Argentina v France preview: Messi to finally realise World Cup dreams by breaking holders’ hearts

Reigning world champions France take on Copa America kings Argentina in a glittering final, an occasion between two confident sides which will prove to be a close run affair. It may take a touch of Messi magic to achieve his long-held ambition of World Cup glory today, kick-off 3pm, writes Rachel Roberts.

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After a dramatic month of football, the World Cup final has finally arrived. For all the upsets this tournament has produced, it is ultimately two of the early favourites who have prevailed, and now these Argentinean and French players are a game away from achieving football immortality. Overcoming a talented and experienced French side is no easy feat, but surely now is Lionel Messi’s time to make history at the Lusail stadium.

Whether it is Messi or Kylian Mbappe who gets his hands on the trophy, history will be made either way. For Messi, this is his final chance to win the biggest accolade of all for his beloved nation. He has fallen short at the final hurdle before, losing the 2014 final to Germany 1-0, but finally achieved international glory last summer as he led Argentina to the Copa America title.

Now he has the opportunity to emulate Diego Maradona, and take his country to the global summit of football for the first time in 36 years, capping off his own illustrious career with the greatest honour of all.

Yet, as one player enters the twilight of their career, another’s is only at its beginning. Mbappe had already won the World Cup aged 19, placing himself alongside Pele as one of the youngest players ever to achieve the feat. As the Brazil legend did, the Frenchman will be hoping to claim back-to-back titles.

To do so, on the eve of his 24th birthday, would make France only the third country in history to retain the World Cup, alongside Italy in the 1930s, and Pele’s Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Les Bleus’ glory is far more recent. Their first world title was won in 1998 on home soil, so to add a third star to their shirts so soon after the second would be a spectacular achievement.

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The run to the final

Both teams have similar records throughout the tournament, each registering five wins and one surprising group stage defeat. Since losing their opening match to Saudi Arabia 2-1, Argentina have had a relatively comfortable run to the final, beating both Mexico and Poland 2-0 in Group C.

Their most challenging fixture, and one of the games of the tournament, was their fiery 2-2 quarter-final clash against the Netherlands – a match which saw 18 yellow cards as tempers flared amidst the late drama. It took a penalty shootout to see them through, with keeper Emiliano Martinez producing two stunning saves to send his country through. Such heroics may be needed again if this final is to go all the way.

For France, it was a stubborn Tunisia team who held on to a 1-0 win to hand the finalists their only defeat of the tournament in the last of the group stage games. Goals poured in for their competition opener, a 4-1 win against Australia, whilst they held off Denmark 2-1 to finish top of Group D. It was again the quarter-final stage which produced one of the most exciting games of the tournament – a well-matched and closely fought contest against England, but it was Les Bleus, powered by an Olivier Giroud winner, who were able to win 2-1 to keep their dream alive. Don’t put it past France’s men’s record goalcorer to produce more of the same on the biggest stage of all.

Key battles

Tactics – France’s all-out attack v Argentina’s defensive counter:

Both teams are well matched, with France outscoring Argentina only by one goal, 12 to 13. Each have conceded five goals too, so there are defensive frailties for the other to exploit. However, it is unlikely that either side will change the style of play that has seen them make it this far.

France’s attacking tactics place great importance on the role of Antoine Griezmann in midfield, as his creativity and link-up play delivers the ball to Giroud and Mbappe. His performances have been some of the standouts of this tournament. Therefore, it will be the mission of Argentina’s likely midfield three of Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister to contain him.

Containment has been the basis of La Albiceleste’s play. Defensively, they have had a solid set-up paired with a midfield of workhorses, winning back the ball and playing it forward to Messi. Their star man has certainly delivered for them, but any criticism that Argentina are over-reliant on their captain, can be squandered by the form of Julian Alvarez. He has scored four goals so far in his first World Cup, so while the focus may be on the main man, Alvarez too is a lingering threat.

