Lionel Messi vs. Kylian Mbappe went head to head in 2018 and are now PSG teammates as they prepare for the biggest game of all. Illustration by ESPN
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has flown by. Wedged into the middle of the European club season, it has had to. It’s hard to believe that the tournament began 26 days ago, yet so much has transpired in that time, including whittling down a field of 32 to just France and Argentina, who will meet in Sunday’s final at 10 a.m. ET.
Many would have expected France, the defending champions, to be here. But with Argentina having suffered an upset to Saudi Arabia in their opening game, their rally to reach a second World Cup final in eight years is more of a surprise. Although, when your team boasts Lionel Messi, can you ever really be surprised to be in contention for a major trophy?
So, with the World Cup final now just 48 hours away, what should we expect from a meeting of two of football’s powerhouses? To find out, ESPN asked Gabriele Marcotti, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens and James Olley to weigh in on this intriguing matchup of Les Bleus and the Albiceleste.
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Lionel Messi vs. Kylian Mbappe: Can the GOAT hold off his heir apparent?
This is maybe the greatest individual matchup we have ever had in a World Cup final. Two world-class superstars — and club teammates at PSG as well, adding to the drama. The greatest player of all time, Messi, against heir to his crown Kylian Mbappe.
For Messi, it would be the perfect fairy-tale ending for a World Cup journey that has, thus far, been full of disappointments: from early exits to a final defeat in 2014 against Germany.
For Mbappe, it would be another piece of history made. At 23 years old, he would become the second-youngest player, after Brazil legend Pele, to win back-to-back World Cups.
There can be only one winner, of course. Sunday will be a showcase of their incredible talent, leadership and how they can impact a final on the biggest stage of all. And beyond the World Cup itself, there is also the next Ballon d’Or at stake here, the best player of the tournament prize and the top goal-scorer award (they are both on five goals at the moment.)
There is so much to look forward to in the battle between these two geniuses, not least because the last time they played, in the 2018 round of 16, it was 4-3 to France! — Laurens
Taylor Twellman joins SportsCenter and makes quite the grand comparison between Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe.
After an up-and-down World Cup, did we get a great final?
The final is good for the Qataris, given it pitches two of Paris Saint-Germain’s leading stars against each other in a heavyweight match. Furthermore, for a tournament overshadowed by off-field controversies in the buildup — and during much of the action — the football itself has been highly entertaining. In that context alone, this World Cup gets the final it deserves.
Either winner will add a fresh chapter to their rich football history; France becoming only the third back-to-back winners in history or Argentina ending a 36-year wait for a World Cup win with Messi immortalised on the grandest stage of all. As much as this competition has been enriched by surprising success stories — think Saudi Arabia beating Argentina, Morocco’s remarkable run to the semifinals — the final pitching together of two powerhouses of the global game is what everyone wants to see. It is also probably what Qatar had in mind when winning the bid to host this tournament 12 years ago. — Olley
Who is each team’s X factor?
FRANCE: Antoine Griezmann
Olivier Giroud is more handsome and Mbappe more hyped, but Griezmann has arguably been France’s most important player in Qatar and could prove decisive in the final. A natural forward, he’s been reinvented as a midfielder in this tournament and will have a massive dual task in helping to prop up France’s midfield while also offering the creative spark behind striker Giroud. His mobility will also prove a challenge for an Argentina midfield who often play narrow.
ARGENTINA: Enzo Fernandez
Other than Messi and Angel Di Maria (who may well not start), Argentina are short on creativity, and that will be an issue if, as expected, Didier Deschamps plays on the counter, as he loves to do. The Benfica youngster is more of an all-rounder than a creator, but he has the spark and dynamism to create overloads and make runs down that inside left channel. He has the personality to be a disruptor, and that’s what Argentina might need against a tight France setup. — Marcotti.
The biggest prize in football is on offer as the World Cup finishes on Sunday. Matthew Ashton – AMA via Getty Images
How Argentina made it to the final
The Copa America champions have taken time to hit their stride after an opening game 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia and a tough encounter with Mexico in Game 2 before Messi’s 64th-minute opener. But that goal changed everything for Lionel Scaloni’s team. From that point on, they grew in belief as a squad and Messi began to take his game to another level.
