Group C topper Argentina will face Group D runner-up Australia in its Round of 16 match on December 4.
While Argentina will start the match as favourites, Australia has shown that it is capable of competing with teams stronger on paper.
Ahead of the match, here are three key battles to look out for in the match.
Harry Souttar vs Lionel Messi
Australia’s backline will have a monumental task ahead of them in the Round of 16 knockout match against Argentina. With La Albiceleste having a vast arsenal of attacking players, Lionel Messi’s name stands out as the one who is likely to pose the maximum amount of danger.
Harry Souttar will be a central figure in the Australian defence and will be tasked with stopping Messi. Souttar has been a dependable figure in the Socceroos’ defence and has been solid for his team in the group stages.
Souttar has had 13 recoveries throughout the group stages so far, which speaks a lot about his ability to snatch the ball. Against Messi, he will face a player who, on his day, is almost impossible to dispossess.
Apart from marking Messi in close control situations, Souttar will also need to be aware of not giving the Argentine too much time on the ball. Messi’s playmaking has been elite in recent times, and his tendency to make line-breaking passes will be something Souttar will need to be aware of.
On paper, Messi seems to have the edge over Souttar in this battle. With two goals in the tournament, he has also created six chances from open play and has attempted 19 take-ons with a success rate of 42%. However, Argentina’s loss against Saudi Arabia proves that quality on paper is not absolute. Souttar had a mammoth task ahead of him, but he might just take everyone by surprise.
Marcos Acuna vs Mathew Leckie
Mathew Leckie is one of the biggest names in the Australian team. It was his goal against Denmark that put Australia through to the Round of 16.
Leckie has a goal and an assist for Australia in the group stages and has been one of the Socceroos’ most dangerous players. Mainly operating from the right-flank, Leckie will most likely come up against Argentina left-back Marcos Acuna.
When it comes to form, Acuna has not been at his best and has looked vulnerable at times throughout the group stages. In his 168 minutes played for Argentina, Acuna has won just three tackles and made six recoveries in the defensive phase of play.
While the player has experience on his side, current form suggests that Acuna will have a tough time coping with Leckie, who will start the match with high confidence after scoring the telling goal that got Australia through. Leckie, who is known to be quick and agile can put Acuna under pressure with his pace and skill on the ball.
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Also, Leckie has a dogged personality off the ball. Despite being a winger, he has made 16 recoveries, 10 more than Acuna. Therefore, Acuna can be rest-assured that even if he manages to dispossess Leckie, the latter won’t give up easily and will constantly hound Acuna. Acuna’s best bet is to release the ball quickly to avoid the risk of getting dispossessed, especially in dangerous areas.
Jackson Irvine vs Enzo Fernandez
Jackson Irvine has not yet scored or assisted for Australia despite having 50 appearances for his country. However, he remains of the most important players for the Socceroos. His creativity in the middle of the park is an asset to have and it is his dedication on and off the ball that makes him an important player for Graham Arnold.
Enzo Fernandez has been having a dream run for Argentina so far. The 21-year-old scored Argentina’s second goal against Mexico and assisted Julian Alvarez for his country’s second goal against Poland.
Given Fernandez’s form, it is tough to see him not start a crucial Round of 16 matches. If he does, he is bound to come up against Irvine in midfield. The Irvine vs Fernandez will be a youth vs experience battle.
While Enzo has form and statistical superiority, experience is something that cannot be negated in tense knockout matches. Both Enzo and Irvine are hard workers off the ball with almost similar recovery stats- Irvine has 10 and Enzo has eight. However, the difference between the minutes played is in Irvine’s favour, as the Australian has played 265 minutes compared to 143.
In the attacking phase of play, Enzo has created two chances compared to Irvine’s one. With such closely-contested stats, it will be a battle to watch in the middle of the park.