France v Argentina, Saturday 30th June, 15:00
Now it starts to get interesting. After a first phase that has already thrown up some massive shocks, we now enter crunch time – where the jeopardy levels are turned up to eleven. No more room for error, no more wriggle room, no more trial and error. Now the stakes are at their highest. And first up are two of the biggest names in world football, both of whom have lifted the trophy.
But it’s not been smooth sailing for either. Even though the French topped Group C with some considerable ease – two wins and a draw – this has not been the free-flowing, swash-buckling storm that many had predicted. The Argentinians meanwhile were just four minutes from going out of the tournament and, but for Marcos Rojo’s 86th-minute volley against Nigeria, would already be on their way home.
Yet, the South Americans found a way and, watched by the legendary Diego Maradona who appeared ‘distracted’ in his VIP box, they were able to overcome their off-field turmoil and edge through to the knock-out stages where, effectively, it all starts again. The slate is clean and what happened in the group stages counts for nothing, which for the Argentinians is a good thing.
The French will start as favourites though (generally 7/5), reflective of their smoother passage to this stage of the competition and the array of big names and huge talent contained within their squad. Antoine Griezmann, despite having made a slow start, was predicted by many to be this tournament’s Golden Boot winner, and there remains a collective belief that sooner or later he will come to the party.
But for Les Bleus it’s not just about Griezemann – their goal threat is far from one-dimensional. In addition to the Atlético Madrid hitman, they also have PSG’s Kylian Mbappé – a target for Man Utd – and when coach Didier Deschamps decides to go with a three-prong attack he has the aerial prowess of Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud to add to the mix. And they have goals from midfield too, most notably in the form of Man Utd’s Paul Pogba who will be looking to remind the worldwide audience that he was once the world’s most expensive player.
For the Argentinians, there is a reputation to be restored after a group stage that stuttered and almost ended in disaster, but any side that contains Lionel Messi is a dangerous opponent. After a largely anonymous tournament, he sprang into life when the chips were down against Nigeria and opened the scoring with a wonderful piece of skill and an exquisite finish.
French pride may mean they wish to go toe-to-toe with Argentina, with a ‘let them worry about us’ mentality, but against an in-form Messi, that’s a dangerous game to play. And despite looking ordinary for the opening three games, the South Americans still have enough individual quality to offer a platform for the maestro in their non-cohesive unit.
However, the Argentinians are not full of goals. In their seven competitive games in 2017/18, they scored once or less in five of those matches, while drawing a blank three times. The French meanwhile have lost just once in their last 15 games – winning ten of those – and despite not yet pulling up any trees at this tournament, they have developed a very healthy winning habit.
So, expect a tight one, and much will hinge on how the French approach this game. A pragmatic approach that contains a plan to quell the Messi threat will, however, be sufficient to see Les Bleus sneak through to the last eight.
Uruguay v Portugal – Suarez Can Steal the Show from Ronaldo
Uruguay v Portugal, Saturday 30th June, 19:00
Two more big names meet in Sochi on Saturday, when the competition’s first winners, Uruguay, face up to Portugal – the current European champions. Again, neither side have set the tournament alight in the group stages, but the South Americans did finally find some momentum by virtue of their 3-0 hammering of the hosts, Russia, in their final group game. And on that basis, they enter the knockout phase in better shape than the Portuguese.
Uruguay’s demolition of the hosts was particularly impressive given that it occurred in a dead rubber – both teams were already through to the knockout phase – and usurped anything managed by the Euro 2016 champions, who limped over the line with a controversial 1-1 draw with Iran. As it transpired, Portugal – along with the Spanish – qualified from Group B with a single win and two draws to their name.
Uruguay looked fairly disjointed during their narrow 1-0 wins against Egypt and Saudi Arabia but found form at just the right time, and as they made it three wins from three, their striking partnership of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani discovered their rhythm at the perfect time. Equally telling is that La Celeste have yet to concede a goal in this tournament and, with a defence led by the indomitable figure of Diego Godín, this stat is every bit as crucial as the five goals they scored during qualifying. With strikers who are now starting to fire and a back-four that is as miserly as they come, the Portuguese have every reason to be concerned.
Unlike the Uruguayans, Portugal began the tournament quite brightly – the 3-3 draw with Spain on day two was arguably the best game to date – but they have laboured since. In their second game against Morocco, despite winning 1-0, Portugal allowed the North Africans several good chances to equalise and although they took a first-half lead against Iran in their final game, they still found themselves hanging on.
While the Portuguese understandably baulk at suggestions they are a one-man team, Cristiano Ronaldo is, of course, their biggest attacking threat. While he was guilty of missing a crucial penalty in the Iran game, he has already found the net four times; their only other goal being that superb strike from Ricardo Quaresma in the same game. However, they will find it difficult to break down the aforementioned, watertight Uruguayan defence, and with Godin well used to going toe-to-toe with Ronaldo in the Madrid derbies, the Portuguese cannot rely on the Ballon d’Or winner alone. They may well need to find a creative spark from elsewhere.
And for this reason, in terms of value, it’s difficult to see past the 9/5 on offer for Uruguay to get the job done in normal time, with another clean sheet for the Uruguayans also well worthy of consideration. But, that said, the Ronaldo factor can’t possibly be ignored and for that reason alone the Portuguese start as narrow favourites – 39/20 in places.