The stage was set. Argentina needed nothing but a victory to do their part of boosting their qualification hopes. They also needed Iceland to not win their game against Croatia. But that was not in their hand, and they were focused on the job on their hand. Up stepped the only player who could inspire this disrupted and broken team into cohesion. He was the man with the captain’s armband, the man who is on a mission to win the only title which has eluded him in his career, he is none other than Lionel Andrès Messi Cuccittini.
Messi had been really poor till now, with two underwhelming performances putting Argentina on the brink of elimination. But, all was forgotten when he was put through by a simple Ever Banega through ball, his first touch dropped the ball dead, his second accelerated him ahead of the Nigerian defender and the third touch blasted the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper. Argentina and Maradona were in seventh heaven, as they secured a lead. But Nigeria equalised in the second half, to set up the perfect dramatic finish to the game, when Marcos Rojo, the most unlikeliest player to score the winner, from a hopeful cross into the box in the 86th minute.
France, on the other hand, had a calm and anti-climatic game, considering how close their first two were. Didier Deschamps has been struggling to find the cohesion that would make the bunch of French superstars into a superstar team. They named a much changed lineups to avoid any suspensions with a second yellow cards, and with Denmark not very adventurous, France were comfortable with knocking the ball around and not doing anything adventurous.
Deschamps called up Steven N’Zonzi, Djibril Sidibe, Thomas Lemar and Steven Mandanda into the lineup to give him a selection headache for the Round of 16, but at the end of the game, Deschamps would have come out more sure than ever about his starting XI. None of the above players made any significant impact and the game screamed for a Pogba through ball and the pace and power of Matuidi. France are still looking to click into rhythm and show the form that carried them into the finals of Euros 2016, and this game will surely put down a marker for their credentials if they end up defeating Messi.
Argentina will not be celebrating the victory over Nigeria, with the shambles of a Croatia defeat and the embarrassment of a draw with Iceland fresh in their memory. Their struggles of qualifying for the World Cup also suggests that they will start the game as second favourites. But they have the track record of doing well under pressure and bottling it only in the finals, which will encourage this fading golden generation to come together and perform as one.
Meanwhile, France will be quietly confident about their chances. They were not able to break Denmark down because they sat deep and defended in numbers, while with Argentina, they will be sure of getting a lot of space and seeing a lot of the ball, which would mean more of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann on the ball. With N’Golo Kante in terrific form, Messi and co., will be vary of the task in hand and the neutrals will be salivating at the prospect of seeing a highly attacking and highly entertaining encounter.