France v Argentina, Saturday 30th June, 15:00
Les Bleus have made it through to the knock out stages without any losses but also without impressing anyone outside of the management team. Over the course of three matches, they played well for all of 45 minutes and, for the rest, looked disjointed, aimless and careless. The less said about their 0-0 draw with Denmark, the better. Some things are best left buried.
Watching France, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that the French were the pre-tournament favourite of many’s the pundit. Undeniably awash with outrageous talent, they instead play in a manner which makes them seem unsure of their own ability – quite the achievement for their coach of six years, Didier Deschamps. It’s not what their baying fans want, whatever about expected. They must feel like a child who has been told that they can have anything they want in a shop only to leave with a pencil.
The one thing that you say can for France is that, unlike their opponents, they don’t often look like conceding. Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti are an excellent pairing in the centre of defence and roaming the space front of them is the peerless N’Golo Kante, a man who never saw an opposition player’s pocket that he didn’t feel compelled to pick. Their sole concession thus far has been by way of a penalty following Umtiti’s ill-advised defensive homage to Maradona in their opening game. If they can manage to get the top half of their team clicking, they will be dangerous.
Luckily for them, they are likely to be facing one of the most inept defences left in the tournament. This column feels like its repeating itself at this juncture but it bears saying one more time – Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo are awful defenders. The former should be serving a ban for kicking the ball at the face of a prone Ivan Rakitic and the latter, folk-hero though he may be for scoring the winning goal against Nigeria, can’t get a game at Manchester United ahead of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. The man patrolling ahead of this calamitous pair is Argentina’s most capped player, Javier Mascherano. He has enjoyed a stellar career but alas, the legs are too far gone for even his fabled nous to compensate.
The behind-the-scenes woe in the Argentina camp is well documented, if not officially affirmed, by now. Their shock 3-0 loss to Croatia was a brutal thing to behold but they managed to pull it from the fire in their final game and, as a result, may well have gained some grit to overcome the deficiencies in talent rife throughout the team. The big question for Argentina is whether or not that will be enough to account for this France team. Messi has had some experience playing against Kante this season in the Champions League and didn’t get much change from the dynamo on those occasions. He can expect much of the same this time around and if Messi is shut out, Argentina will be knocked out.
As much as we’re in awe of the attacking talent at France’s disposal, the romantic in this column would love to see Argentina get through. It’s crass and far from the tenets of journalism to say so, but France don’t deserve to go through based on their performances so far. Yes, Argentina have arguably been worse overall but they gave everything they had in the last game whereas France have barely broken from a trot. Shouldn’t endeavour and passion win out in the end?!
The short answer is No and, if football has shown us anything over the years, it’s that ‘deserve to’ amounts to little more than pithy platitudes bestowed retrospectively on the loser. The market isn’t struck with any sentimentality and makes France favourites to win out. As much as we hate to type it and wish it were otherwise, we must concur.
War of Attrition Between Uruguay and Portugal
Uruguay v Portugal, Saturday 30th June, 19:00
Ding ding ding, let the butchery begin. Our first evening game in the Round of 16 is between two of the tournaments’ most grizzled pugilists. Not that Cristiano Ronaldo would ever like to be referred to as ‘grizzled’ but even he would be hard-pressed to come up with a better description for his team of troopers. The suspicion is that Luis Suarez would be insulted if Uruguay weren’t described so.
It’s been said that Portugal are the Uruguay of Europe and they the Portugal of South America. What this boils down to is that they are essentially two battle-hardened teams who eschew flair for fight, dynamism for doggedness, and Jogo bonito for outright bastardism. These very same qualities were the backbone of Portugal’s victory in the European Championship two years ago so why would they ever consider changing? Uruguay, whose national motto is Freedom or Death, would have watched from afar admiringly.
A tie that includes two of the superstars of world football duking it out in a winner-takes-all encounter should be a shining example of the ‘product’ which FIFA so desperately wants to sell to the benighted pockets of resistant malcontents left in the world who have yet to convert to their glorious corporate vision. We all know, however, that it won’t be. Being kind and clichéd, this will surely be ‘one for the purists’. Being a shade more realistic, a drinking game based around a shot for each time Suarez, Ronaldo and Pepe hit the floor would see the participants damagingly soused come full time.
That is not to say that this won’t be a spectacle worth drinking in – it will – only that, of all the teams left in the tournament, these two know better than most what is required in the knock-out stages and, crucially, what is not. This is no country for utopian visions, this is a land of attritional pragmatism where each and every mean will justify the ends. Previous World Cups have shown us exactly how far Suarez is willing to go for the cause and you can be damn sure that if the opportunity arose in this match, he would do it all again.
Uruguay’s defence has not yet been breached whereas Portugal shipped four in two games – advantage Diego Godin et al. Three of the goals that Portugal conceded came in that incredible encounter with Spain and their response was a Ronaldo hat-trick. The great man has, if anything, improved with age; certainly, his unrivalled will to win, especially with his national team, remains undimmed. Watching him play for Real Madrid, even after all this time, it is blatantly obvious that he cares more for his glory than that of the team but with Portugal it is different. Yes, the ego is there but he genuinely cares about playing for his country, which makes him an even more dangerous proposition.
The very same thing is true of Suarez and Uruguay, a country with a population of less than four million, for whom the national team is their greatest source of pride. When the stakes are that high for the respective camps, you can be sure that, whatever the result, neither team will be left wondering ‘what might have been’ come the final whistle. Plutarch, recording the admonition given to Spartan warriors heading into battle, perhaps summed it up best – Come back with your shield, or on it.
When it comes to picking a winner, even the bookies are having a hard time of it. A cursory glance at the prices available show that they make Uruguay favourites but there’s only the tiniest sliver of light between them. Having both Suarez and Edinson Cavani in concert with their redoubtable defence probably gives them that edge and, to the mind of this reviewer, that will be the difference that should see Uruguay over the line eventually but we can’t see an outright winner over the 90 minutes – it could well take extra-time.