Ever Banega is key to Argentina's cause against France while Paul Pogba must come good

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Despite an underwhelming World Cup campaign so far, France topped Group C and will face Argentina in the round of 16 on Saturday.

The South Americans endured a far more treacherous path to the knockout stages, needing a last-gasp winner against Nigeria in their final group game to sneak through as runners-up in Group D.

Both sides boast plenty of attacking talent but have flattered to deceive in Russia.

Here’s a look at some of the key players who could decide the encounter.

MIDFIELD CREATORS

Paul Pogba v Ever Banega

With his price tag, frequent and flamboyant haircuts and tendency to be over elaborate in possession, Paul Pogba is often an easy target for criticism. Having been benched – presumably owing to the booking he was carrying – for the clash with Denmark though, it looked as if they missed him with the midfield looking increasingly flat in his absence.

He hasn’t been at his best in Russia as evidenced by his sloppy passing and careless dispossessions but at least he’s strived to make an impact in attack with more key passes and dribbles than any of the other French midfielders. With a little more support around him, he could make them tick again.

For a midfield starved of creativity, the fact that Ever Banega’s inclusion from the start against Nigeria was an anomaly is criminal. His dominant performance though should see him retain his place. He had more touches (111), passes (90) and key passes (3) than anyone else on the pitch.

His distribution was phenomenal as well with all five of his long balls hitting their targets, including that delightful ping over the top of the defence for Messi to score the opener. His capricious nature, on and off the field, has always been a concern but at 29, his antics have taken a backseat. Argentina could use a bit of that unpredictability in the middle of the pitch.

STAR FORWARDS

Antoine Griezmann vs Lionel Messi

One successful penalty aside, Antoine Griezmann – like so many of his team-mates – has struggled to make an impression at this World Cup.

Playing in a France side that deigns to entertain, his performances have been more workman like than talismanic. If Les Bleus are to go far in this tournament, the Atletico Madrid star will have to come good sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, much has been expected of Lionel Messi in Russia. Widely considered the best player in the world and arguably of all-time, his lack of silverware with Argentina leaves a void in his legacy.

After a missed penalty in the 1-1 draw with Iceland, Messi would’ve been forgiven for experiencing an all-too-familiar sinking feeling which was no doubt compounded when he was anonymous during a 3-0 defeat to Croatia. However, he delivered with a stunning goal against Nigeria before Marcos Rojo’s winner saw Argentina sneak through to the round of 16. Messi, like so many Argentines, may be daring to dream again.

DEFENSIVE GUARDS

Raphael Varane vs Marcos Rojo

Despite his less than convincing displays at times in a Real Madrid shirt this past season, Raphael Varane has enjoyed a flawless World Cup campaign so far. The centre-back has been confident on the ball and dominant in the air but he hasn’t had too many defensive interventions to make, it has to be said.

Much of that is down to France’s cautious approach as a unit, a far cry from Madrid’s oft devil-may-care attacking forays. He may have a lot more to deal with as the tournament progresses.

Rojo’s exclusion from the starting line-up was just one of several calamitous decisions Jorge Sampaoli made for the clash with Croatia. The Manchester United centre-back has been one of Argentina’s better performers in defence as evidenced by his contributions against Nigeria.

His selection doesn’t come without risk though as he is prone to the odd reckless challenge but a heroic late goal to qualify Argentina for the knockout stages means he’s pretty much untouchable at the moment.

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Messi is the centre of attention as France and Argentina prepare for huge clash

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Everything is on the line for Lionel Messi and La Albiceleste.

Footballing giants France and Argentina face-off in the World Cup round-of-16 at the Kazan Arena in Kazan on Saturday evening (18:00 kick-off UAE time).

This will be their 12th meeting in international football but their past back catalogue of clashes doesn’t leave them on an even footing.

La Albiceleste have won six of those matches while Les Bleus have triumphed just twice, along with three draws.

Interestingly, two of Argentina’s victories came in the World Cup finals courtesy of a 1-0 win back in the 1930 edition of football’s biggest showpiece and then a 2-1 success en-route to their overall victory in 1978.

Here, we assess the key talking points ahead of what promises to be an intriguing battle.

All eyes will be on one man

Captain, leader, legend and… coach? Lionel Messi‘s hold over this Argentina side is enormous, in all aspects. This is the great man’s last shot at World Cup glory at the peak of his powers and everything his nation does is geared towards him, with the Barcelona icon seemingly running the show.

A once in a lifetime player can command this kind of influence. The 31-year-old orchestrated an emphatic half-time team-talk in the tunnel during the Nigeria win and then seemingly gave his blessing for coach Jorge Sampaoli to bring on Sergio Aguero in the second-half. Everything, is simply, down to him. Extraordinary.

