FIFA World Cup 2018: Messi, Ronaldo set for the knockout round

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Messi, Ronaldo Set for the Knockout Round 

FIFA World Cup 2018: Messi, Ronaldo Set for the Knockout Round
France and Argentina would face-off in the round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup 2018. Image Courtesy: Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will take centre stage, as the FIFA World Cup 2018 shifts into high gear at the weekend. The knockout matches to begin on Saturday with Messi’s Argentina to face France in the first game.

Messi-Ronaldo to add fireworks on Saturday evening in Russia

Football heavyweights France, Argentina, Portugal and Brazil are all clustered in one section of the competition, with only Spain among recent winners in the other half.

FIFA World Cup 2018
FIFA World Cup 2018 saw the biggest setback when Korea bowed Germany out of the WC in the group stages itself. Image Courtesy: Getty Images

The unbalanced nature of the knockout phase sparked debate ahead of Thursday’s England-Belgium group match was it better to win, and enter the tougher side of the draw or lose and face potentially easier fixtures down the line?

In the event, third-ranked Belgium won, adding even more firepower to the top half, while if England can get past Colombia, they will fancy their chances of reaching a potential semi-final against 2010 winners, Spain.

The first phase in Russia featured just one goalless draw and already a record number of penalties, with the video assistant referee (VAR) often in the spotlight.

Of the half-dozen winners of the trophy since 1970, Germany had gone home in the biggest shock of the tournament by far while, Italy never even qualified for Russia. The standout last-16 tie on paper pits France against Messi and Argentina, two teams who laboured through the group stage.

Lionel Messi
BRONNITSY, RUSSIA – JUNE 29: Lionel Messi of Argentina looks on during a training session at Stadium of Syroyezhkin sports school on June 28, 2018 in Bronnitsy, Russia. (Photo by Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images)

France to start as favourites against Argentina

France are packed with firepower, boasting Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud, but they have failed to click so far, finding the net just three times in three matches — one of those was a penalty and another an own goal.

“A whole new competition begins now, direct elimination,” said manager Didier Deschamps. “We got what we wanted. Now the mountain looms up in front of us, but we’re there, and we’re aiming to get through to the next round after that.”

Five-time world player of the year, Messi underlined his importance to Argentina with a sublimely taken opening goal against Nigeria; but that came after his penalty miss against Iceland in a lacklustre 1-1 draw. That set the tone for a disappointing campaign so far.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, started his tournament with a hat-trick against Spain. But he has now slipped behind England’s Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot after seeing his penalty saved in Portugal’s 1-1 draw with Iran. The Real Madrid star, who has four goals in Russia and looks certain to be crowned world player of the year for the sixth time.

Ronaldo will come up against a tight Uruguay defence that did not concede a single goal in the group phase. Aside from their watertight defence, two-time winners Uruguay boast two of the greatest goal-scorers of their generation in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

The Uruguayans are aware that Ronaldo is not the only threat for the European champions — he is supported by younger talents such as Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes.

“We will mark him with the same respect we mark everyone, despite him being a superstar,” said Sebastian Coates of Ronaldo. “You don’t prepare a match just looking at one player.”

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