide condemnation, then the game has officially gone. Suarez has ended his previous two World Cup finals with a deliberate handball on the line in the final minute in 2010 before digging his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini four years ago. The perfect hat-trick is very much on.
In the unlikely scenario that Barcelona striker Suarez needs a nudge over the edge, then ex-Real Madrid defender Pepe will only be too willing to oblige. The Portugal centre-half may be slowing down at 35 years old but his mastery of the dark arts remains as villainous as ever.
There will be blood…
Game you wouldn’t normally watch – Croatia v Denmark
Now the tournament has cut adrift its deadwood, there will be very few matches over the next fortnight that you wouldn’t normally watch. Croatia’s clash with Denmark on Sunday evening, though, is certainly the match of the four this weekend that needs the most hype.
The game’s, or specifically Croatia’s, USP is the pairing of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. Is there a better central midfield partnership at the tournament? Arguably not, with Rakitic’s tireless running between boxes dovetailing perfectly with Modric’s artistry, providing the basis of a perfect group D campaign.
Denmark were somewhat less convincing during their opening three games and that form makes them the underdog in Nizhny Novgorod. But the Danes have a convincing answer to Modric in their own playmaking genius: Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham winger has only shown glimpses so far, but Croatia will have to pay the same attention to the Tottenham star as they afforded Messi in their hugely impressive win over Argentina.
Look, you watched Morocco against Iran so you damn sure will be watching this one too…