FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round Day One

One and done time…

France 4-3 Argentina

France played a 4-2-3-1 that played like an advanced 4-1-4-1, with N’Golo Kanté protecting the backline, Paul Pogba the sideline-to-sideline midfielder expected to get forward into channels in the center to help the attack, the explosive Kylian Mbappé making runs in from the right, the target man Olivier Giroud up front waiting to get the ball on a trailing Antoine Greizmann. Argentina played its customary 4-3-3, with Lionel Messi playing a false-9 up front, so they were going to expect a lot from the wide playes, Nicolás Tagliafico and Angel di Maria on the left, and Gabriel Mercado and Cristian Pavón, although Éver Banega was expected to get into attacking channels in the center. France played a considerably high line considering it was Messi they had to defend.

Mbappé’s early explosiveness caused a penalty in the box in the 13th minute; Greizmann converted. Kanté was so good at covering the center that France could afford to take some chances forward. Argentina couldn’t handle Mbappé’s speed; France taking one long ball after another over the top to him through the center. Argentina wanted Messi to play near the box in a false-9, but he spent more time playing deep bringing the ball forward. You can have all the defending you want, if you close down the box and let someone have a long shot outside of it, bad things can happen. It finally happened in the 41st minute, when France failed to close down di Maria outside the box and he sent one sailing into the right side of the net. Argentina were going to be patient, maintaining a patient possession until they could get the ball to Messi. Gabriel Mercado deflected a Messi shot on a set piece to take the lead in the 48th minute.

France got taken out of their game, playing a lot more cautiously instead of playing long balls to their speedy players up front. On Benjamin Pavard’s goal in the 57th minute, they played like they were supposed to; a long ball over the top down the left flank to Lucas Hernandez, who sent a long cross into the center to Pavard. When Pogba got on the ball, France played over-the-top; he sent another long pass to the left flank to Hernandez, who sent it in to the box to Mbappé with the finish in the 64rd minute. Argentina just couldn’t handle Les Bleus’ speed, as evidenced by Mbappé’s toe poke in the 68th minute; Pogba again with the patient buildup in the center, gets the ball quickly to Giroud, who one-times it to Mbappé. France knew what areas of the field to attack with their speed, and took advantage of it perfectly. Kun Aguero came on in the 65th minute to get up top and receive the ball in the box and put shots on goa; that’s what he did in the 3rd minute of stoppage time on a cultured pass from Messi (why Argentina didn’t have a true striker up front is beyond me). One helluva finish in a fun match to watch; the best game of the tournament so far. Messi and Argentina have some ‘splaining to do.

Uruguay 2-1 Portugal

This game was going to come down to the center of Uruguay’s disciplined, physical, no-nonsense defense, Diego Godín and José Giménez (who haven’t given up a goal leading up to this game) versus the otherworldly talents of Cristiano Ronaldo in the box, and Uruguay’s counterattack versus Portugal’s pragmatism. Uruguay played a 4-1-2-1-2 that played like a wide 4-4-2 diamond, looking for Rodrigo Bentancur to slide in from the left to the center, but quickly getting the ball in the attacking third to Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up top. Portugal employed a disciplined 4-4-2 that played more like a 4-2-2-2, with Ronaldo floating around freely from the left, but flank play was going to be important with João Mário and Bernardo Silva bringing the ball forward with Ronaldo trailing in.

A lot of body checking, as I expected both teams to interrupt their opponents with very physical play. The one-two game between Suarez and Cavani got Uruguay on the board early in the 7th minute. Uruguay closed down the back by dropping defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira back into a five-man backline. Uruguay was happy to let Ronaldo get the ball on the flanks, because every time he and tried to bring it inside, there were two Uruguayan players to close him down. Uruguay looked more comfortable on the ball despite giving up a vast amount of the possession. But Portugal has size and are good in the air and on 50/50 balls, and they took advantage of that on their set-piece goal in the 55th minute by Pepe (when you give up as much possession as Uruguay gave up you have to expect bad things will eventually happen).

A much more confident offensive buildup by Portugal in the second half, moving the ball from side to side. The one-two by Suarez and Cavani rose to the occasion in the 62nd minute. I expected to see a lot of reckless challenges throughout this game, and I was not wrong. In the 65th minute Portugal brought on flanker Ricardo Quaresma to get more attacking quality down the right flank. We tend to forget that Ronaldo started off life as a flanker, so when he gets closed down in the box, he goes outside looking to draw defenders to him and put the ball in the box. Uruguay played a very deep backline; there was just no panic in their game when Portugal got the ball in the box. Suarez was gassed, and Cavani got beat up but Uruguay survive the Portuguese onslaught to advance to the quarters against France.

The two best players in the world, Messi and Ronaldo, are sent home on the first day of the knockout stage.

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