Following their unbeaten run through the group stage, France now have a crunch clash with heavyweights Argentina on the cards. Can Didier Deschamps' men finally hit their straps and win through to the quarters?
Saturday, 30 June, 2018
FIFA World Cup, round of 16
Kazan Arena, Kazan
France - Argentina (Kick-off at 16:00 CET)
Although France topped Group C with two wins and a draw, the performance of their much-touted attacking sector - which includes the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud - has underwhelmed. Three goals in three matches was enough to get them through the group stage, but as captain Hugo Lloris said in the pre-match presser, "It's a new tournament that starts now. We will have to be at our very best".
Deschamps: 'Make or break'
Indeed. Argentina may have only just squeaked through to the knockout rounds, but they are two-time World Cup winners with Lionel Messi, one of the greatest to play the game, wearing the captain's armband. Thankfully, France have been in fine form defensively - the only goal conceded was a penalty in the opening match against Australia - and Deschamps is set to field his preferred defensive line-up of Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti, flanked by Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez.
"Our three group-stage matches left a mixed impression," admitted coach Didier Deschamps. "I'm not looking to make excuses - on the contrary - but the fact that 14 of my players have never been in a big competition before, that five of my players made their World Cup debuts against Australia and five others against Denmark - regardless of the individual quality they have - means that you can be a bit forgiving. I would even say that this is a fresh start. It's make or break. We saw it at the Euros too: some teams who had made great impressions ended up choking. In the knockout rounds, you don't have a choice."
The Messi question
The indefatigable N'Golo Kanté will have his work cut out for him as Argentina captain Lionel Messi looks to make his mark, and whether Kanté's defensive midfield partner Paul Pogba looks to help shut down the Barcelona star or opt to push forward and help France's talented but under-performing attack to shine could be a crucial factor.
As could Deschamps' choice for the left flank to partner Mbappé and Griezmann in the attacking midfield three of his 4-2-3-1 formation. He has tested three options in the tournament so far - the box-to-box Blaise Matuidi, speed demon Ousmane Dembélé and the more attack-minded Thomas Lemar - but none has impressed overly.
Matuidi would provide more defensive solidity - especially in terms of marshalling Messi - while Lemar offers creativity and Dembélé the kind of speed that could trouble a somewhat creaky defence and allow Griezmann the space to cut loose and bring lone striker Giroud into the game.
That the match is of the knock-out variety could well spur Les Bleus to screw their courage to the sticking point, but it will be no walk in the park for Deschamps' young team against Messi and his band of battle-hardened veterans.
"We'll play with a knife between our teeth; we will attack constantly," offered Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli, who is tipped to stick with Ligue 1 Conforama superstar Angel Di Maria on the left-hand side of attack in a 4-3-3 formation, with Messi nominally at centre-forward. "I want Argentina to impose our game."
France: Lloris (c); Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez; Kanté, Pogba; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud
Argentina: Armani; Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Perez, Mascherano, Banega; Pavon, Messi (c), Di Maria