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

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Lionel Messi has not featured for Argentina since the World Cup.

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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