Germany’s World Cup exit has left the ousted champions with a number of questions to answer.
Here we look at where it went wrong for Joachim Low‘s side.
Low appeared to bring unnecessary scrutiny on himself even before the tournament began by leaving out Manchester City winger Leroy Sane, the Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year.
The thinking was that Julian Brandt fitted better into the national team system – but he played just 19 minutes over the three games.
Low opted not to freshen up his side too much with an injection of youth and pace, and he instead kept faith with many of the players who had done the job four years previously.
He picked 11 players aged 28 or older in his squad, having had just seven in the same bracket for 2014, pushing the average age up from 25.7 to 26.6.
Nine members of the 2014 squad went to Russia and the majority of them were first choice for at least two of Germany’s matches.
However, few seemed to justify their inclusion on form in the preceding months. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had not played a club match since September, centre-back Jerome Boateng had not been convincing for Bayern Munich and midfielder Mesut Ozil had a poor campaign for Arsenal.
When the World Cup started it quickly became apparent Sami Khedira looked every one of his 31 years in midfield while Thomas Muller, with 16 goals for Bundesliga champions Bayern, had not scored since April.
The coach signed a new contract until 2022 in May which would take his reign to 16 years should he see it out. But the methods which had seen him reach the semi-finals of every major tournament appeared to have run their course in Russia.
That was highlighted by the inconsistent team selections, which saw only three outfield players keep their place for each match, and confused thinking with Leon Goretzka, a central midfielder or number 10, played as a right winger against South Korea.
Results had not been encouraging leading into the tournament with the 2-1 friendly victory over Saudi Arabia their only prior win of 2018.
Low has subsequently admitted he felt there was a sense of superiority leading up to the 1-0 defeat to Mexico in their opening World Cup game.
He said: “I had the feeling that there was perhaps a certain arrogance before the Mexico game (within the camp) – like we would be able to react at the touch of a button when it all starts.”
German magazine Sport Bild also reported a rift had developed in the side between players who were big on social media, such as Ozil, and the Bayern contingent.
Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan also brought focus on the team when they were pictured in May with controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of his country’s elections, leading to Germany’s political leaders asking for explanations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.