World Cup ICYMI: RO16 – France vs. Argentina, Uruguay vs. Portugal

After a day away from football, many were salivating at Saturday’s knockout games, the first two Round of 16 clashes. And yet the expectation was for both to be tight, attritional games, with all of the tension but devoid of football. Lionel Messi was expected to taper the Argentinian cracks versus a France side that had not taken off fully yet. Uruguay vs Portugal matched up Godin vs Ronaldo, but also Suarez vs Pepe – proper hard-man football on paper. It had the makings of a classic.

 

In short:

  • Kylian Mbappe tore through a shaky Argentinian defence early on, upon which Marcos Rojo’s careless tackle conceded a penalty. Griezmann sent Armani the wrong way to make it 1-0.
  • The game was chaotic and all over the place, but Angel Di Maria, despite doing nothing right in the first half, conjured a stunning curler to make it 1-1 in the 41st
  • They then took a surprise 2-1 lead after Messi’s low shot was deflected past Lloris by Gabriel Mercado.
  • France were brought back in from Benjamin Pavard’s aesthetically pleasing beauty of a curler in the 57th minute, and after threatening again, they went up 3-2 thanks to Mbappe’s opportunism in the box.
  • It was 4-2 soon after and nearly game over, with Mbappe’s deserved second goal coming off an excellent pass from Giroud.
  • It seemed like all was lost even as fouls went down and yellow cards were issued out, but Aguero offered a sliver of hope in injury time, heading in Messi’s cross.
  • Unfortunately for them, a dream comeback was thwarted at the end with a cross deflected over, and not into the French goal. It certainly was one of the classic World Cup games in recent history – one that had everything in it.
  • That was followed up by another excellent game. Uruguay drew first blood early on, with Cavani playing it crossfield for Suarez to control, cross it back to the near post for Cavani to head it in.
  • The game was under control until Pepe found a way to break the Uruguayan wall. But Cavani took them back into the lead with a superb curling shot.
  • After that, they held order and managed to see out the game to book a clash with France. Portugal was simply second-best.

 

The takeaway:

  • Kylian Mbappe’s 19. He has the world at his feet, and was truly launched yesterday. He tore an admittedly chaotic defence repeatedly with his pace, then got the reward with two well-taken goals. It’s impossible to dislike him – he’s absolutely brilliant, and will be the face of French football for the next decade.
  • You have to take France’s performance with a pinch of salt, as concerns remain. Excluding Pavard’s, the three other goals came via defensive meltdowns: yes, France have the personnel to cause them, but they were majorly due to Argentina’s shortcomings. They aren’t perfect yet, and the fact that they let in three goals is something work on, even if they were unlucky to concede.
  • Deschamps continues to divide opinion. His line-ups still confound, but France looked good for most parts. Matuidi’s yellow rules him out of the quarters, providing the manager with a conundrum. His choice of replacement will be significant. Kudos to him for giving Florian Thauvin some minutes though – a well deserved show of appreciation.
  • Argentina are generally unlucky in crucial moments, but their side didn’t deserve to go through. The team selection felt lackluster, and it showed. Mascherano in midfield shouldn’t be happening in 2018 – he could have easily gotten a second yellow. He’ll be missed, but not on the field at this stage. Messi in a false nine role felt radical; he tried his best with two assists, but couldn’t do more. If he retires, it will be a loss, and yet Argentinian football could be depressingly better for it.
  • After his match-winning goal last week, Rojo followed it with some abject defending in the box. Mbappe was too good for Tagliafico and Rojo, and Fazio had his nervy moments too. But Otamendi was worse: his needless brainfade started a brawl that cost a minute, with about a minute and a half to go on the clock. He foolishly cost his side precious seconds.
  • Meza coming on, instead of the criminally underused Dybala or Higuain, as the third sub proves Sampaoli’s out of his depth. One wonders if he’ll pay the price with his job.
  • It is no surprise that Uruguay won. They’re the better side, and have a little bit of everything: a clear game plan, defensive solidity, and two world-class strikers up top. But above all, all of them fight, press, and toil for the cause. Tabarez’s time at the helm is coming to an end, and it would be fitting if his garra charua­­­-imbibed side can go far.
  • With Uruguay, you always get order. Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez are two defensive giants, Lucas Torreira was brilliant in shackling Ronaldo, and Edinson Cavani did what he does best. The first goal came off extraordinary collective play with Suarez; the second was a beautiful curler. He went off with an injury – fingers crossed it isn’t too serious.
  • Portugal were okay, but not good enough to go through. They had possession, but it’s fitting that they fell to Uruguay. They’ve ridden their luck so far, but certainly were the second best team. Ronaldo toiled but couldn’t find inroads, Pepe was excellent, but the full-backs, as well as Guedes, were inconsequential.
  • Messi and Ronaldo both find themselves going home: a shame, but also a relief to avoid the quarter-final clash that would have resulted in inane hot-takes and inaccurate outlooks.
  • What a World Cup this is turning out to be. High-class drama and entertainment topped up with great goals every day. If you aren’t watching football, you aren’t living.

 

Goal of the day:

Di Maria and Cavani both scored lovely curlers, while the Uruguayan was involved in an excellent team move for his first. But you can’t beat Benjamin Pavard. The technique on his goal will have people salivating for days. His sublime first-time shot had the ball curling away from Armani’s hands. The ball bounced higher, but he managed to slice it with just the level of control needed to whizz beyond everyone into the net. From a right-back, it’s absolutely incredible. You can try pulling it off in the park and you’d probably fail. 500 times. It’s a crazily difficult wonder goal. FIFA, you can announce the Puskas Award winner already. And Pavard, mate, you might as well retire. It doesn’t get better. I’m off to watch this goal all day.

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