Argentina vs France
The Semi Finals
Argentina ended Croatia’s chances of second consecutive World Cup final with what turned out to be a comprehensive victory. Lionel Scaloni’s men didn’t see much of the ball for the opening half an hour but were comfortable defending against the toothless Croats. Lionel Messi then took centre stage, as he has all tournament, scoring from the penalty spot and helping set up two goals for also-excellent Julian Alvarez. The third and final goal produced a vintage Messi moment that will be replayed for years to come and live on in the annals of football. Joško Gvardiol has arguably been the best defender at this World Cup, but he was turned inside-out by the mercurial Messi.
France eventually saw off a wounded and spirited Morocco, who were bidding to become the first African nation to reach a World Cup final. The reigning champions scored a crucial early goal through Theo Hernandez, against a side that had previously not conceded to an opposition player in Qatar. It was another game where Didier Deschamps’ men produced moments rather than a broadly consistent performance. The Atlas Lions came back into the game and had the French under real pressure for long periods until substitute Randal Kolo Muani finished the job late on.
The Dream Final
Truthfully, this is the final that most neutrals wanted. Despite the love affair with Morocco making history for Africa and the Arab world or the admiration for a spirited Croatia side defying the odds to make the last four again, there is nothing like when two traditional giants of international football square off for the ultimate prize in sport. There are so many storylines and subplots to explore in this mammoth contest.
In a tournament that has been shrouded in controversy and cynicism, Lionel Messi has reminded everyone of the romantic side of the beautiful game. It seems almost written in the stars that arguably the greatest player of all time will leave no doubt after lifting the World Cup in his final foray on the international stage. Messi has rolled back the years and lit up the tournament with increasingly awe-inspiring performances at the age of 35, when many thought his powers were on the wane.
Whatever happens in the final, no one will forget the magical moments that Messi has produced in Qatar, or the indelible impression he has left on the sport overall. Victory, however, will not only likely end the peer review with Cristiano Ronaldo but also see him step out of the shadows of another legendary Argentine Number 10, Diego Armando Maradona.
It hasn’t all been about Messi’s mesmeric displays on the pitch, the Argentina skipper has shown real leadership, along with an edge to his character that Maradona had and many have accused him of lacking. He has also projected the single-minded determination and desire to win at all costs that Ronaldo has. Everything seems to be set up perfectly for him to become the undisputed GOAT of football.
While most neutrals would love to see Messi cap off his career in style, sport and life doesn’t always produce happy endings. Father time waits for no man and all great players eventually have to make way for a new generation. This final could represent the symbolic passing of the torch. Kylian Mbappe is still only in the early stages of his footballing journey at 23 years old but is already chasing history and would become the youngest player behind the iconic Pelé to win two World Cups. He has already shown the ability and swagger to perform on this stage, scoring two decisive goals to knock Argentina out in 2018 and then striking again in the final.
“Champ champ” was a phrase coined by UFC star Conor McGregor after winning his second world title and France could become only the third side in history to become double world champions, the first since Brazil in 1962. Didier Deschamps has the opportunity to become only the second manager to win back-to-back World Cups after Vittorio Pozzo for Italy in the 1930s. His goalkeeper Hugo Lloris would become the first ever captain to lift the Jules Rimet trophy twice. Deschamps hasn’t always been the most popular coach among the French supporters, despite also skippering the nation to their first ever world glory in 1998. His tactics are often seen as slightly too negative for the talent pool he has at his disposal, but no one can argue with the results he’s produced over the past decade in charge of Les Bleus.
France Keys to Victory
Score First – Since their shock opening defeat to Saudi Arabia, Argentina have gone at least two goals ahead in all their subsequent games and been successful. They haven’t had to come from behind and show real resilience. Meanwhile, the French have won their last 10 World Cup matches after taking the lead. Deschamps’ side have been passive at times during this tournament, but it would serve them well to take the game by the scruff of the neck from the outset.
Limit Messi – Messi has proved in this World Cup and throughout his career that you can almost never completely stop him, so France will have to work hard to simply reduce his influence on the game. Aurélien Tchouaméni has had an excellent tournament so far in the heart of midfield, but this will be the toughest test of his young career so far. He, alongside Adrien Rabiot, will be tasked with patrolling the pockets of space that Messi likes to drop into, between the lines of the French defence and midfield. Left-back Theo Hernandez will also have to quell his natural attacking instincts at times to track Messi’s inward runs from the right flank. An unenviable task.
Free Griezmann – Mbappe may be the star name, but Antoine Griezmann has been arguably France’s most influential player overall. He has flourished in a more creative, deeper role but was perhaps slightly too deep at times in the semi-final against Morocco. While his defensive work was admirable and necessary, he is much greater served being at the top end of the pitch. Griezmann has created the most chances at this World Cup with 21, three more than the great Messi.
Variation – Argentina showed a weakness in their quarter-final against the Netherlands when Louis van Gaal threw on two big strikers and went direct with long balls, set-plays or crosses, eventually resulting in two late goals for Wout Weghorst. Olivier Giroud gives France that option and is a much better overall player than someone like Weghorst. The Milan centre-forward can not only cause problems with his physicality and aerial prowess, but he also provides some sublime link play. He already has four goals at this World Cup, including the winning header against England in the quarter-final, and will still have an eye on the Golden Boot.
Argentina Keys to Victory
Messi – Not much more can be said about him. He is the difference between success and failure for Argentina in this final. Midfielders like Enzo Fernandez, Rodrigo de Paul and Alexis Mac Allister can be creative influences on their day, but their main job will be to work hard to create space for Messi to work his magic.
Exploit Mbappe – England and Morocco both proved that Mbappe can be stopped to an extent, but neither were really able to take it a step further and exploit the space he vacates on the left flank. Mbappe rarely tracks back, and Theo Hernandez is a very attacking left-back so there are bound to be moments where Argentina can get in behind down that side. Messi likes to operate in the half-spaces on the right and La Albiceleste can really hurt the French in those areas.
Use the Crowd – Along with Morocco, Argentina have had the best support in the entire tournament. It’s expected to be a partisan crowd at the Lusail Iconic Stadium and a hostile atmosphere for the French to have to deal with.
French Illness – There were rumours that the reported sickness bug in the French camp was just a mind game by Didier Deschamps ahead of the semi-final against Morocco, but the fact that Adrien Rabiot didn’t make the squad and Dayot Upamecano was only well enough for the bench suggests otherwise. Both are expected to return for the final but there are now concerns over Raphaël Varane, Ibrahima Konaté and Kingsley Coman. Coman has returned to training and isn’t a first-choice starter anyway, but potentially missing centre-back pairing Varane and Konaté would be a big problem for Deschamps.
Argentine Ill-Discipline – While they were on slightly better behaviour in the semi-final against Croatia, the bad-tempered quarter-final against the Dutch remains fresh in the memory. Argentina have some hot-headed characters in their squad and even the usually placid Lionel Messi got involved in the mayhem and histrionics. Finals bring a whole new level of pressure and it might come down to who is able to keep their composure the best. France proved they could do it four years ago.
Argentina 1-2 France
Most people’s hearts are with Argentina and Messi, but the smart choice would probably be France. Their experience of lifting the trophy previously and overall edge in quality should see them through.
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