Pogba vs Messi: the battle within the battle

The Round-of-16 fixture between France and Argentina offers Paul Pogba another opportunity to justify his top billing and usurp Lionel Messi.

France's Paul Pogba and Argentina's Lionel Messi

France's Paul Pogba and Argentina's Lionel Messi will be among the key duels at the Kazan Arena   -  AFP/Getty Images

 

One of the reasons we look forward to the latter stages of showpiece tournaments such as the World Cup is the top-bracket players facing off against each other in battles within the battles. 

Whether they influence these matches on their own or leave their imprint one way or another, the Ronaldos, Messis, Neymars, and Pogbas (in no particular order) tend to draw the maximum attention and for good reasons.

Come Saturday, when France faces Argentina for a spot in the quarterfinals, the added focus will be reserved for Paul Pogba and Lionel Messi. One is already at the level that the other and many others are trying to reach. But, what’s true of both Pogba and Messi is that they are match-winners.

Pogba has already had a good World Cup, even though he has nothing to show (in the form of an assist or a goal) for his quality performances against Australia and Peru. The Manchester United midfielder has been involved in all three of France’s goals so far. Maybe N’Golo Kante does after all make a difference to Pogba, freeing him of the defensive responsibility and allowing him to explode as a midfielder.

Messi made an underwhelming start to the quadrennial tournament, missing the penalty that cost Albiceleste two points against Iceland, and his involvement in the match against Croatia was minimal. In a performance so unlike of him, he had only 49 touches of the ball and completed a mere 75 per cent (24 of 32) of his passes. Argentina collectively raised its level, as it had to, against Nigeria, but Messi was also better compared to his performances in the first two matches.

Pogba’s situation is interesting. The Frenchman is not, and does not have to be, the main man for France, in the way Messi probably is for Argentina. Even if Pogba has an off day, Les Bleus has enough players to carry it through. But Pogba’s ability — which he is perceived to not be fulfilling — necessitates that he performs when the stakes are incredibly high, such as on Saturday.

As individuals, Messi and Pogba will square off for the first time since the 2014-15 Champions League final, in which Barcelona and Messi trumped Pogba and Juventus. Great players, by their own admission, measure themselves by the trophies they win. In this regard, Messi and Pogba are almost level in the last three years.

The Champions League trophy, which is the pinnacle of club football, has eluded the Argentine for three seasons now, but he has still secured six domestic titles in Spain during the same period. Pogba is almost on par, having won five trophies with Juventus and Manchester United since the disappointment of Berlin, but his ability warrants more, and on a more consistent basis.

Saturday may be when Pogba, with an all-time great gracing the same pitch as him, will show why he draws such comparisons. And, while Pogba’s prime focus will be on helping France progress, getting the better of Messi in the battle within the battle will be at the back of his mind.

By speaking about the familiarity of some of France’s players — Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Antoine Griezmann, and Ousmanne Dembele, among others, who play for the same club or in the same league as him — Messi has indicated that he is relishing the challenge. 

But, while Pogba has enough of a support cast around him, Messi may be on his own in the quest to take Argentina one step closer to achieving his personal and his country’s 32-year dream.

And whichever way Saturday’s continental tussle plays out, Messi and Pogba may well draw the maximum talking points. 

 

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