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FIFA World Cup 2018: France confident as Argentina seek turnaround

Against one of the best midfields, onus on Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli to get strategy right

football Updated: Jun 29, 2018 20:14 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Kazan
FIFA World Cup 2018,France football team,Argentina football team
Lionel Messi will have to find his best form if Argentina are to stand any chance of beating France in the FIFA World Cup 2018 round of 16 match on Saturday. (REUTERS)

The Bauman Street in Kazan is one of the busiest areas in the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Dotted with restaurants serving Tatar delicacies, it also houses some of the city’s most popular pubs. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most popular tourist spots.

Two days before the first pre-quarterfinal of the World Cup between Argentina and France, only a handful of fans in white and blue were seen. By Saturday though, the landscape will change drastically. Argentine fans have been omnipresent this World Cup. Come Saturday 5pm, they will be expected to once again outnumber their rival fans.

On the pitch though, Argentina enter the fray as underdogs — an unusual situation for the last World Cup runners-up. After an unconvincing group stage, meeting France is one of the last things Jorge Sampaoli’s side would have wished for.

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A win here though will surely erase Argentina’s initial struggle and reestablish their title claims. It’s easier said than done though. The 3-0 loss to Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod had exposed Argentina’s midfield for its lack of strength, forcing Sampaoli to bring back Ever Banega to his starting eleven in the 2-1 win against Nigeria.

With France possessing one of the best midfields, Sampaoli is expected to again start with a three-man central midfield. Against Nigeria, Argentina had started with a four-man backline but resorted to a three-man defence after conceding a second-half equaliser.

This is the conundrum that Sampaoli has to solve while strategising against France. A four-man defence could provide him with a stable three-man midfield with Messi at his favoured position of a free-floating role to its right.

Statistics can be of some inspiration for Argentina, having gone on to reach the final — in 1930 and 1978 —the last two occasions they beat France in the World Cup. At ground zero though, the situation looks difficult.

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As opposed to Argentina’s struggles, France had a pretty smooth ride to the group top despite being far from their best. Resting a number of first-choice players in their last match against Denmark meant France coach Didier Deschamps allowed Paul Pogba & Co reach Kazan fresher than Argentina.

Pogba, Hugo Lloris, Benjamin Pavard, Samuel Umtiti and Kylian Mbappe are all expected to return. The only major concern for Deschamps could be the toss-up between Olivier Giroud and Corentin Tolisso. The latter had started in a three-man midfield against Australia but Giroud has two starts to his name.

Given Argentina’s midfield struggles, the French coach could be tempted to start Tolisso alongside N’Golo Kante and Pogba. That could force Antoine Griezmann to start as lone striker instead of playing behind Giroud.

Backed by one of the strongest benches in this tournament, Deschamps will not shy away from ringing in changes if things don’t go France’s way in the first half. Yet to concede to South American opponents since beating Brazil on penalties in the 1986 World Cup, France will be quietly confident of a win. But then, stranger things have happened.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 09:48 IST