After a great group stage, the merciless knockout awaits

Messi opens scoring for Argentina

After 48 games in 15 days, 122 goals, shock exits, red cards and numerous VAR controversies, the number of participants at Russian Federation 2018 has been whittled in half and we're a step closer to knowing who will be crowned world champions.

Etebo completed 5/6 dribbles, 23/32 passes and 4/6 tackles against Argentina.

Argentina scraped through Group D at the World Cup and, prior to the final pool match against Nigeria, in which he scored a brilliant opener, Messi's performances drew criticism.

An absolute bargain at £6.3 million.

Spain was excellent less than 48 hours on from Julen Lopetegui's weird Real Madrid-packaged sacking but has stumbled since, just beating Portugal to top spot in Group B in a breathless, VAR-sozzled final round of fixtures.

The hard-tackling defender and Messi have been club mates for 24 months, but would come face-to face on Saturday, June 30 when France's Les Bleus tackle Argentina's Albiceleste in a round of 16 showdown at the Kazan Arena.

"It's often hard to be at the level of such a great player".

Sampaoli reportedly asked Messi whether he should bring on Sergio Aguero in their eventual 2-1 victory over Nigeria.

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A massive painting of Messi was quickly added to appease their Argentinian guests.

In the aftermath, with emotions running high, Messi announced his retirement from worldwide football on the back of three final defeats in three consecutive years. Well, four goals in his first two games, including a hat trick against Spain, certainly have boosted his credentials in that debate.

However, Benjamin Pavard scored a stunning equaliser in the 57th minute before Mbappe took centre stage with a quick-fire brace, securing Didier Deschamps' side a place in the quarter-finals, where they will play either Uruguay or Portugal. France is set to take on Lionel Messi and Argentina as the high-stakes single-elimination round of the tournament soon begins.

Host nation Russian Federation made a statement in the tournament's first match, trouncing Saudi Arabia.

Can he keep it going against Ronaldo and Portugal in the last 16?

"It will require a team effort to stop them", said Alves. Belgium's Thomas Meunier was the right-back who impressed the most, with his clever through-ball for Romelu Lukaku's second goal in their 5-2 win over Tunisia one of his many fine moments.

The round of 16 fixtures are already scheduled, with the first games starting on Saturday, but before fans are treated to a spectacle in knockout rounds of the tournament, there were some standout players in the group stages who are worth noting.

Burns said: "What we saw was Messi nearly morphing into the kind of ideal Argentine in the sense of the Maradona who leads his men on the pitch".

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