Messi’s footballing intelligence and star power is just about the only thing keeping a squad devoid of harmony and embroiled in behind-the-scenes problems on any kind of track. Javier Mascherano, a man who has looked a spent force at his final World Cup, being proof of that following his training ground altercation with Cristian Pavon – a youngster 12 years his junior.

The dysfunctionality surrounding Sampaoli’s tenure, coupled with his questionable possession-play tactics and shaky systems, has obviously affected Messi – who up until his sublime goal in the crucial victory over the Super Eagles – had been almost invisible.

He followed his missed penalty against Iceland with a passenger display against Croatia, in which he ran just 7.6kms – less than any other player on the pitch – and mustered just one shot in a performance which will not be remembered fondly in his great legacy. It may be the case that a World Cup win is just never meant to be, but Messi looked like he didn’t want to be on the pitch that night.

But, just somehow, here Messi and Argentina are in the second round, free of their life support machine and just about kicking. They will require all their talisman’s powers of genius and one of the biggest performances of Messi’s great career to overcome the French.

Lionel Messi celebrates his superb goal against Nigeria.

Will France finally move through the gears?

Les Bleus topped Group C with little fuss but their level of play, certainly from an attacking perspective, has not done justice to the world-class ability they have at their disposal.

Didier Deschamps made six changes for the dire goalless draw with Denmark and will revert back to type with a 4-2-3-1 system, with Antoine Griezmann playing in behind Olivier Giroud.

In theory, France should be fresh and confident. On average, their overall squad age is five years younger than a leggy-looking Argentina’s at 25.8.

Paul Pogba, a certain beneficiary from a rest last time out, has made telling contributions against Australia and Peru in his two outings and should relish facing a midfield, that at times, has been non-existent.

Should the Manchester United star collect similar statistics to that of Croatia’s Luka Modric, which included the Real Madrid ace winning 100 per cent of tackles, take-ons, aerial duels and notching a goal in a man-of-the-match display last Thursday, France should be in the ascendancy. The stage is set for Pogba to overpower the Argentines.

For Deschamps, ultimately his tenure is on the line. France have had a habit of shirking the big occasion under him. They can ill-afford a repeat of a beleaguered Euro 2016 final display, and indeed, that should not happen against this Argentina outfit.

Paul Pogba has reasons to smile…he should dominate Argentine midfield.

Ever Banega brilliance has come at the right time

For Argentina’s first two matches, a cameo against Iceland aside, the 29-year-old Sevilla midfielder watched on – certainly in disbelief – and safe in the knowledge, that he could do a lot better.

Sampaoli, who has obviously had to adhere to Messi’s influence and pick up the pieces of a disjointed dressing room, has found it very difficult to fix a complex puzzle.

The selection of Banega, though, is the closest he has come to finding the answer, the missing piece of the jigsaw.

His inclusion against Nigeria, occupying a central midfield berth in a more structured 4-4-2 formation, brought greater calmness and stability to the team in general.

Not only did he provide a pinpoint 30-yard assisted lob to Messi for their opener, he was the most creative player on the pitch with two key passes and held everything together with his industrious play.

The aggressive midfielder, who has been linked with a switch to Arsenal, won four out of his six tackles, enjoyed an 87.8 per cent passing completion and certainly showed both Maximiliano Meza and Enzo Perez how it should be done. He does though need to bury past issues, which have included lack of work-rate and drifting in and out of games.

It is a big ask for Banega to come to the table in such a way again against a French side boasting a more domineering presence in the engine room, but Argentina at least have some hope and with Messi at the top end of the pitch, nothing can ever be ruled out.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 26: Ever Banega of Argentina in action during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Nigeria and Argentina at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 26, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

About time: Ever Banega has quickly transformed Argentina.

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Diego Maradona insists he is 'very much alive' after health scare

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Diego Maradona said he was perfectly fine

Diego Maradona was shocked by how his World Cup health scare on Tuesday was reported and insists: “I am very much alive.”

The 57-year-old, who captained Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, said he had been suffering from neck pain as he attended his country’s game against Nigeria earlier this week.

But he denied reports he had been hospitalised and demonstrated his good health with an appearance on Telesur’s ‘De La Mano del 10’ programme.

He said: “I was shocked that (reports suggested) there had been a stretcher, an ambulance. Nothing happened.

“We were all together, the Telesur team and my team, and we could not believe how social networks started to make a big lie, which made no sense, go viral like that.

“It makes me a bit angry, because my sister, yesterday she made me whistle on the phone to see if I was okay, and I went (whistles).

“‘What else do you want me to do?’ I asked her.

“My brother in Italy, my nephew in the United States worried, because of course the bad news travels much faster than the good news.

“I am very much alive, and very well taken care of.”

Argentina beat Nigeria 2-1 to progress to the last 16 of the World Cup, where they will face France on Saturday.

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