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The GOAT and the Starboy – Messi v Mbappe:

This showpiece clash is adorned with two of the biggest names in the game. Messi’s achievements throughout his career speak for themselves, and though his time may be nearing its end, Mbappe looks ready to take over the spotlight. Launching himself on the global stage four years ago, he already has nine World Cup goals to his name, whilst it has taken his senior PSG team-mate five tournaments to record 11 goals.

Of course, they will not be directly challenging each other in the match, but whomever can produce their top performance is sure to have a significant influence on the outcome of this final. They are currently tied for the Golden Boot, with five goals apiece – one of them is sure to prevail, though this undoubtedly is not the only piece of gold each will be desiring to leave Qatar with.

The understudies – Alvarez v Giroud:

Whilst the others may take the headlines, both Julian Alvarez and Olivier Giroud have produced critical performances which have aided their countries throughout the tournament. Giroud, scoring the winner in the quarter-final against England, and Alvarez finding the back of the net twice in a World Cup semi-final – the form of these players have helped to ease some of the pressure off the shoulders of their big-name teammates.

Similarly, whomever puts on the best performance may be able to find a result, especially as the game reaches the dying stages. Therefore, the roles of Varane and Otamendi in their respective defences will be critical, to keep their focus and limit the threats, from wherever they appear.

Injury list

The injury-hit French squad had been stuck by an illness, with Ibrahima Konate, Raphael Varane, and Kinsley Coman suffering, but they all returned to training on yesterday, albeit away from their team-mates. Theo Hernandez and Aurelien Tchouameni picked up knocks in the Morocco clash and missed training on Friday, though they also returned the following day.

Injured Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema continues to hit the headlines but talk of him making a shock return for the final was fanciful. He’s decided against even watching from the stands, hinting at disharmony with France chiefs, but the team won’t allow that to distract them from their on-field task.

Argentina, however, have no fresh concerns, and are boosted by the returns of Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna, who missed the semi-final through suspension. This leaves a full squad for boss Lionel Scaloni to select from for the biggest of occasions.

Managers speak

Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni said: “We have our game plan, now we just have to execute, and I hope we can play a similar game as we did against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals – but win the match without having to go through the pain of a penalty shoot-out. Sunday’s game is much more than Lionel Messi against Mbappe, it’s Argentina against France. We both have the necessary weapons so that the game can be decided by other players and not necessarily the two of them.”

France manager Didier Deschamps said: “The context of a final is always special. There is an emotional side that can be different depending on the player. When it’s the first final for a player, there are fewer benchmarks. The important thing in preparing for such a match is to maintain serenity. A World Cup final is about the match but also the context and this one in particular as I know that the Argentinians, more around the world and perhaps even some French people would also like a coronation for Messi.”

Possible line-ups:

Prediction: Argentina 1 France 1 aet (Argentina to win 4-2 on penalties)

The biggest stars in world football battling for the greatest prize – this game holds the promise of the spectacular, but the pressure of the occasion could lead to a tense occasion. With these two sides being well-balanced, it seems likely this finale will go all the way to penalties.

Head to head, Argentina edge France in with two wins to one, whilst there have been three draws. Their most recent meeting came at the 2018 World Cup at the round of 16, where two Mbappe goals secured a 4-3 victory for France. Prior to this, Argentina have won their other two meetings – a 2-1 win in the group stages in 1978, and a 1-0 win in 1930.

Historically, World Cup holders have faired poorly, and whilst France have gone further than most reigning champions, Argentina may have enough to take their crown from them. After withstanding French pressure right from the whistle, Argentina will draw first blood with a goal from who else but Messi, to give them the lead at half-time.

A Giroud goal early in the second half, made by Griezmann, will ensure the remainder of the game is a cagy affair, with Les Bleus pushing for a winner. Though there may be one big chance at the closing stages of the match, this one will be settled by penalties. Both Messi and Mbappe will put their penalties away, but it will come down to Martinez heroics once again to make the little genuis’ dreams of glory a reality.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts

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