France coach Didier Deschamps has insisted ahead of Saturday’s World Cup last-16 clash with Argentina that the South Americans are more than just superstar Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona legend has only managed one goal so far in Russia, which came in the decisive 2-1 Group D win over Nigeria in St Petersburg and set up the French encounter.
Les Bleus topped Group C, despite a dour 0-0 draw with second-placed Denmark in the third match, and the pressure is on to greatly improve against Argentina.
Speaking at a prematch news conference in Kazan, where France started their campaign with a 2-1 win over Australia, Deschamps rejected the idea that his young side silencing Messi this weekend will be enough to defeat La Albiceleste.
“Lionel Messi is Lionel Messi,” said the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship-winning former captain. “You only have to look at his statistics — 65 goals from 127 matches — to know everything.
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“We absolutely must neutralise Messi, because he can make the difference. However, there is not only Messi.
“France is a young team, which is not an excuse — it is the reality. That does not stop us from being competitive, though.”
Deschamps rejected the idea of an “anti-Messi plan,” but does want his players to keep him as quiet as possible.
“It is not just about Messi, even if his number of goals and assists show that he is very influential,” the French tactician said. “‘Plan’ is a big word, but of course we will try to limit his influence.”
Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti and Atletico Madrid’s Lucas Hernandez all play in La Liga, so know Messi well, and Deschamps hopes that experience comes in handy.
“I hope that I can answer in the affirmative after the match,” he said. “It will not hurt to have come up against Messi before, but that is not what will make the difference.
“Situations can arise related to his position on the pitch, while his talent can obviously spark things — Messi can be unpredictable.”
Asked about Antoine Griezmann’s slow start to the World Cup, Deschamps emphasised that the Atletico man is working hard to get back to his best, and he also recognised Kylian Mbappe’s improved defensive effort against Peru after the Australia opener.
“Obviously, the team needs Antoine at his best — he is doing everything possible to make that happen,” said Deschamps. “Kylian was freer in the first game, but that did not make him more dangerous.
“Kylian did more defensively in the second match, scored and could have grabbed another — there is a collective mindset when we do not have the ball and that concerns everybody.”
Asked about comparisons between Mbappe and Messi, France captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said it is impossible to compare the Argentina and Barcelona star to anybody else in the game.
“Messi is unique, you cannot compare another player with Messi,” the Tottenham Hotspur man said. “Kylian has great quality and great potential — I think that he will get a bit more space against Argentina than he did in the group stage.
“The higher the level, the smaller the margin for error. Kylian is able to make the difference in big moments and I hope that will be the case here.”
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.