The first match of the knockout phase of the 2018 World Cup is a matchup between two traditional powers in France and Argentina. France topped group C with 7 points through two wins and a draw, which resulted in a +3 goal differential. Argentina were runners up in group D with 4 points through a win a loss and a draw, which resulted in -2 goal differential.
Both France and Argentina enter the knockout phase of this tournament in unconvincing fashion. France won arguably the weakest group and were underwhelming in two close victories over Australia and Peru. The third match was a turgid affair against Denmark with both teams going through the motions, resulting in the only scoreless draw of the 48 matches in the group stage. Argentina were saved in the 86th minute by a Marcos Rojo volley which got them a 2-1 victory against Nigeria and they qualified for the knockout round by the skin of their teeth. Lionel Messi, the Argentine talisman, has failed to impress overall (most notably by not converting the penalty kick against Iceland). The 3-0 loss to Croatia exposed Argentina's defensive frailties.
France's major strength is their midfield. Paul Pogba holds things together by galvanizing their attack and is the creative force in the middle of the park. N'Golo Kanté is the stabilizing force who protects the back line and links the wingers and strikers through his vision and precise passing ability. France's midfield should enable them to dominate possession. The goal threats up front for France are Antoine Griezmann and teenage phenom Kylian Mbappé. Both are versatile forwards who can score. France also have the option of Olivier Giroud as an impact player who can change the pace of the attack with his physical hold up play.
Argentina have a plethora of attacking options with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain up front. However, the manager Jorge Sampaoli has puzzled many with his team selection. Leaving Angel DiMaria, Éver Banega and Paulo Dybala out of the lineup for the Croatia match was a fatal decision that left Messi isolated. Sergio Aguero languished on the bench until he was introduced in the 80th minute vs Nigeria. If Sampaoli can get his team selection right, Argentina look like a much different team than the team who struggled in the group stage. The x-factor for Argentina is Banega who is the player in the midfield that can provide Messi with the quality service to open up the attack.
France are favoured as they have been the more consistent team over three matches. Argentina have clearly underachieved thus far, however if they can put their attack together they can mask their defensive issues. France have advanced past the round of 16 in two of the previous three World Cups (failing to get out of the group stage in 2010), while Argentina have advance past the round of 16 in each of the previous three World Cups.
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