Messi vs. France with Maradona watch­ing

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Ben Nuckols

MOSCOW » No mat­ter what Lionel Messi does at the World Cup, Diego Maradona will be watch­ing.

With FIFA’s in-sta­dium cam­eras cut­ting to Maradona’s ev­ery out­size re­ac­tion and the an­tics of Ar­gentina’s big­gest World Cup hero gen­er­at­ing breath­less me­dia at­ten­tion, Maradona is an in­escapable part of what could be Messi’s fi­nal World Cup. He’s sure to be emo­tional in the stands again on Satur­day when Ar­gentina be­gins the round of 16 against a tal­ented France squad.

Messi’s club ca­reer has far eclipsed Maradona’s. He’s a five-time FIFA Player of the Year, has led Barcelona to three Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles and holds a long list of scor­ing records, in­clud­ing the most goals in a club sea­son — 73 in 2011-12.

But Maradona led Ar­gentina to its last World Cup ti­tle, in 1986, and Messi has a rep­u­ta­tion — fairly earned or not — for fail­ing to come through for his na­tional team in the big­gest mo­ments. Maradona is at­tend­ing this year’s World Cup as a FIFA am­bas­sador, and he’s the sub­ject of an in-pro­duc­tion doc­u­men­tary by Asif Ka­pa­dia, di­rec­tor of ac­claimed films about For­mula One driver Ayr­ton Senna and singer Amy Wine­house.

Only a cham­pi­onship would al­low Messi to fully es­cape Maradona’s shadow. At 31, an age when many play­ers be­gin to de­cline, the pres­sure on him is im­mense. And it showed when he missed a penalty kick in Ar­gentina’s open­ing draw against Ice­land. He got his first goal of the tour­na­ment in the 2-1 win over Nige­ria that put Ar­gentina into the sec­ond round.

“I don’t re­mem­ber ever hav­ing suf­fered as much, with the sit­u­a­tion, with what was in play,” Messi said after the vic­tory.

This year’s Ar­gentina team has shown signs of dys­func­tion and an out­size de­pen­dence on Messi, who even ap­peared to be giv­ing em­bat­tled coach Jorge Sam­paoli ad­vice about in-game sub­sti­tu­tions. Ar­gentina al­lowed at least one goal in all of its matches, in­clud­ing a dispir­it­ing 3-0 loss to Croa­tia. Now it must find a way to sti­fle France, which has a greater va­ri­ety of at­tack­ing tal­ent. France has its own prob­lems. The team has lacked co­he­sion and the of­fen­sive stars have yet to shine. Its vic­to­ries against Aus­tralia and Peru were far from de­ci­sive. Then France and Den­mark kicked the ball around dis­in­ter­est­edly in a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial 0-0 draw that al­lowed both teams to ad­vance.

France has never lost in the World Cup round of 16, mak­ing it through in 1986, 1998 (when it won the ti­tle), 2006 and 2014.

The teams open the knock­out rounds at 5 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT, 1400 GMT) Satur­day in Kazan. URUGUAY VS. POR­TU­GAL » p.m. EDT, 1800 GMT)

Messi’s long­time ri­val, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, has not been shy about em­brac­ing what could be his fi­nal World Cup, scor­ing four goals and car­ry­ing his team to vic­to­ries in its first two matches. And Messi’s Barcelona team­mate, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez — who bit an op­po­nent at the pre­vi­ous World Cup — has shined in Rus­sia while keep­ing his teeth to him­self.

Uruguay’s de­fense might be a big­ger prob­lem for Ron­aldo and Por­tu­gal 9 p.m. (2 when the teams meet in Sochi.

La Ce­leste have yet to al­low a goal, their back line an­chored by cap­tain Diego Godin and his Atletico Madrid team­mate Jose Maria Gimenez, who missed the squad’s fi­nal group game against Rus­sia with a thigh in­jury. Gimenez has re­turned to train­ing and could be avail­able to play against Por­tu­gal and his fa­mil­iar Real Madrid ad­ver­sary.

“We know that in 2018 they haven’t lost any of their six games and didn’t con­cede any goals,” Por­tu­gal right back Cedric Soares said. “That is some­thing to pay at­ten­tion. It’s a team that has qual­ity.”

The last time Uruguay al­lowed a goal was in a 4-2 vic­tory over Bo­livia in World Cup qual­i­fy­ing last Oc­to­ber.

Un­like Messi, Ron­aldo has led Por­tu­gal to an in­ter­na­tional ti­tle, the 2016 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship, and at 33 the fa­nat­i­cally well-con­di­tioned player still ap­pears to have the phys­i­cal gifts of his youth.

Whether he can break through against Uruguay will de­ter­mine Ron­aldo’s World Cup le­gacy. But his­tory weighs less heav­ily on him than on Messi, the ben­e­fit of play­ing for a smaller na­tion that’s never reached a World Cup fi­nal.

RI­CARDO MAZA­LAN — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mar­cos Rojo, right, and Lionel Messi jog dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion of Ar­gentina at the 2018 soc­cer World Cup in Bron­nitsy, Rus­sia, Thurs­day.

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