KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) – Didier Deschamps may be tempted to execute a “no Messi, no Argentina” strategy when preparing for today’s round of 16 clash but the France manager must also be mindful of getting the most out of his own marquee players.
France’s smooth advance to the knockout rounds with two wins and a draw has made them favourites to beat an Argentina side who were thrashed by Croatia and needed a late winner against Nigeria to book their place.
It also glossed over a clutch of underwhelming group phase performances by Les Bleus, whose galaxy of young stars have yet to truly shine on the biggest stage.
Messi, his World Cup legacy and Argentina’s over-reliance on the Barcelona forward, however, have dominated the narrative leading into Saturday’s clash at Kazan Arena.
At his news conference yesterday, Deschamps was asked repeatedly how France would stop Messi, and he answered patiently until a fourth such query triggered a small sigh of exasperation.
“This player is outstanding so we have to take a number of precautions,” the former World Cup-winning captain said.
Starving Messi of the ball by winning the midfield battle would seem the obvious starting point for Deschamps’ precaution-taking.
Croatia managed to blanket Messi by having Ivan Strinic and Marcelo Brozovica screen behind midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, and take turns at running with the Argentine danger man.
N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi may be pressed into similar stopping roles, and Deschamps could elect to revert to a more conservative 4-2-3-1 formation with Matuidi covering the left wing rather than a more attacking option such as Messi’s Barcelona team mate Ousmane Dembele.
Concentrating too much on Messi, however, could also prove stifling for France’s attack which has shown itself to be a collection of expensive moving parts yet to move in synch.
Deschamps sacrificed a golden chance for them to gel by shaking up his side for the 0-0 draw against Denmark, which secured qualification but did little to improve team cohesion.
Another shake-up looms for the Argentina match, with Deschamps unlikely to have teenage juggernaut Kylian Mbappe starting on the bench again or to rest Paul Pogba.
Antoine Griezmann’s form is another concern and Deschamps has yet to find a combination that can get the best from the striker.
With no clear sense of direction being set by Deschamps’ selections, it may be up to the players to find their own way to deal with Messi.