FIFA World Cup 2018: Can France learn from Croatia? | The Daily Star
05:52 AM, June 30, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 05:50 PM, June 30, 2018

Can France learn from Croatia?

France will take on Argentina in the opening round of 16 clash today well aware of their own shortcomings, but also with the assurance that they have all the tools in their arsenal that they need to see off their South American opponents.

The Group D encounter between Lionel Messi & Co. and Croatia should have provided enough assurances, but the fact that the French have been solid, if unspectacular, serves only as more reinforcement.

After all, their superstar up front in Antoine Griezmann may be misfiring, but their defence has held firm throughout the three group stage matches, conceding just one goal.

But young sensation Kylian Mbappe, who Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli earmarked as the chief menace in his pre-match presser, joined the party with a winner against Peru in France's second match.

Given the problems that Nigeria's Ahmed Musa caused the comparatively immobile Argentine backline, the 19-year-old Paris Saint-Germain forward will certainly be licking his lips. He has the electric pace to get in behind and the kind of dazzling feet rivalled only by the game's best.

Their riches up front -- they also have Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele and Nabil Fekir -- and at the back should only serve as extras, with the meat of the team ideally carrying out the Croatian idea of midfield domination; which starves Messi and his mystical left foot of the ball in any sort of dangerous position.

For that, Les Bleus have arguably the best personnel in the form of N'Golo Kante. The relentless destroyer seeks out the ball like none other but his overall defensive abilities will be especially crucial to starving Messi of service, which negates nearly any risk Argentina pose given the constant struggles of the rest of the team that features midfielders such as an aged Javier Mascherano, the young Giovani Lo Celso, Enzo Perez and Lucas Biglia, both aof whom looked out of their depth in the group games.

While Messi looks a step above the rest even on an off day and has the ability to change games with a drop of the shoulder, the Argentine talisman looked like a passenger for much of the match against Croatia, desperately coming into his own half to pick up the ball as the match wore on.

A repeat of that performance is unlikely and Argentina do seem to be in high spirits after their last-ditch win against Nigeria, but France will likely also deploy Blaise Matuidi to disrupt the midfield, although he will have to be careful as he already has a yellow card to his name. Paul Pogba will complete the trio, although he is likely to operate as a more creative presence.

In those circumstances, it will be a tough task for Ever Banega to find his teammates with an over-the-top pass as he did against Nigeria for Messi. That will be made tougher with Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti using their pace, strength, and most importantly, impeccable positioning to negate in defence.

If France do play to their opponents' weaknesses, which should also reflect their strengths on the counter, then the game will be an intensely fought midfield battle.

With Argentina reportedly planning to dump a traditional striker in favour of using Lionel Messi as a false nine between Christian Pavon and Angel di Maria to exploit France's wingbacks, their midfield could be left weaker.

If their midfield is indeed sacrificed even further, then France may feel they have already won the battle. Argentina do have a tendency to buy into their own hype as a group of youngsters, but they should exercise caution when going up against a conjurer like Messi because, as we have seen numerous times before, a goal from that left foot is just one touch away.

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