It seems like just yesterday Ecuador brushed Qatar aside in the opening game of the FIFA World Cup. Now, four weeks later, Argentina face France in the World Cup final. It’s the biggest game in World Football, the biggest event on the planet and the most-watched broadcast of the year. Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s final.
Could this be the best World Cup final in recent history? Argentina vs France, Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe, it’s shaping up to be an unforgettable occasion. In the build-up to Sunday’s game, a lot of people have been discussing what is actually at stake for this game. Yes, it’s the chance for both sides to walk away as World Champion, but it’s so much more for two players. Lionel Messi has announced this will be his final World Cup game, retiring from international football as the final whistle blows, whilst PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe will look to win the second World Cup of his career in just four years.
I think it’s fair to say that both these sides really deserve to be in this final. Other than Brazil and England I can’t think of two sides that have quite come close to reaching the levels Argentina and France have throughout this World Cup. Other than a shock opening defeat to Saudi Arabia, Argentina have been excellent as they propelled their way into the Final. A slight slip-up vs the Netherlands saw them on rocky ground in the Quarter-Finals but a fantastic shoot-out saw them glide to the semi-finals.
France have had arguably the better run to the World’s biggest game. Les Bleus cruised through the Group Stages before a heavily rotated side lost to Tunisia. The knockout stages saw them overpower a rigid Poland defence, dismantle a dangerous England side and crush the giant-killing Morocco. Didier Deschamps’ side have ended the curse of the reigning champions and has guided France to within a touching distance of a second consecutive World Title.
Despite the criticism it’s gained, the Qatar World Cup has without a doubt been one of the best in recent years. The first World Cup I can really remember was Germany 2006, since then we’ve seen South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014, Russia in 2018 and now Qatar in 2022. All tournaments have been great for their own reasons; The Zidane headbutt, the Jabulani, James Rodriguez’s wondergoal and the Croatian underdogs, but I really don’t think anything can compete with what we’ve witnessed in the Middle East this Winter. It’s been a World Cup full of excitement and surprises – with one game left, the best is still yet to come.
WHEN & WHERE?
Where: Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail, Qatar.
When: Sunday 18th December.
Time: 15:00 BST.
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Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina side have made it all the way to the final relatively unscathed. La Albiceleste have picked up just one injury throughout the tournament, with Sevilla winger Papu Gomez injuring his ankle following his sides 2-1 win over Australia.
France had some big injury concerns ahead of their semi-final with Morocco. Bayern Munich defender Dayot Upamecano and Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot were both ruled out through sickness, the pair have now been joined with winger Kingsley Coman who has also come down with the flu. Reports out of Qatar are suggesting Didier Deschamps is taking significant precautions to keep his side fit, including separating the flu-filled players from the rest of the squad.
Another outbreak of cases would be a disaster for Les Bleus who could once again be without key first-team players for their final World Cup match-up. Rabiot has been one of the stand-out players in this tournament. Youssouf Fofana deputised brilliantly in his absence, but Deschamps will be hopeful the Juventus man has recovered in-time to start against Argentina.
Messi vs Mbappe
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Are these two currently the best players on the planet? We’ve been seeing the decline of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo over the last 18 months, but my word has Messi shown up in Qatar. His teammate, Mbappe, has also put on quite a spectacle on the international stage. This is so much more than just a match-up between teammates. After lowering his standards last season, Messi’s second season in Paris has seen him return to his best, compare to the impressive performances of Mbappe we are watching two players going head-to-head, likely competing for: the World Cup, the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball and even the Ballon d’Or. Whichever nation comes out on top will likely see their talisman sweep most, if not all of those awards.
Both players are invaluable for their national sides, but both play such different roles. Kylian Mbappe has proven over the past six-games that he is the best winger in the World – even if he doesn’t play there at club-level. Deschamps have set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 throughout this World Cup, with Mbappe lining up on the left-hand side of the attacking-midfield three. The Frenchman has been phenomenal going forward, using his electric pace to spread play wide and dominate the wings. When in a dangerous area, Mbappe is nearly impossible to stop. His accuracy means he can pick out the top corner from outside of the box, but his ability on the ball means he is more than capable of beating his man and firing home from close range.
As he has been for many years now, Messi is the beating heart of this Argentina side. You look at any goal they score, any chance they create and he will be right in the middle of it. Even at the ripe old age of 35, he is still showing why he is one of, if not the best player in the World. In just six games at this World Cup, you can hand-pick three excellent moments he’s had. His long-range strike against Mexico gave his side the lead, his tremendous assist against the Netherlands, or more recently, his assist against Croatia. Josko Gvardiol has looked like the best defender at this tournament and Messi made him look like he was playing out of his depth. The little boy from Rosario took Gvardiol on, turning him inside-and-out before pulling the ball back to Julian Alvarez for the Manchester City forward to fire home. In a tournament already full of spectacular moments, Messi still finds a way to stand out. If this is to be his final show on the international stage, enjoy every moment because there will never be a player like him again.
The battle for midfield
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Going into the World Cup, Argentina went on a 40-game unbeaten run, looking like they couldn’t be stopped. Yet in their first game, all their work came undone. They collapsed against Saudi Arabia, struggling to get forward and seemed dislocated across midfield. Argentina haven’t looked back since that shock defeat, with form that can be largely credited to Lionel Scaloni’s change in tactics.
