In a World Cup that borders on the stupendous and the miraculous, with narratives on and off the pitch around every corner, Qatar 2022 has the organizers of the final tournament and the fans could only have recorded their dreams. In one corner, France: the defending champions, Europe’s current powerhouse, a well-oiled machine with a king waiting for their key asset on the left. On the other, Argentina: the adaptable and resilient champions of South America, feeding off a story that can only end one way, surely? – To the best player of his generation and his captain as he retires from his fifth and final World Cup on the grandest stage.
However, what is even more amazing is that these two have been here before. Not in World Cup folklore, which doesn’t go back to black and white, but in recent memory. How about the highlight game of the last World Cup, four and a half years ago in Russia? That’s right, that absolute wonder of a football game. Portrayed as a changing of the guard afterwards, it’s worth looking into: how much has really changed since France’s 4-3 win? Has that changing of the guard really changed? Or is it perhaps that everything is coming full circle?
All eyes were on Kazan when two of the tournament’s leading contenders collided in a mouth-watering round of 16 contest. France, still reeling two years after their agonizing loss to Portugal in the final of a European Championship they hosted, was here to make amends. To do good in its potential. This was her time.
Argentina, for its part, had stuttered and stumbled in the knockout phase, after a beating from Croatia with Marcos Rojo, remember? – saving his skin in the dying moments against Nigeria. It had all the makings of an all-time classic and delivered in the most striking way.
From the start, Kylian Mbappe – who then, at 19, was still rising on a world stage despite his €200m (£174m) move to PSG the previous summer – grabbed the game by the neck. Breaking from inside his own half, galloping past Nicolás Tagliafico and Javier Mascherano, Rojo pulled him down for a penalty, with Antoine Griezmann converting from the penalty spot.
In dark blue, then, there are some protagonists like this. Griezmann, for his part, has starred and agitated in Qatar, taking over in the same way he did in 2018. Having lived through a torrid period with his club amid clauses and conflicts between Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, representing The Blues it is their safe haven and, fulfilling their number 10 role from perhaps a little deeper than in Russia, they remain France’s architect in attack.
On the other hand, only Tagliafico and Nicolás Otamendi remain from the Argentine defense that was torn to shreds that day in Russia. Goalkeeper Franco Armani has been updated with Emiliano Martínez, with Rojo moved by Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martínez. At right-back, Gabriel Mercado is no match for the impressive Nahuel Molina in this tournament.
But could Lionel Messi, in his fourth World Cup but struggling to reach his best form, inspire a comeback? Kind of. Sooner, it was Ángel Di María, who has been in and out of the team in Qatar, who leveled them, unleashing a 30-yard peach from a left-footed shot into the top corner. After half-time, Messi’s twist and shot deflected rather fortuitously off Mercado to give Argentina a stunning 48th-minute lead.
Now let’s move on to the troublemakers on the side of France. Lucas Hernández, who had his 2022 World Cup so cruelly cut short after tearing his ACL 13 minutes into their opener against Australia and has been replaced by his younger brother Theo, crossed from left and right-back Benjamin Pavard deliciously tapped the outside of his foot into the top corner. Voted goal of the tournament, this year Pavard was ruled out after that opening win and has not featured since, with Jules Kounde substituting. Mysterious.
With half an hour to go, the score two apiece, Mbappe reasserted his dominance over the contest. A quick touch and finish from a Hernandez cross saw France retake the lead before Olivier Giroud – nothing has changed here – encouraged the teenager to score for the first time to give France a breather. All in the space of four minutes.
Argentina fought to the last, with Messi’s cross for substitute Sergio Agüero, who withdrew last year due to a heart problem, to head in with minutes to go, but finally, it was France’s day. As the full-time whistle blew, Messi bowed his head as Mbappé stood with his fist raised.
It was the spark that ignited the tournament and France’s path to victory. Didier Deschamps, still the boss, became the third man to lift the World Cup as player and coach, while Jorge Sampaoli was stepped aside for assistant Lionel Scaloni, who presided over an Argentine renaissance.
In general, Argentina has revolutionized more than its counterparts. It’s understandable, given the result of the day. While five starters from France are in line to retire on Sunday, it’s likely just three from Argentina. All midfield for La Albiceleste it has changed, although the same can be said of France, which has coped brilliantly without Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante in recent weeks. However, despite all the changes, the captains remain the same: Hugo Lloris for France, Messi for Argentina.
What about the two stars of the show? Well, Mbappé and Messi are now teammates at Paris Saint-Germain, which adds an extra dimension to Sunday, a team owned by Qatar Sports Investments. The Argentine has added to his Ballon d’Or haul, only seven and still seven ahead of Mbappe, and has thrown off the major international tournament overalls after a triumphant trip to the Copa América last year; more of a relief than a celebration.
Now, however, football immortality is within his grasp. A match to cement his legend. The boy from Rosario, who has dribbled dazzlingly and has hallucinated his way to world stardom, left with one more place in his trophy case and one last chance to occupy it.
However, once again, it is France and Mbappé who stand in Messi’s way. His 1,003rd party -640 more than Mbappé, 12 years younger than him- will define his legacy. Hard in many ways; quite adequate in other respects. However, for four years, a game marked as a changing of the guard has in many ways shown the opposite. However, on Sunday night, at the Lusail bowl in the desert, Mbappe has a chance to properly cement his ascension, while Messi has a chance to return to his throne for the last time.
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