The headline act of a sparkling World Cup 2022 programme commences on Sunday afternoon at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, as Argentina and reigning champions France strive for international supremacy in a mouthwatering final.
Les Bleus will step out onto the Lusail turf as the first holders in 24 years to participate in the final, which they booked their tickets for courtesy of a 2-0 win over African trailblazers Morocco in the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, Lionel Scaloni’s men denied Croatia a second successive appearance in the showpiece event with a 3-0 victory in the final four, and the pre-match build-up has unsurprisingly been focused on one man.
A video of Lionel Messi has been doing the rounds on social media this week. Not one of his sublime strikes or awe-inspiring assists, but of a journalist waxing lyrical about the 35-year-old’s timeless qualities and reminding him just how much he inspires all the boys and girls back home.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has ticked nearly every box that there is to be ticked on his footballing checklist, except for the big one, and the script-writers are already busy drafting the act of Messi lifting the iconic trophy aloft in what will be his farewell World Cup match.
As eloquent as the Paris Saint-Germain attacker has been during the Qatar tournament, one man alone cannot steer his nation to the biggest sporting event on the globe. Nicolas Otamendi has rolled back the years in defence, Enzo Fernandez could become the next nine-figure footballer, and Julian Alvarez has clearly taken a few leaves out of his strike partner’s book.
Nearly everything that could go wrong for France did go wrong for France before they boarded their flight to the Middle East. A myriad of injuries to key players, perpetual controversy off the field and an almost unthinkable relegation from the Nations League, which they just about managed to stave off.
Very few had France down as one of the contenders to go all the way in Qatar, but those who received Les Bleus in the sweepstakes may be feeling a little more smug right about now, as the defending champions prove exactly why the trophy continues to glisten in their cabinet.
No Paul Pogba? No N’Golo Kante? No Karim Benzema, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner? No problem for Didier Deschamps. The World Cup-winning player and manager – one of only three men with such a title on their CV – was even asked about the prospect of bringing Benzema back for the final following his recovery from a thigh injury, but his exhausted sigh and refusal to answer the question was that of a man who only has eyes for his present protagonists.
After preventing football from coming home to England, France faced a true test of their mettle against the first-ever African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, and they were certainly given a couple of scares against a Morocco side roared on by their ever-vociferous support.
Argentina possible starting lineup:
E. Martinez; Molina, Romero, Otamendi, Acuna; De Paul, Fernandez, Mac Allister; Di Maria, Messi, Alvarez
France possible starting lineup:
Lloris; Kounde, Varane, Upamecano, T. Hernandez; Tchouameni, Rabiot; Dembele, Griezmann, Mbappe; Giroud
HEAD TO HEAD
Sunday’s final will mark the 13th meeting between Argentina and France in all competitions, with the South American champions picking up six wins so far compared to just three for their European counterparts, while another three have ended all square.
However, the most recent showdown between the two sides ended in a thrilling 4-3 Bleus win during the 2018 World Cup last 16, with that Benjamin Pavard thunderbolt still lingering in the memory of the France fanbase.
La Albiceleste came up trumps in the first two World Cup clashes between the two teams in 1930 and 1978, and there have only been three occasions where Argentina and France have both scored in this clash of the titans.
We say: Argentina 2-1 France
Mbappe vs. Messi. Fernandez vs. Tchouameni. Griezmann vs. Mac Allister. Countless individual battles should decide the destiny of the World Cup in a final where goals are surely a guarantee.
Deschamps’s men have rarely managed to find that perfect defensive formula in Qatar and could very well have come out on the wrong end of the scoreline against Morocco on another day, but their penchant for rapid-fire counter-attacks should come to the fore regardless.
However, an Argentina side that have only failed to score more than once against Saudi Arabia can expose Les Bleus’ rearguard shortcomings and channel their own defensive acumen in equal measure. Fairytale endings are never a guarantee in football, but viewers around the world can finally expect to witness Messi with both hands on the 18-karat gold trophy.