This Sunday, the first Winter World Cup in Qatar comes to an end, and it has been a lot of fun. The matches have really just flown by.
Argentina might not have expected their semifinal encounter with Croatia to have been this easy. But it was. Lionel Messi continues to show us a side we are well used to, yet too reluctant to let go of. And now, the 35-year-old has a date with France, but even more with destiny. For many, this is a title he truly deserves.
And yet, the Albicelestes face a French side that simply knows how to win these high-stakes matches. Without playing that well, and with Morocco playing exceptionally well and pushing them back, they found a way to score and win.
And now, Olivier Giroud has promised not to let Messi “have the night of his life.” Still, Les Bleues have a title to defend and a competition to win.
In any case, while the world looks to the final, there is the little matter of a third-place match between Croatia and the record-breaking Moroccan team on Saturday.
Argentina’s Journey To The Final
Coming into this finals, Argentina had not lost in 36 matches, spanning three years. Yet Saudi Arabia stunned them by simply outwitting them tactically.
Perhaps, that was simply what they needed to overcome any form of complacency. Then, Messi fired home an excellent opener, and Enzo Fernandez also scored late to earn Lionel Scaloni’s side a 2-0 win against Mexico.
Needing a win against Poland in their final group stage match, Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez helped Argentina top the group with a 2-0 win.
Australia gave Argentina a tough time in the second round, almost forcing extra time after Messi and Alvarez had given them a 2-0 lead.
But it was the Netherlands that rallied back to equalise a 2-0 lead in the final seven minutes of the quarterfinals. Emiliano Martinez became the hero, saving two penalties in the shoot-out to send his side to the semi-finals.
Messi was simply unplayable, combining with Alvarez to defeat Croatia 3-0 and advance to the final.
France’s Road To The Lusail Stadium
France would have loved for their World Cup to begin any other way than it did. Apart from a poor performance in the previous Nations League, they would now be without some of their best players.
Karim Benzema had to pull out of the squad after sustaining a thigh injury in training on the eve of the first match. Christopher Nkunku suffered the same fate, being forced to withdraw. Presnel Kimpembe dropped out. Lucas Hernandez did his ligaments in the opening match.
However, Didier Deschamps’ men simply outclassed Australia, coming from behind to win 4-1.
Kylian Mbappe was the star of the show with a brace as France overcame Denmark 2-1 to secure a Round of 16 place.
Deschamps then decided to give his trusted XI a rest in the final group-stage match against Tunisia. His decision backfired, as the North Africans earned a special 1-0 win.
Giroud and Mbappe found the net in a comfortable 3-1 win against Poland in the second round. The quarterfinals almost didn’t go as smoothly, with Harry Kane missing a late penalty for England. In the end, France laboured to a 2-1 win to earn a meeting with Morocco.
The Atlas Lions put up a stern battle in the semi-finals. Yet they were just lacking in precision as the Europeans did enough to progress 2-0.
What To Expect
This final has been framed as a battle between the competition’s two best players, Messi and Mbappe. In a way, this is reasonable, as both players have been decisive for their respective teams, scoring five goals each.
And yet, there are a number of subplots from defence to attack in this final. There will be one-on-one battles on various aspects of the pitch.
Scaloni’s team has thrived in its aggressiveness in regaining possession in midfield and defence. However, they face a different profile of attackers.
Gabriel Otamendi and Cristian Romero have done well previously to squeeze the pitch- out of possession by pressing high and getting tight to the opponent. Still, they struggled against the Netherlands in the final minutes of the game when La Oranje switched to route one, punting the ball forward to Luuk de Jong. The duo will have their work cut out for them against Giroud, who plays similarly to the PSV forward.
Nahuel Molina has been excellent going forward, especially in the knockout stages. However, the full-back will need to pay attention to the swift and tricky Mbappe. Marcos Acuna will also need to be aggressive against Ousmane Dembele, who will be willing to take him on at every turn.
France, on the other hand, will need to concentrate on Alvarez. The Manchester City forward will make himself a nuisance against Rafael Varane and Ibrahim Konate.
Messi will continue to float around, picking pockets of space to hurt the opponent. Aurelien Tchouameni will need to get as close to the little man as possible.
This final will be hotly contested, with little margin for mistakes. In the end, the more clinical team will win the day.