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This is usually the time of the tournament where the picture becomes clearer and the wheat gets separated from the chaff. Not so much this time around. We're on Day 8 of the World Cup and the French are only ones to win the first two games and qualify for the knockout stage. I'm Mike Goodman and in today's Golazo Starting XI, we'll take a look at Argentina's near miss, and help you figure out who has the best chance to move through or go home.

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⚽  The Forward Line

Messi kept Argentina from another poor result

Don't be fooled by Argentina's win against Mexico. Saturday's performance showed a team going in the wrong direction. When I previewed Argentina's must-win match, I harped on the point that, defensively, they were fine in their opening match against Saudi Arabia despite conceding two goals. That was important because what Argentina needed not to do against Mexico was become more conservative. Counterintuitive as it seemed, it was their attack that needed to improve. Well, Argentina didn't listen. They came out with an exceedingly defensive approach against Mexico and if it wasn't for Lionel Messi' heroics, it might have cost them their tournament lives.

Five lineup changes were aimed at shoring up their defense. Rotating Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna in at fullback and Guido Rodriguez in at the base of midfield were moves designed to make sure the team was hard to break down. And they worked in so far as Mexico only managed 4 shots for 0.27 expected goals. But the more conservative approach also hamstrung Argentina's attack. The team when from having 15 shots and 2.26 xG against Saudi Arabia to five shots and 0.32 xG against Mexico. That's hustling backwards. And while some of that is surely down to Mexico's own defensive approach, and the fact that they committed a whopping 19 fouls while trying to slow down Argentina is indicative of a side that wanted to play negatively. But Argentina's approach made it easier for Mexico to stifle them.

For years Argentina's approach mirrored what they did against Mexico. Play extremely conservative, don't take any chances whatsoever and have Messi bail you out. And, well, Messi might be the best player in history so he's really good at bailing you out. This approach was almost enough to win the side a World Cup in 2014, so it's obviously not hopeless. But what made this version of Argentina so exciting, and what made Lionel Scaloni's team the second favorite of bookmakers coming into the tournament was that they had largely dropped that game plan in favor of one that was built around getting the most out of their superstar. Instead of defending and letting Messi figure it out they played a possession heavy style built to get the ball to Messi in dangerous areas and let him cook. If Argentina are going to move away from that more aggressive style, then their odds of winning this tournament go down. Messi bailed them out, but even the greatest we've ever seen can't do it every single match.

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🔗  Midfield Link Play

A wonderfully muddled World Cup

Does anybody besides France look like a dominant force at this edition of the World Cup? As this newsletter is going, out 20 out of 32 teams in the tournament have played two matches. Only the French have won both of them. Only a couple more have a chance to join them. Spain, either Brazil or Switzerland when they meet on Monday and Portugal. That leaves us with an exciting last round of group stage matches with most of the 16 spots in the knockout stages still up for grabs, it also leaves us with a tournament where very few sides have distinguished themselves as above the field. 

Let's get to some links:

💰  The Back Lines

Best bets

Let's pick some games! All odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.

  • Brazil vs. Switzerland, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET 
    💰 THE PICK: Anytime goal scorer, Vinicius Junior. (+270). Brazil are so incredibly deep that at this early stage of the tournament, losing Neymar to injury shouldn't slow them down. Without their creative engine, much of the work will now fall to the Real Madrid man who is blossoming into a star in his own right. Before, it was Neymar and a supporting cast of attackers. Without him, look for Vini Jr. to shine.
  • Portugal vs. Uruguay, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET 
    💰 THE PICK: Uruguay (+310). That's a big number for a good Uruguay team. Portugal ultimately rolled Ghana in their opener, but it wasn't a sure thing by any means. And while Portugal are undeniably talented, they play a very conservative game and everybody else sacrifices a lot to feature Cristiano Ronaldo. It's probably not worth it. Playing a close cagey match is playing right into Uruguay's hands. There's enough of a chance that Uruguay steals an ugly goal and holds on to make this bet worth it.