Your work here is done, young Jedi. Three touches for eternity, and on to the youthful, enigmatic Les Bleus.
Were I to be in some post-apocalyptic version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I would hope to have Javier Mascherano to lead through the darkest landscape, for he is sheer will personified, as a lovingly penned Jonathan Wilson article acknowledged today. I wrote quite a bit myself about Mascherano after the epic Nigeria win, utterly shocked by the praise he received from Fox Sports’ Kelly Smith, as if will alone could cancel out a performance that single-handedly put Argentina in mortal jeopardy. Alas, the rumor now is that Mascherano is managing the team, but if he were as good at that as suggested, he’d put a different name than his own on the first eleven. Argentina, though, cannot go without him--nor is it clear that a suitable replacement exists. And on these brave but aged legs, Argentina’s time must come.
France, of course, is the second most enigmatic side left. We have little idea who they are, what heart they possess, what tempo they might conjure. There’s no obvious spiritual leader, no battle-axe veteran around which to rally. Staking certainly on them feels like an obvious fool’s errand, but I feel that I’ve seen enough of Argentina to say that Les Bleus will carry the day, for the following reasons.
First, the exquisite moment of legend that we sought from Messi has been delivered; the mission possible was impossibly rendered by left thigh, left shoe, and a right cross, all on a tightrope at peak speed. It is a goal that, for me, stands with Maradona’s slalom through England as the Beautiful Game in its purest form. From the depths of national despair, he brought salvation, and the time seems right for a somber though not shambolic exit. Maradona looms, at turns lovable salsa king or grotesque receptacle, and perhaps it's him that we are saying goodbye to as well, a river of cocaine and excess having washed through his bloated corpus. He was there, too, to see Messi elevated by the goal of our century, Jedi father to son. I think something larger, more grandly psychic, was released that night, and the post-game celebration on the field, which lingered in unhurried relief if not full belief, was the beautiful send-off for this team.
Second, Argentina's looking at speed in all the wrong places . The simple thought of Kylian Mbappe running at that Rojo and Otamendi terrifies, and thus Argentina must either play a high line and pray, or more likely drop deeper and open up acres of space in midfield. Mascherano cannot save what he cannot catch. If a high line, they face not only France's speed merchants but in Paul Pogba, a deft deliverer of the butteriest tear drop chips just over this creaky back line. Pogba has not stamped himself on this Cup, but I think we may be misreading who he is, a brilliant but complementary piece rather than a superstar apart from a team. Hopefully he can be comfortable with this reality, too.
I wish France would go with Griezemann at the top, because he’s precisely the kind of player to give the back two fits with his darting runs, but Deschamps will likely make it easier on Argentina with Giroud. Even so, Argentina is going to be hanging on by a thread, I suspect, for much of the game...
Which leads us to the third point: Fitness in the middle third. Banega has been a miracle worker for the Albiceleste, but in Mascherano, Banega and Perez/DiMaria (perhaps a new face here), they will struggle mightily to control Pogba, Kante, Matuidi and Griezemann as the latter drops into the midfield. I’d still prefer to see Tolisso over Matuidi, but that seems quite unlikely. In any case, in the stretched midfield that must exist, France should be able to keep the ball and make Argentina chase, and the forecast is for 83 degrees at kickoff in Kazan Arena. Add in that Argentina were taken to the absolute max by Nigeria, right through stoppage time, whereas France had a stroll in the park with an uninterested Denmark, and key players like Mbappe and the outside backs were rested. This is precisely the kind of match where age is brutally exposed.
Fourth, N’golo Kante, who’s like 2010 Mascherano without the fuss or the cards. Kante’s a quiet, undemonstrative guy, but there’s no one better in the world at shielding a backline and cutting out attacks, and he can gum up Messi as well as any human alive.
Fifth, France has barely conceded, only a dodgy penalty. The flank defenders have been tough, and Varane is superb; Umtiti gives me a bit more pause (I’d prefer Kimbempe), but he’s played in plenty of big games. If there’s a hole in my theory, I think it rests there.
Or in the utter enigma of the French team. I’m not a betting man, but if I were I’d be pretty nervous about betting the house on a team that's lacked much visible urgency. They don’t pass the eye test. Still, the young legs, speed, and baseline performances have been better than almost everything we’ve seen from Argentina. I’d be happy to be proven wrong (I adore watching Messi, Aguero, and Banega), but I can’t imagine Argentina keeping a clean sheet, and once behind, France has the quality to stretch them out and punish them, which we’ve already seen happen. Argentina can go home beaten but with some dignity restored and heart manifested. And with the greatest goal of the 21st Century World Cup for the man whom we will never see in that glorious blue and white jersey again. Long after the grand mal collapse against Croatia has been forgotten by all but the hardcore, Messi's masterpiece will be eternal.
Prediction: France 3 Argentina 1