831 players, 32 teams and (sometimes) four games a day – after the World Cup it can be a bit overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express is cutting through the clutter, choosing the biggest storyline of the day every morning.
Argentina vs France (Final)
8:30 p.m., Khalifa International Stadium
Some of football’s greatest success stories come from moments of desperation.
France responded to their failure to qualify for the 1988 European Championship by establishing a national training center that now attracts hundreds of professional footballers every year. Germany has revised its football structure after the disastrous Euro 2000 campaign.
For Argentina, it was the last 16 games of the 2018 World Cup that required a lot of searching for their soul. And they did so by reluctantly admiring the team that beat them: France. So much so that Lionel Scaloni, who handed over Argentina’s rule soon after, became obsessed with the idea of turning Argentina into France.
“(They) robbed the ball and were able to shoot within three or four seconds… it’s the football I love and the time has come to introduce it to Argentina. We are going to be more direct and more vertical,” Scaloni had said in his opening words as coach, referring to France’s style on their way to winning the 2018 World Cup.
The ‘France-ification’ of Argentina never happened. Scaloni tried to take the lead in his first game but failed miserably, losing to Colombia who stretched and penalized them. The plan was immediately discarded. But it gave rise to what has come to be known as ‘La Scaloneta’ – the nickname given to the South American champions who have shown tactical flexibility under Scaloni and changed personnel, putting faith in untested players like Emiliano Martinez and Nahuel Molina, to reach their second World Cup final since 2014.
Argentina’s resurgence is largely due to Scaloni’s open-mindedness. But Sunday’s final is about the other Lionel – Messi. Under Scaloni, Messi looked happy playing for Argentina – and the Argentines are pouring love on their most famous icon.
He was also in the mood on the pitch, conjuring up many magical moments as he led Argentina to the final, where they would face the team that had rocked them four years ago.
At the time, France had a plan to stop Messi. And N’Golo Kanté executed it to perfection, never giving the Argentine room to find his stride. This time France has made it all the way to the final without Kanté. And it felt like they realized how crucial Kante was the last time Messi stands between them and a second consecutive World Cup victory, they realized.
At least that’s how it felt. “I remember in 2018 that N’Golo was on his back, behind him, the whole game,” said Olivier Giroud after the semi-final victory over Morocco.
Messi has five goals and three assists, two of which (the through ball for Molina against the Netherlands and the cut for Julian Alvarez against Croatia) will be among his all-time best records. More records await him in the final – he becomes the player with the most World Cup appearances (26) and, getting on the scoresheet, also becomes the first player to find the back of the net in every round of a World Cup.
Most importantly, if he bag the one trophy missing from his cabinet, it will cement his status as the greatest player of all time. “We will do everything we can to prevent that from happening,” France coach Didier Deschamps said.
How? He did not elaborate further.
Messi plays on the right side of Argentina. And from there he will attack the left side of the French defense. It suits the Argentine perfectly as it has been France’s biggest weakness. Kylian Mbappé’s natural attack instinct means he often exposes Theo Hernandez. And Messi’s mouth will water at the prospect of playing 1v1 against him.
The responsibility will then fall to Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate to stop Messi’s plundering runs and through passes for Alvarez.
You would assume it all comes down to how cohesive the French midfield will be in breaking Argentina’s game. Croatia’s midfield trio was overrun and they paid for it. In the final it is up to Antoine Griezmann to keep Messi and Argentina in check.
Stories for subscribers only
Griezmann enjoyed his role as a midfielder and was nicknamed ‘Griezmannkante’ by Paul Pogba for his efficiency and all-round contributions, as well as his ubiquity on the pitch. Whether Griezmann can make a Kanté and halt Messi’s advance remains to be seen.