France and Argentina might not have thrilled with exceptionally fluid attacking football throughout this World Cup, but the tournament still has an illustrious, elite and eye-catching final for the world to watch.
In fact, given their club allegiances to Paris Saint-Germain (and that club’s own Qatari ownership), the tournament hosts could barely have wished for a better duel than Kylian Mbappe versus Lionel Messi on the biggest stage of all in Doha. On Sunday afternoon Lusail Iconic Stadium will bear witness to the classic master against apprentice battle; but will it be a passing over of the baton, or one final hurrah for the veteran?
In the pro Mbappe camp are the young and those keen to see a new Ballon D’Or winner adorn the trophy that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had wrapped up between them for a decade, until Luka Modric’s triumph in 2018. A teenage Mbappe inspired France to success in Russia four years ago – scoring in the 4-2 win over Modric’s Croatia in the final – and it would be a stunning feat if the 23-year-old repeated the dose against Argentina.
But there are plenty who believe it would be a fitting denouement to Messi’s international career if he bowed out as a world champion, emulating his idol Diego Maradona in virtually single-handedly dragging his nation to the title. Messi, even at 35, seems to be reaching peaks again that many thought were in his past; he’s saved his best for Argentina’s knockout stage run.
It’s no coincidence that Mbappe and Messi are virtually the only realistic Golden Boot contenders going into this final, as well, on five goals apiece (Messi has three assists to Mbappe’s none). It would be a bigger surprise if neither added to their tallies.
But it’s not just about two players, even if the media coverage in the build-up to the final may convince you otherwise.
For France, much will rely on the playmaking artistry of Antoine Griezmann, who has been one of the stars of the tournament in a rejigged No.10 role. They’ll also need Raphael Varane in top form at the back, while Olivier Giroud’s happy knack of scoring important goals may be decisive.
Argentina have been buoyed by the recent form of Man City youngster Julian Alvarez up front, and his relationship with Messi has breathed new life into Lionel Scaloni’s attacking blueprint in the past few games. Enzo Fernandez is another huge young talent in midfield, while Emiliano Martinez will believe he can make more vital interventions than his opposite number Hugo Lloris in the French goal.
All of this, together with the Mbappe versus Messi contest, makes for a game that the bookies are finding impossible to call. Many have both teams on the same odds (9/5) to win in 90 minutes, with the draw 2/1. Some make Argentina the ever so slight favourites at 17/10.
Messi (obviously) is leading the betting to open the scoring, at 23/5, with Mbappe not far behind on 5/1. Alvarez (17/2) and Griezmann (17/1) are perhaps the better value bets, though, given how much they’ll be involved in their teams’ attacking play.
Of the past seven World Cup finals, four have gone to extra-time, although incidentally both France’s successes (1998 and 2018) were routine wins settled inside the 90 minutes. Argentina needed the additional half hour in their 1978 triumph and they were sunk by Mario Goetze’s extra-time strike to lose in the 2014 final.
Given what’s at stake, the similar abilities of the two teams and all that history, it looks unlikely that the 2022 world champions will be crowned inside 90 minutes.
We are set for a footballing feast at Lusail just before Christmas, a genuine cracker. But which way will it go?
Our prediction: France to win in extra time (11/1)