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Four things to look out for as knockout rounds begin in Russia

By Sportswriter Paul Giblin MOSCOW Russia (Xinhua) -- So now it gets really serious. The knockout stages of the World Cup start on Saturday with teams looking to book their places in the quarterfinals. Here are four things to keep an eye out for as France play Argentina, while Uruguay takes on Portugal.

·         Can Messi do it again?

Lionel Messi scored and was more involved as Argentina put Diego Maradona’s arteries to the test with a narrow 2-1 win over Nigeria to qualify for the last 16. It may have been a “great escape” for the Argentineans and the players may look happier in the system, but it shouldn’t hide the fact that although they improved against Nigeria, a team with Enzo Perez and Javier Mascherano in the engine room probably isn’t going to win the World Cup. Messi will have to be at his very best if they are to get past France, who are much better than the Nigerians.

·         Kante and Pogba vital for France

France against Argentina is the first really big game of the World Cup finals, two historic footballing nations meeting in the last 16. France go into the match after a relatively comfortable group stage and after resting players in their last group match. They look to be improving after a slightly unconvincing start. They have pace and power in attack and a nicely balanced defense, but it is in the midfield where this game could be won. If N’golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba impose themselves on Mascherano, Perez and Ever Banega then Messi or no Messi, France should be able to qualify.

·         Portugal and Uruguay to keep it tight

European champions Portugal qualified for the last 16 after an unconvincing group stage in which they tried to repeat the “solid defense and pace-on-the-break” strategy that won them the 2016 European Championship. A narrow victory against Morocco was their only win in their first three matches and they will have to improve against Uruguay, who are unlikely to allow spaces behind their defense. It may be a game for Ronaldo to try his luck from outside the penalty area.

·         Uruguay: ugly but effective

Before their 3-0 win over Russia the talk in the Uruguayan press was that the side may have beaten Egypt 1-0 and Saudi Arabia 1-0, but they were hardly very impressive. Uruguay may have looked disjointed going forward, but they were imposing in defense and hardly gave their rivals a chance in their first two games. Uruguay have yet to concede a goal in Russia, although going forward they have relied mainly on set pieces to score their goals. Don’t expect that to change against a Portugal side unlikely to throw caution to the wind. This could be the first game that goes into extra time.

             

 

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