The World Cup's tryst with Telstar 18 came to an end Thursday night. The high-tech official football, made by Adidas, proved to be quite exciting as it produced goals in all but one of the 44 matches played with it.
Now it's time for a new match ball, the Telstar Mechta, adorned by vivid red. Adidas has designed the ball taking inspiration from World Cup hosts Russia's red and the 'rising heat of the knockout stage of the tournament.'
Mechta means dream. And the world will wait up to see which of the 16 countries live up to the theme of the Mechta and dream big as the knockout phase gets underway today, with Argentina taking on France.
Les Bleus advanced unbeaten from Group C while La Albiceleste narrowly averted an exit from Group D. Two great teams with lots of exciting players in their possession, but neither side has played to its potential as yet. Still, judging from performances and the hunger to win, France look the better side to bet on.
France arguably have more talent than any other country with highly-rated players competing for every position. A midfield of Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante has the capability to dominate any country they face, and up front they have Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. Coach Didier Deschamps has a side so stacked with frontline stars that he has the luxury of leaving Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar on the bench.
Argentina, on the other hand, have Lionel Messi, who is a host in himself. He is one of such rare calibre who has the ability to turn any match on its head with one shot, a pass or a flick of his foot.
Argentina however are more than Messi. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has brought to Russia at least seven players who are regarded among the world's best in different positions by their clubs.
The two coaches will head into the match with two different worries.
The charges of Deschamps are known to be highly temperamental, and if some of the vital cogs are not in the right mood, France tend to lose their way. A discipline-obsessed Deschamps will certainly do his best to keep his key men motivated. It is too bad for France that there is no one like Zinedine Zidane in the team. The French legend and a World Cup winning mate of Deschamps, Zidane was someone who had the ability to get teammates all charged up with his own electrifying performances.
For Sampaoli, the worry will be the midfield supply to Messi. With supply of passes being cut off, Messi can be made quite ineffective. The coach is however a victim of his own game plan. Against France, a Messi-centred game plan is certain to backfire. He should devise a strategy that tasks others to take charge and allows Messi to play his own game, without pressure.
But Sampaoli may not agree. Like his predecessors, he too believes Messi alone can bring Argentina the World Cup. Is there any change of plan, Sampaoli? A penny for your thoughts!
It's a bit tricky to predict the result of the match. If France play up to their potential, they should win the match but, under Deschamps, Les Bleus have more often than not fallen short of expectations.
I believe it will be a low-scoring match, possibly 1-0, following which France will catch a flight home.
The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star
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