In a World Cup which has bordered on the stupendous and miraculous, with on-field and off-pitch narratives at every corner, Qatar 2022 has the finale tournament organisers and fans could have only etched out in their dreams. In one corner, France: the defending champions, Europe’s current powerhouse, a well-oiled machine with a king-in-waiting their key asset on the left. In the other, Argentina: South America’s champions, adaptable and resilient, feeding off a storyline which can only end one way – surely? – for the greatest player of his generation and their captain as he bows out of his fifth and final World Cup on the grandest stage.
What is even more astounding, though, is that these two have been here before. Not in World Cup folklore, not dating back to black and white, but in recent memory. How about the standout game from the last World Cup, four-and-a-half years ago in Russia? That’s right – that absolute humdinger of a football match. Depicted as a changing of the guard in the aftermath, it’s worth analysing: how much has actually changed since France’s 4-3 win? Has that changing of the guard actually shifted? Or is it, perhaps, all coming full circle?
All eyes were on Kazan as two frontrunners in the tournament collided in a mouth-watering last-16 contest. France, still reeling two years on from their agonising defeat to Portugal in the final of a European Championships they hosted, were here to make amends. To do good on their potential. This was their time.
Argentina, meanwhile, had stuttered and stumbled into the knockout phase, following up a thrashing by Croatia with Marcos Rojo – remember him? – saving their skin in the dying moments versus Nigeria. It had all the makings of an all-time classic, and it delivered in the most eye-catching way.
From the off, Kylian Mbappe – then, at 19, still growing on a global stage despite his €200m (£174m) move to PSG the previous summer – grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. Breaking from inside his own half, galloping past Nicolas Tagliafico and Javier Mascherano, Rojo hauled him down to give away a penalty, with Antoine Griezmann converting from the spot.
In dark blue, then, some protagonists remain so. Griezmann, for one, has starred and stirred in Qatar, taking the baton in much the same manner he did in 2018. While having endured a torrid period with his club amid clauses and conflict between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, representing Les Bleus is his safe haven and, fulfilling his No 10 role from perhaps a bit deeper than in Russia, he remains France’s architect in attack.
On the flipside, only Tagliafico and Nicholas Otamendi remain from the Argentina defence torn to shreds that day in Russia. Goalkeeper Franco Armani has been upgraded with Emiliano Martinez, with Rojo moved on for Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez. On the right side, Gabriel Mercado is no real match to the impressive Nahuel Molina in this tournament.
But could Lionel Messi, at his fourth World Cup but struggling to hit peak form, inspire a comeback? Well, sort of. Sooner, it was Angel Di Maria – who has been in and out of the team in Qatar – who brought them level, unleashing a 30-yard peach of a left-footed strike into the top corner. After the interval, Messi’s twist-and-shot deflected rather fortuitously in off Mercado to give Argentina a shock lead on 48 minutes.
Over now to France’s rampaging wing-backs. Lucas Hernandez, who so cruelly had his 2022 World Cup cut short after rupturing his ACL 13 minutes into their opener against Australia and has been replaced by younger brother Theo, crossed from the left and right-back Benjamin Pavard struck deliciously with the outside of his foot into the top corner. Voted goal of the tournament, this year Pavard was dropped after that opening win and has not featured since, with Jules Kounde deputising. Mysterious.
With half an hour to go then, the score two apiece, Mbappe reasserted his dominance over the contest. A quick touch and finish from Hernandez’s cross saw France retake the lead before Olivier Giroud – nothing has changed here – teed up the teenager to strike home first-time to give France breathing space. All in the space of four minutes.
Argentina fought to the end, with Messi crossing in for substitute Sergio Aguero – who retired last year due to a cardiac problem – to head in with minutes to go but ultimately, it was France’s day. Come the full-time whistle, Messi bowed his head while Mbappe stood with his fist pumped.
It was the spark which lit up the tournament and France’s road to victory. Didier Deschamps, still the boss, became just the third man to lift the World Cup as player and manager while Jorge Sampaoli moved aside for assistant Lionel Scaloni, who has presided over an Argentinian renaissance.
On the whole, Argentina have revolutionised more than the counterparts. Quite understandably, given the result on the day. While five France starters are in line to walk out on Sunday, it’s likely to be just three from Argentina. The whole midfield for La Albiceleste has changed, though the same can be said for France, who’ve coped brilliantly without Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante in the past few weeks. For all the change though, the captains remain the same: Hugo Lloris for France, Messi for Argentina.
What about the two stars of the show? Well, Mbappe and Messi are now team-mates at Paris Saint-Germain, adding an extra dimension to Sunday, a team owned by Qatar Sports Investments. The Argentine has added to his Ballon d’Or haul – out alone on seven and still seven ahead of Mbappe – and has the international major tournament monkey off his back after a triumphant Copa America journey last year; more a relief than it was a celebration.
Now though, footballing immortality is within his grasp. A match to cement his legend. The boy from Rosario, who has dazzlingly dribbled and dazed his way to worldwide stardom, left with one more spot in his trophy cabinet and one last chance to fill it.
Again though, it’s France and Mbappe who stand in Messi’s way. His 1,003rd match – 640 more than Mbappe, 12 years his junior – will define his legacy. Harsh in many ways; quite fitting in other respects. From four years ago though, a game marked as a changing of the guard has in many ways proved anything but. Yet come Sunday night, in the bowl of Lusail in the desert, Mbappe has the chance to properly cement his ascension while Messi has the opportunity to revert back to his throne one final time.