In the opening defeat, Scaloni started a four-man midfield of; Di Maria, De Paul, Parades and Gomez, with a front two of Messi and Martinez. He’s chopped and changed and team and formation since, but seems to have finally found his best combination. He looks to have settled on a midfield that focuses on the strengths of De Paul, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister, with a front two of Messi and Alvarez ahead of them. He still switches his system up, but those five players have started consistently since the group stages concluded. The midfield seems to be perfectly balanced and the attack is unstoppable heading into the climax of the World Cup.
Before the World Cup, I really believed France’s inexperienced midfield would cost them in Qatar – with Rabiot being the only central midfielder with any experience in an international tournament. How wrong was I? Rabiot and Tchouameni have been sensational in Qatar. The pair are excellent at winning back possession, but also look very threatening going forward. In their Quarter-Final against England, both were getting on the front foot. Tchouameni’s long ranged strike opened the scoring and Rabiot was unfortunate not to get on the scoresheet after capitalising on some poor defending from the Three Lions. Some attention has to be given to Rabiot, who’s career has stalled in Turin. He’s free to leave Juventus and after an impressive World Cup, he should be a target for many top clubs. The midfield duo provide the perfect counter-weight for the France attack, being able to win back and link up possession, freeing up the individual talents of Griezmann, Mbappe, Dembele and Giroud.
It’s somewhat a cliché in the modern day, but this is a game that really could be won in midfield. France definitely have the more threating midfield, but Argentina’s central trio are clicking at the right time. It’s going to be a fun battle to watch.
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If there is one way Argentina falls apart, it’s in defence. Watching any Argentina games this Winter, you’ll notice one thing – they have a very small team. I’m not sure on the official figures, but they probably have the shortest team in the World Cup. Louis Van Gaal targeted it perfectly for the Netherlands, putting four tall forwards on Lisandro Martinez, who’s 5ft 8 frame couldn’t compete with the tall statue of the Dutch forwards.
Now, as long as you’re not on dating apps, you’ll be told height doesn’t matter – but in this case it really does. Right now, Olivier Giroud is probably the best traditional number 9 in the World. His four goals in this World Cup puts him second in the scoring charts and arguably the biggest aerial threat in the tournament.
Scaloni will be forced to switch to a three-at-the-back system, committing two defenders on the AC Milan attacker just to limit the threat he offers. This is all well and good and could work to silence Giroud, but with the delivery he has coming from out wide it might be too difficult a task to shut him out all game. Deschamps switched up his game plan in the game against England, taking the emphasis off Mbappe allowing Griezmann to flourish in the middle. The win over Morocco saw all players chip in to the result, but something tells me Giroud will be key for Deschamps if Les Bleus want to lift the trophy again. Karim Benzema might be back, but he shouldn’t make it off it side lines.
PLAYERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
See the section dedicated to Messi vs Mbappe…
The two PSG attackers are going to be the stars of the show on Sunday night, but to avoid sounding like a broken record, I’ll dedicate this part to two different players.
Argentina – Julian Alvarez
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Julian Alvarez might be the most underrated player at this tournament. Actually, this Argentina side might be the most underrated side of the tournament. Yes, they’ve made the final – but: Alvarez, Mac Allister, Fernandez, Martinez and Molina are all quietly having fantastic World Cup’s, with none really getting the recognition they deserve. Out of those five, I think Alvarez just pips Fernandez as the best performer in Qatar.
He started the World Cup as a rotation option for Lautaro Martinez in attack, but since making his first start in the win over Poland, the Man City forward has gone on to score in three of the last four games. Alvarez is incredibly quick going forward and his pace with the ball at his feet means Argentina can be devastating on the counter – just look at his first goal against Croatia. Out of the other attacking options Scaloni has, Alvarez is the best choice to play alongside Messi and it wouldn’t surprise me to impress again on Sunday – it’s hard to remember he isn’t a starter for Manchester City.
France – Antoine Griezmann
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Once again, Mbappe is the right choice here, but in an effort not to sound boring I’m going for Antoine Griezmann. In a France side containing a resurgent Ousmane Dembele, a peaking Olivier Giroud and some of the best young talents in the World, it’s hard to stand out, especially when you’re struggling for form at the club level. Antoine Griezmann ticks all the boxes, except he’s been nothing short of brilliant this Winter.
Griezmann has played in a number 10 role, behind Giroud and has been key in unleashing the talent around him. He always seems to find pockets of space around the opponents box, giving himself time to pick out a teammate. In the game against England, his neat movement allowed him to set up Tchouameni for the first goal, before a well-timed cross found Giroud for the second. The Frenchman has rekindled his form from before his move to Catalonia and looks ready to star in the biggest game of the World. Maybe then he’ll get more than 60 minutes for Atletico Madrid.
Argentina lineup vs France: Martinez, Martinez, Otamendi, Romero, Tagliafico, Mac Allister, Fernandez, De Paul, Molina, Alvarez, Messi.
France lineup vs Argentina: Lloris, Hernandez, Konate, Varane, Kounde, Rabiot, Tchouameni, Mbappe, Griezmann, Dembele, Giroud.