IIf France is the new West Germany – unabashed under pressure, unconcerned about claiming neutral hearts – then perhaps time has returned to 1986. If so, then that’s good news for Argentina. It has been 36 years since the South Americans defeated the West Germans in a thrilling final and when this most exciting of World Cups comes to a close at the Lusail Stadium, most football romantics will be hoping that Lionel Messi has finally taken his place alongside Diego Maradona in Argentine folklore.
Fate awaits. Messi in 2022 was the equivalent of Maradona at Mexico 86 and made an ordinary team believe they were capable of winning the biggest prize of them all. It’s definitely his time. Unless, of course, France overcomes the virus sweeping through its camp and launches its latest heist. “I know that Argentines, a lot of people around the world and maybe even some French people are hoping for Messi to win the World Cup,” confirmed Didier Deschamps. “But we will do everything to achieve our goal.”
Deschamps’ message was that France are as ready as a flu-stricken side can be. “We know what Lionel Messi means in the history of football,” added France captain Hugo Lloris. “But we will try to find the key to success.”
As Lloris pointed out, this is a clash between two great nations. In the brief moments when focus diverges from Messi and Kylian Mbappé, France’s bullet train, attention falls on two sides whose realism has given both hope of adding a third star to their badge.
Both show how pragmatism has become the dominant force in international football. Four years ago, Deschamps, whose reticence has drawn criticism, led France to glory with counter-attacking football. For now, he’s winning the argument. Even a loss at the final hurdle would be a win of sorts considering Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni hardly ever sent his team to fantasy football. “A very well organized team,” said Lloris of Argentina. “They are strong defensively and press very aggressively on whoever has the ball. They are very good at the break.”
With that in mind, it was interesting to hear Arsène Wenger and Jürgen Klinsmann present their takeaways from the tournament at a FIFA technical briefing. Compactness in the central areas is “the prevailing way of playing and defending”. It has forced teams into the wide areas, resulting in 45 goals from crosses (up from 24 in 2018) and underscoring the renewed importance of the traditional No.9. Think of Antoine Griezmann’s swipe at Olivier Giroud, who scored the winner during France’s quarter-final win over England. Imagine Messi squirming over the outside against Croatia, beating Josko Gvardiol and pulling the ball back for Julián Álvarez to score.
That was an example of how nice it is to have strikers who can dribble past defenders. “They had many teams with a lot of possession but without a result,” said Wenger, no doubt thinking of Spain. It was also pointed out that with defensive lines pushed a little higher, many balls went over the top. France, with the pace of Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé on the wings, threatens in this way.
But France does not make the heart beat faster. They had 43% possession against England and 37% in the semis against Morocco. “In the second half we fell back too far, but that was also due to a good performance by the Moroccans,” said Lloris. Good but not enough. France survived. They ration their periods of dominance and maintain their form when ahead. But sometimes it’s like walking a tightrope. Morocco hit the post from behind. England were just a Harry Kane penalty away from being 2-2.
But it works for the world champion. Away from Mbappé, Giroud has played selflessly in the absence of the injured Karim Benzema. Griezmann, who is characterizing himself as the elusive No.10 in his new role, is a worthy contender for the title of player of the tournament. Dembélé was disciplined on the right. In midfield, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot could play important roles closing Messi’s space. Raphaël Varane, accompanied by either Ibrahima Konaté or Dayot Upamecano, exudes calm in central defence.
This is a gnarly side summed up by the possibility of Lloris becoming the first captain to win two world championships. Only France could survive the loss of Benzema, Lucas Hernandez, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Presnel Kimpembe and Christopher Nkunku to injuries and still make it this far. Even now, with their preparations disrupted by illness, they will lean on beating Argentina.
Not that it’s going to be easy. Argentina, outplayed by France in the round of 16 in Russia, are a walking endeavor under Scaloni. They surprised the Netherlands with a chain of five in the quarter-finals, have top-class attackers like Paulo Dybala, Ángel Di María and Lautaro Martínez in reserve and have treated every game like a final since losing their opening game to Saudi Arabia.
Argentine passion grows. You will command most of the support within the Lusail. If it is to be a compact and energetic midfield featuring Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernández, Alexis Mac Allister and Leandro Paredes, they will look to outnumber France. Cristian Romero and Nicolás Otamendi are warriors in the background.
Like Giroud, Álvarez has emerged from the shadows to impress up front. The Manchester City forward has more to offer than goals, although he has four of them. Álvarez’ movement and willingness to penetrate behind defenses have also eased the physical strain on Messi, who has made the most of his less running, scoring five goals and scoring three. Everything is geared towards making Messi happy. It will worry Deschamps if the little genius finds ways to expose France attacking left-back Theo Hernandez.
“Argentina is a strong team with a young generation,” said Lloris. “They are all dedicated to Leo Messi.” But the white flag from France was not waved. You have Mbappé, who has five goals and a chance to become the owner of two winners’ medals at the age of 23. They have an unwavering team spirit and were strengthened by the return of Kingsley Coman, Theo Hernandez, Varane, Konaté and Tchouaméni to practice last night.
“It’s going to be a great event,” Lloris continued. He gave him the big sale. Argentina hopes history will be made soon. France refuses to be carried away by sentimentality. They believe they can deny Messi his romantic ending.