World Cup 2018: Insipid France face their toughest test yet
Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud. The names read like a who's who of attacking football. All stars, all playing for some of the elite clubs in Europe; one would justifiably expect fireworks when they come together for the same team. And yet, all they have delivered so far is a gigantic damp squib, one match after the other.
Yes, France have topped their group comfortably but the football that they have played has been yawn-inducing at best, excruciatingly boring at worst. Most noticeable has been the insipid nature of their attack, which, on paper, is perhaps the most potent of all forward line-ups in this year's World Cup.
The French hit nadir against the Danes in their final group C game in what was a joyless, mirthless and, in the end, a meaningless escapade that produced the only 0-0 result so far of a highly-entertaining World Cup.
Up next, in their first knockout game are Argentina, a team that has been on an emotional roller-coaster in this World Cup but might have resurrected themselves at the right moment.
Too many cooks
So where has it all gone wrong? Coach Didier Deschamps has set up the team in a way where the French ensure that they do not lose first before showing any proclivity for adventure. Maybe his strategy is pragmatic because France have a leaky back-line, but it has led to his forwards being shackled in their approach, denting their creativity and expression.
Another big issue has been that Pogba, Griezmann and Co. are yet to find the right chemistry among themselves, often getting in each other's way or not finding the right pass or the right through ball at the right moment. It is almost a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
The French display has not only lacked soul, it has also looked like a formless mess. Deschamps has struggled to find the right personnel or the right formation in the centre of the park. Only N' Golo Kante, the impressive defensive midfielder, has looked assured in his dual duties of shielding the defence as well as engendering attacks from deep inside his own half
Lionel Messi scored a wonder goal and Argentina pulled off a great escape to reach this stage. They are truly riding a crest while France have been flat-lining for a while now. Football is a form game and La Albiceleste have had an emotional and spiritual churning during the group stages that might well act as the catalyst for success against highly-talented, but a dispirited adversary.
Messi has finally been unleashed in Russia. We only caught a glimpse of his brilliance against Nigeria but his majestic vision, passing, shooting and dribbling might come into full bloom and blow away France in Kazan on Saturday. Not to forget, after France, Argentina have the best set of forwards in this World Cup with Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero, Cristian Pavon, Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega and Gonzalo Higuain all proven match-winners on their day.
The French stars need to find their cohesion soon. The world expects them to play beautifully, hey would rather play effectively, but maybe the effect lies in the beauty. For now, though, the scales tilt towards Argentina.