Moscow: Fans who had bought tickets for the Last 16 match in Kazan have struck gold as it will feature a veritable contest between a man and a team — Lionel Messi’s Argentina vs talent-rich France. Few of them would have envisaged second place for Argentina in their group and it is up to Messi to quench the thirst of his multi-national support cast in the heart of Tatarstan on Saturday. In another Last 16 match a few hours later, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal take on Uruguay in Sochi.
Fans in possession of tickets for the quarterfinal involving Saturday’s winners would be luckier because Argentina might face Portugal in that match. The meeting of Messi and Ronaldo in a knockout round of the World Cup would be a match made in heaven, the greatest international El Clasico in history. There is no doubt on who would get more support in that dream match-up because finding a Ronaldo fan in the neutral camp here is as difficult as meeting a Russian cricket lover.
Messi’s position is somewhat similar to Sachin Tendulkar’s. Despite his prodigious talent, the pressure of shouldering a billion people’s hopes on his shoulders weighed Tendulkar down in five World Cups. Ironically, Tendulkar wasn’t the central figure when he finally won the trophy in 2011. M.S. Dhoni helped the legend fill the hole on his CV. Who would be Messi’s Dhoni in 2018?
Argentina midfielder Ever Banega did something in the crucial Nigeria match that few of his teammates could accomplish in the previous rounds: find Messi with a through ball. That the much-maligned goalkeeper Willy Caballero had more touches than the maestro against Croatia said it all. Even a genius like Messi can’t score a goal without the ball. Banega, a close friend of Messi’s, would be vital in midfield against France because Javier Mascherano is increasingly becoming as obsolete as a post card. The onus is on Messi’s teammates to prove that Argentina aren’t a one-man team.
The clash of two former champions is expected to be an engrossing battle of wits and will power. The French love their history but they wouldn’t like to turn yesterday’s pages ahead of the Kazan contest because they had never beaten Argentina in competitive fixtures that included two World Cup matches. Rewriting history will be the main goal of Les Bleus on Saturday.
With three goals from as many matches, France have not sent their fans’ pulses racing but Didier Deschamps’ team have been water-tight at the back, having not leaked a goal from open play in 270 minutes. On paper and in form, France have the upper hand. They have also been rated as the most valuable team in the World Cup at around $1000 million. But the World Cup isn’t about pedigree and price. Otherwise, Italy would have qualified for Russia and Germany would still be here.
Worryingly for France, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, their key players, have been below par so far. Maybe the duo are waiting for a harder polishing stone to showcase their resplendence. Pogba is more comfortable in a three-man midfield, but Deschamps believes in 4-4-2. The player has to adapt. After a wretched season with Manchester United, Pogba has a chance to leave his mark on the grandest stage as he has the reassuring presence of N’Golo Kante beside him.
Given the attacking repertoire of France, fans with tickets for the quarterfinal involving Saturday’s winners are unlikely to see their wish fulfilled. First, they must savour the meeting of Les Bleus and Albiceleste, which has all the ingredients to serve a sumptuous feast, either at the stands or in front of TV.