Fleet-footed France will have to find a way past the tournament’s joint-meanest defenders Uruguay in the first of two inter-continental World Cup quarter-finals on Friday.
The South Americans kept Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo at bay in their 2-1 last-16 win, and that goal conceded was the only one against them so far in Russia – a defensive feat only matched by Brazil, who play Belgium later on Friday.
But France banged in four goals in their last 16 game against Argentina, and will be hoping their formidable attacking trio of Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe can turn it on again at the Nizhny Novgorod stadium.
Nineteen-year-old Mbappe scored two goals in the Argentina game, becoming the first teenager since Brazilian great Pele in the 1958 final to score two goals in one World Cup match.
But it was his amazing 70-metre sprint earlier in the match, to win France a penalty, that stunned viewers worldwide.
“I was wondering whether he was riding a scooter,” joked France midfielder Florian Thauvin of the teenager whom Uruguay’s defenders must be having nightmares about.
On the surface, though, Uruguay look relaxed and their experienced central defenders Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin are relishing the chance to foil both Mbappe and their friend and Atletico Madrid team mate Griezmann.
“We want to deny them space, stop them playing, make their strikers uncomfortable – that’s our weapon,” said midfielder Diego Laxalt at the Uruguay camp in a hotel outside Nizhny Novgorod which, oddly, is painted in the colours of Brazil.
With an impressive strike partnership of their own in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayans believe they can surpass their most recent best of a semi-final in 2010 – though Cavani is sweating on a calf injury that may keep him out.
‘Les Bleus’ will be inspired by the two-decade anniversary of their only World Cup win in 1998, while double winners Uruguay’s modern generation are desperate to recreate the black-and-white-era glories of their 1930 and 1950 trophies.
The winners will play Brazil or Belgium, who meet in their quarter-final in Kazan on Friday evening, for a place in the July 15 final.