Marcos Rojo’s late winner against Nigeria provided Argentina with an undoubted highlight in an otherwise turbulent World Cup campaign but after failing to impress during the group stage, La Albiceleste must step up once again if they are to progress past France in the last 16.
Perhaps the biggest heavyweight clash of the last 16, two-time champions Argentina taking on 1998 winners France is eagerly anticipated despite neither side yet living up to their billing in Russia.
Jorge Sampaoli knows his side must improve on their best display yet which came against Nigeria but is confident in the squad.
“We have complete faith in our abilities. Argentina is very strong psychologically and this will allow us to face the match with complete commitment. You will see a team which will have a lot of motivation to win,” Sampaoli said in his pre-match press conference.
“We are talking about training a good set of professionals. We need to know how to overcome the challenging moments which always emerge in these competitions. Regardless of what happens, we need to keep fighting. We have been demanding in our preparations and very committed with the entire squad to give their best performance.”
Sampaoli has had to fend off speculation that the players have taken control and are now selecting the squad among numerous other reports in the media but the victory over Nigeria showed a united Argentina and the under-pressure coach used a phrase of Diego Simeone when describing this commitment.
“Argentina will play with the knife between our teeth and hopefully we will come out on top. We need to take the reins ourselves, put out players that will allow us to control the play especially against a a side like France, who move the ball around quickly.
“We want to control the game throughout. If we do not control the play then it will be a physical game which would not suit us. If France counter-attack it will not be good for us.”
Following Argentina’s improved performance in the opening 45 minutes against Nigeria, helped hugely by the introduction of Ever Banega in midfield, it was assumed that Sampaoli would make no changes to the starting eleven.
Enzo Pérez worked separately on Thursday with some discomfort following the Nigeria game but is expected to be fit but there could be a far more significant change.
“[Cristian] Pavón has chances to play tomorrow. He has been very quick to integrate with the experienced players,” Sampaoli confirmed after Argentina’s training had suggested the Boca Juniors youngster was set for his first start of the World Cup.
This would see Pavón and Angel Di María start either side of Lionel Messi in a false nine position ahead of an unchanged midfield three.
Changing Messi’s position and handing Pavón his first start at this point of the tournament after the Argentina captain had just produced his best performance would see an odd decision.
Pavón would give Argentina more opportunities to play on the counter and could potentially give a potential French weakness at full-back a more difficult evening but with Messi likely to roam, it could also see Argentina at times with little presence in the penalty area.
“I am sure France have their own plan to neutralise Leo, but we have our own plan to make his life easier – so let’s see who has the best luck executing their plan,” Sampaoli explained.
“What is most worrisome about France beyond their youth is the skill of some of their players. It is a team with plenty of time under Deschamps, very solid and they will look to force us into errors and counter.”
Whether Messi is starting as a false nine or whether he starts in the same position as against Nigeria with Gonzalo Higuaín up front, the world’s best player remains central to Argentina’s hopes.
It hasn’t been the easiest tournament for Messi after being swarmed by Iceland and cut out by Croatia but any critics were swiftly silenced after the Nigeria game and Sampaoli knows just how much this means to his captain.
“Leo is completely committed to the team, first and foremost you see this on the pitch.
“He has such clear vision in football, that he allows us sometimes to see what only a true genius can see. It is difficult to be at such a great level, he is really a shining light for us all, bearing in mind his capacities, we have to try play as close to his level as we can.”
Such talk of Messi has been a running theme of Sampaoli’s tenure and has also led to the claims that it is the number ten steering the ship. The video of Sampaoli telling Messi that he was bringing on Sergio Agüero late on in the Nigeria game further fuelled such talk but the coach poured cold water on the suggestion.
“We looked at different options in an important game and had to make a decision. I was simply communicating this, saying that we were going to use one of the strategies we had rehearsed to use more attacking players.”
If Argentina are to get the best out of Messi in either position, Ever Banega remains the key and the midfielder, celebrating his 30th birthday on Friday will take centre stage against France.
“Leo is always surrounded, it’s something that happens in every game. Hopefully we can find him at the right moments so that he plays in the most comfortable way possible,” Banega explained in the press conference.
Banega managed that with his beautiful lofted pass for Messi’s goal against Nigeria but the Sevilla midfielder played down his role: “All I had to do was raise my head, he did the rest.
“It is always a pleasure to play next to Leo. We all know what a player he is.”
This will be the first time that Argentina and France have met in the knockout stage of a World Cup but in the twelve meetings between the former champions, La Albiceleste hold the advantage, winning six and losing two.
The only meetings in the last 32 years have come in friendlies in 2007 and 2009 and both were won by Argentina. However, France haven’t lost in eight World Cup matches against South American opposition and since the introduction of the round of 16 in 1986, Les Bleus have always made it past that stage whenever they’ve reached it (1986, 1998, 2006 and 2014).
France will be favourites on Saturday but the victory over Nigeria has given Argentina boost and with Lionel Messi nothing can be written off.