The knockout stages of world cup 2018 are about to get underway. In this article, we preview the first two matches of the Round of 16
France vs Argentina
The French team--which boasts of one of the best all-around squads in the tournament--came into the world-cup 2018 as one of the favouriteson the back of their excellent performance in Euro 2016. Their path to the knockout stage has been not exactly been what Didier-Deschamps would have wanted at the start of the world cup. Though the Les-Blues topped their group, it was achieved on the back of a 2-1 victory against Australia in the first match, with one of their goals being an own goal and the other coming from a penalty. Against Peru, they managed to scrape through with a 1-0 win and a largely uninspired performance against the Danes helped them reach 7 points and win the group. Kylian Mbappe has looked to be in good knick and the defence has looked solid, though it hasn't been properly tested as of yet.
It is still surprising that we have Argentina alive in the tournament, given the quality of football they have produced in Russia so far. The World Cup couldn't have started on a better note for them after Sergio Aguero put them ahead in their opener against Iceland. From there on in it has been a downward journey for them as they drew their match against Iceland and displayed arguably the worst performance of the world cup--albeit teams like Tunisia and Panama-- when they lost to Croatia 3-0. More than anything, the lack of motivation to play any sought of creative football cost them that game. They came back well enough to win the game against Nigeria, given the talks of a major rift between the players and the coach. Mascherano and Otamendi have been extremely poor in their play and they lack a decent goalkeeper. The midfield is experienced and looked horrible, especially against Croatia. Big stars such as Angel Di Maria have given lacklustre performances and teams have been successful in cutting off Messi from the supply chain. The only silver lining for Argentina in this tournament has been Ever Banega--a player who was not included in the starting line up for the first two matches--who played a pivotal role in their win against Nigeria by setting up Messi.
It will be interesting to see whether France will go with the 4-3-3 formation--which they used in the first match-- or the 4-2-3-1, a formation which they have used in the subsequent matches. My suspicion is that they might go with the former because in it Kante plays in a more central position whereas Mbappe and Dembele can make runs in the wider areas. It is almost certain that Argentina will play with a back 4 after the back 3 experiment by Sampaoli backfired in the Nigeria game. Central midfield is where the weakness of Argentina lies in and it would be preferable that they replace a facing Mascherano with someone such as Dybala, who can take control of the ball through his creativity. The feeling is that this battle will be won in the Midfield, and given the superiority of France in both the defensive and offensive aspects of these fields, expect this to be an easy win for France.
Uruguay vs Portugal
Uruguay has been hands-down the best defensive team of the world cup so far. Gimenez and Godin have successfully transferred their Atletico Madrid form to the national side. Against Russia, even without an injured Gimenez, they combined their solid defence with excellent attacking prowess to win 3-0. Cavani and Suarez seem to be stepping up the ante at the right time.
In contrast, Portugal started the tournament well, managing a 3-3 draw against the favourites Spain, but since then have looked lacklustre. There is serious lack of attacking prowess apart from Cristiano Ronaldo. Fonte doesn't have much experience at the international level and age has certainly taken a toll on Pepe’s defensive capabilities, though his skill set of antics is still intact. Portugal was lucky to escape this group, especially based on the last two performances against Iran and Morocco.
Given the current form, Uruguay go into this match as favourites, even though Portugal has a knack of progressing through tough matches as exemplified by their logic-defying Euro 2016 win. The matchup will eventually come down to the performance of Cristiano Ronaldo, who will have to produce something special for his side if they are to go through.