This is it, then. After 4 weeks, 62 games, 161 goals, and too much stoppage time to count, we have our finalists. Argentina will face France at the Lusail Stadium this Sunday in a fixture that will have all the usual drama and intrigue of a World Cup Final, but also features a Messi v Mbappe subplot almost as thrilling as the match itself. Not only will these two men dictate the destination of the World Cup Trophy, but their exploits in this game will also determine the winner of the Golden Boot, Golden Ball and, ultimately, their legacies.
Representing La Albiceleste, it is almost impossible to have watched Lionel Messi for the past 18-or-so years and escape the conclusion that he is the greatest player in the history of the game. Yet there are some who are still not converted, insisting that without a World Cup win – or in some cases until he ‘does it’ on a wet Tuesday in Stoke – ‘GOAT’ status will always elude him. In reality, the great man worked miracles in dragging a fairly desperate Argentine outfit to the final in 2014, a Golden Ball-winning tournament display still not enough to overcome a German side riding high off the back of a 7-1 demolition of hosts Brazil. It was a similar story in 2018, with Argentina’s aging midfield of Mascherano, Banega and Perez unable to cope with the superior legs and ability of France’s Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, ultimately crashing out 4-3 in the round of 16 to the subsequent winners, a scoreline which flattered the South Americans greatly.
It’s fair to say that Argentina’s current squad lacks the household names of years gone by, but the tactically-astute Lionel Scaloni has assembled a side that is more than the sum of its parts, blending the youth and enthusiasm of the likes of Julian Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez with the experience and quality of Nicolas Otamendi and the talismanic Messi. They have not looked back since a shock opening-round defeat to Saudi Arabia, and clinically dispatched Croatia 3-0 last time out.
Key to Argentina’s prospects will be keeping one Kylian Mbappe quiet. While his PSG team-mate Messi has spent nearly two decades in search of an elusive World Cup win, Mbappe probably wonders what all the fuss is about, finding himself in his second final aged just 23, having lifted the trophy for the first time as a teenager in 2018. Already well on track to smash Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 World Cup goals, Mbappe is ably supported by fellow Golden Ball contender Antoine Griezmann and the seemingly-ageless Olivier Giroud, who is playing the best football of his career at the age of 36.
A repeat of the aforementioned 4-3 seems unlikely here, and a tight game punctuated by moments of individual brilliance seems more probable. France’s greater overall quality and tournament experience means they are narrow favourites with Betzone, although they were far from convincing against Morocco, have looked vulnerable defensively and face an Argentina side that is brimming with confidence and peaking at the right time.
The tight nature of the contest, and the added interest provided by the additional narratives that will unfold during it, make this one of the most fascinating World Cup finals in recent memory.