World Cup's serious contenders take centre-stage
But axe is about to fall on two from Argentina, Uruguay, Portugal and France
Lionel Messi: Wonderful goal against Nigeria showed Argentina’s star is still capable of delivering the goods on the biggest stage. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA
It is now, as the Russians apparently say, about becoming a master or a deadman. And all but one of the teams that remain at this World Cup must ultimately perish.
Already city streets across this vast nation have been emptied of Peruvian and Panamanian fans, the Icelandic Thunder Clap is just a distant echo and the minnows, like the mighty Germans, have been sent home. A little of the colour has been lost, you might argue, but things are about to get a good deal more serious.
The group stages weren’t bad to be fair. The 48 games, three quarter of the total, produced an average of two-and-a-half goals apiece and there was just one with none. The most memorable encounter, Portugal’s with Spain, came early but there was plenty of excitement as the axe loomed and big teams desperately sought to avoid making an early exit.
“They were all able to do something to save themselves except us,” German defender Mats Hummels observed sadly on Wednesday.
In the case of Argentina, that something was rather spectacular. Lionel Messi’s goal against Nigeria was one of the tournament highlights so far but Brazil got back on course after a slow start and, having scored six against against one of the weakest sides in their second appearance, English expectations have somehow escaped the earth’s gravitational pull.
If you step outside and glance up into the night sky this evening, you might spot them hurtling past like some modern-day Sputnik, the original Soviet satellite. Its mission back in 1957 lasted 21 days before it burnt up – re-entering the earth’s atmosphere which, without wanting to seem cruel, sounds about right.
The Russians themselves have been great hosts although it seems unlikely that we will be kept awake into the early hours by the drunken chants of “Rah-see-yah!” after their game with Spain on Sunday.
These, in any case, are the days when the teams with title pretensions are supposed to stand up and be counted. That one half of the draw is rather more crowded with contenders looking to elbow opponents out of the way than the other might only add to the entertainment.
It does mean, though, that a couple of big names will be packing their bags by close of business this evening with Portugal and France, champions and runners-up in the European Championships two years ago, set to take on Uruguay and Argentina respectively.
“From now on it is different,” observed Didier Deschamps at his pre-match press conference between Gallic shrugs. “If you are beaten you are knocked out. We have seen it in the Euros. Some teams played very well in the group stages but suddenly they went home.”
Coaches’ careers can be altered forever, ended even, by a premature exit but Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli looked more like a man destined for some sort of protection programme after his side’s second game, a rather comprehensive drubbing during which the majority of his players’ heads went down and Messi’s seemed to be somewhere else entirely.
The Barcelona star bounced back back, though, suddenly making Argentina contenders again and sparing Sampaoli the scorn of Diego Maradona for a little while at least.
Both of the managers’ press conferences were, somewhat inevitably, dominated by talk of the 30-year-old star, although probably the most illuminating thing Deschamps seemed to have to say on the topic was that “Messi is Messi”.
His opposite number had to deny t he is taking orders from his superstar rather than giving them these days but few in the camp or back at home will care if the team keeps winning now.
“Argentina will play an aggressive style of football,” said their coach of their approach to this game. “We will be completely committed. I have a lot of confidence in the power and skill of my players to control the pace of the game.
“If we do it well then it will be a good day for us but if France finds the space to hurt us then it will be a difficult match us. Of course they will have a plan to stop Messi but we have a plan to make life easier for him. We will see who has the better plan.”
For France, victory might well require Deschamps to finally get the best out of both Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann on the same day. He has not managed it yet in Russia but there are many who believe that encountering a side that wants to come out and play will rather suit them.
It is, in any case, as they say around here, a poor dancer who is impeded by his own balls.