Big guns brace for knock-out challenge

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi takes part in a training session at the team's base camp in Bronnitsy, on Friday, on the eve of the team's round of sixteen football match against France. AFP

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi take centre stage as the World Cup shifts into high gear at the weekend with the start of the knockout matches in the loaded top half of the draw.

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.

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 have gone home in the biggest shock of the tournament by far.

The standout last-16 tie on paper pits France against Messi and Argentina, two teams who laboured through the group stage.

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.” Messi underlined his importance to Argentina with a sublimely taken opening goal against Nigeria.

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Big guns brace for knock-out challenge

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