It is Argentina against France in the World Cup final and that means one storyline will dominate. Lionel Messi against Kylian Mbappe. The world’s best against the possible heir to his throne.
The pair, team-mates at club level with Paris Saint-Germain, will go head to head for World Cup glory. Tied on five goals at the top of the scoring charts, it might also be a winner-takes-all encounter for the Golden Boot. Maybe, even the Golden Ball too.
The stakes could hardly be higher but it is undoubtedly Messi who needs it more. The 35-year-old confirmed in the wake of Argentina’s semi-final win over Croatia that Sunday’s game will be his final World Cup appearance. His final shot at the biggest prize of all.
Mbappe, although 12 years Messi’s junior, knows precisely how it feels to win it, having done so four years ago in Russia. Win again on Sunday and he will have done it twice before his 24th birthday.
That would be a crushing outcome for Messi, who has been in dazzling form throughout the tournament, fuelled by a sense of destiny and delivering arguably his best performance yet in Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Croatia in Argentina’s semi-final.
Mbappe, meanwhile, produced his best performances earlier in the tournament, scoring doubles against Denmark in the group stage and Poland in the last 16. Against Morocco, as in the quarter-final win over England, he exploded into life only occasionally.
Still, though, he, like Messi, looks primed to take centre stage in the biggest game of all. Will Messi crown his legacy with his first World Cup in his final appearance in the competition? Or, will he be thwarted by France, and a pretender to his throne?
Antoine Griezmann’s redeployment at the heart of France’s bid for World Cup glory in Qatar was hailed as a stroke of genius even before a ball had been kicked at Al Bayt Stadium. His latest mesmerising performance, dismantling Morocco’s history-making run to the semi-finals, only enhanced the assessment.
Morocco had beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal in a series of gutsy performances en route to the last four. Their endeavour would even see the Atlas Lions temporarily halt Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud’s pursuit of the Golden Boot, but their performance, however spirited, just couldn’t account for Griezmann.
After injuries to Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante before the World Cup, Deschamps’ hand was forced. In an apparent move of desperation, the world champions turned to Griezmann to fill the chasm vacated by two stars of their triumph in Russia four years prior. It was billed as a gamble but has blossomed into a masterstroke.
How Griezmann, a scorer of great goals who scooped the player of the tournament award and Golden Boot at Euro 2016, and inspired France to glory at the 2018 World Cup, has evolved into a box-to-box midfielder, as capable defensively as he is in attack, is the remarkable tale of France’s progress to another final.
Against Morocco, Griezmann created twice as many chances as any other player on the pitch (four) and was instrumental in the run-up to Theo Hernandez’s opener with a superb pivot in behind. But his repeated effectiveness in defence was just as crucial, with three clearances, two tackles and two interceptions keeping Morocco at arm’s length throughout.
Mbappe and Messi will understandably dominate the build-up to tomorrow’s World Cup final. But if France are to retain the crown Griezmann helped secure in Russia, you can be certain his fingerprints will be all over it again, albeit in a different guise. —Sky Sports