The World Cup knockout stage begins on Saturday when France take on Lionel Messi and Argentina in a blockbuster clash in Kazan between two of the tournament favorites.
Argentina scraped into the knockout stages thanks to a dramatic late win in their final Group D game against Nigeria.
For France, progress was more serene as they topped Group C with two wins and a draw in their three games – although many question whether their uninspiring performances bode ill for the tougher tasks ahead in Russia.
RT Sport looks ahead to the eagerly-awaited match at Kazan Arena.
ALL EYES ON MESSI
Two-time winners Argentina endured a helter-skelter group stage which saw talisman Messi misfire in the opening game draw against Iceland – in which he missed a penalty – before the Barcelona man was largely anonymous in the 3-0 thrashing by Croatia. With the pressure on against Nigeria, Messi finally produced a sublime opening goal to give his team the lead early on, although the Argentinians still needed a late winner from the unlikely source of defender Marcos Rojo to scrape into second place.
La Albiceleste have emerged from the group stage battered and bruised, with huge pressure on Messi’s shoulders to carry what many see as an otherwise average team.
Manager Jorge Sampaoli has seen his authority openly undermined, and a telling picture emerged of Messi appearing to give a pep talk to the team before they emerged for the second half against Nigeria, signaling where the power lies.
There will be a selection headache for Sampaoli (or Messi) up front, as Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Sergio Aguero all compete for the starting birth.
In goal, the decision will have to be made as to whether to recall Willy Caballero – whose howler led to Croatia’s first goal in their 3-0 rout – or stick with 31-year-old Franco Armani, who appeared to suit the team as he made his debut in the win against Nigeria.
The Argentina starting 11 against the Super Eagles was the oldest ever in the nation’s World Cup history – with an average age of 30 years and 189 days – and the issue of aging stars such as Javier Mascherano and an imbalanced team have made this a difficult World Cup so far for the team.
PROGRESS MASKS LACK OF FLAIR FOR FRANCE
By contrast, France enjoyed serene if uninspiring progress to the last 16, finishing top of Group C with two wins and draw from their games. Didier Deschamps’ men dispatched Australia 2-1 in their opening game, before seeing off Peru 1-0 in their second match, despite not appearing at their best in either contest.
That was also the case in the final group game 0-0 draw against Denmark – the first (and so far only) goalless game at Russia 2018 – which was a sleep-inducing affair that did little to inspire French fans.
Deschamps has also been questioned over tactical and personnel choices, not least when defender Blaise Matuidi started on the left wing against Peru, when the French squad boasts likelier candidates for the position such as Thomas Lemar, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin.
Lemar subsequently came in against Denmark, but questions linger over Deschamps’ seemingly negative approach when he has such strong attacking options at this disposal.
Speaking about the specific threat from five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi, Deschamps said in Kazan on Friday: "Messi is Messi… Look at his stats, 65 goals in 127 matches [for Argentina], it's that straightforward. Hopefully, we'd like to mark and neutralize him, but he can make the difference with very little," he added, Goal.com reported.
"When you play Argentina and Messi, there are several ways to limit his impact, at least. But their team is highly experienced, we talk about Messi, but [Javier] Mascherano has lots of caps, so is used to the pressure.”
Managing Messi will be key for the French, but they will also need to offer more threat themselves going forward.
HEAD TO HEAD
Argentina go into the game with history on their side, having won six of the 11 meetings between the two teams (with two French wins and three draws).
France haven’t beaten La Albiceleste since 1986, and the teams’ two World Cup encounters to date have both ended in favor of Argentina – who won 1-0 in 1930 and 2-1 in 1978, both times en route to the final.