In many ways, Argentina’s class of 2022 is an amalgamation of the team that won the World Cup in 1986 and then lost the final in 1990.
In 1986, Diego Maradona produced moments of match-winning genius at every round of the knockout stage to drag his team to victory. Four years later, Argentina lost their opening game and battled through to the final by displaying physical and mental strength in tight knockout games and penalty shootouts.
Messi’s magic has been Maradona-like in wins against Australia, Netherlands and Croatia, but just as Maradona had Claudio Caniggia’s pace and goal threat to finish off his buildup play in 1990, Messi has Julian Alvarez, the Manchester City forward who has four goals at Qatar 2022.
In 1990, the final was a step too far for Maradona and Argentina, so Messi & Co. really need Sunday to be a repeat of 1986. — Ogden
How France made it to the final
It all started with a shock as France conceded within 10 minutes of their opening World Cup game against Australia. At the time, considering the injuries (Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Christopher Nkunku, Presnel Kimpembe and Lucas Hernandez) and the troubles Les Bleus had in the buildup to this competition, nobody saw them reaching the final after going behind. But they turned things around spectacularly.
France came back to destroy Australia 4-1 in the end, then they produced a strong performance against Denmark to qualify for the round of 16 after a brace from Mbappe. In the final group game, they lost 1-0 to Tunisia as Deschamps made nine changes, but normal service resumed against Poland in the knockouts with another Mbappe brace.
Despite being outplayed for large parts against England in the quarterfinals, France channelled their 2018 World Cup-winning form with a perfect blend of ruthlessness and efficiency to win 2-1 after Harry Kane’s missed penalty. A weakened Morocco were dispatched 2-0 in the semifinals, and now Les Bleus have a chance to complete an incredible double. — Laurens
As we approach the end of an enthralling month’s action, we take a look back at the highlights and lowlights of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
What has caught our eye ahead of this final
Can France repeat?
France can win their second successive World Cup, matching a feat achieved by just two nations: Italy in 1934 and 1938; Brazil in 1958 and 1962. There are plenty of reasons repeats are so rare in the World Cup: the four-year gap; the turnover in players (France will likely have returning starters from the 2018 side); the knockout formula, which favors upsets and unexpected results. To be 90 minutes from lifting another World Cup is a testament to France’s talent and to the way that talent has been handled by Deschamps. — Marcotti
What will Deschamps do next?
The French Football Federation set Deschamps a target of reaching the semifinals in defence of their crown, and he has surpassed that with another impressive run to the final. It must be said, though, the football hasn’t always been great. France had to ride their luck at times against England in the quarterfinals, and Morocco took that a step further in the semis, producing a display that had France hanging on to a slender 1-0 lead during the second half. This squad’s big-game poise is undeniable, though, having played a similar way to lift the trophy four years ago in Russia.
There is a case for Deschamps staying or going whatever happens on Sunday. His contract expires at the end of the tournament, and the federation wants him to stay on. On the one hand, if they win, he could go out as a double champion, the first man to win the World Cup once as a player and twice as a coach; legendary status intact forever after a decade in charge. On the other hand, why stop there? Euro 2024 is only 18 months away, and France will be one of the favourites again.
However, if they lose, he might feel inspired by a sense of revenge to go again, especially given that he has not won a European Championship and lost the 2016 final. Or he could feel he has had his time, with Zinedine Zidane waiting in the wings to take over. The immediate aftermath will be almost as intriguing as the final itself. — Olley
Will Didier Deschamps make history and decide to stay on in his job? Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
The Argentina fans have been amazing
They have been a huge help to the team, but Argentina’s fans have also transformed Doha into a place of joy and music, with white and light blue everywhere. You can’t walk 5 yards in Qatar without seeing one of them; there are around 50,000 here already and more coming for the final.
Argentina’s fans have been one of the best stories of this World Cup. Not only have they supported, encouraged and given strength to Messi and the team with their constant chanting, jumping and energy but they have also acted with class and passion throughout this tournament, in the streets or the stadiums.
Many flew halfway across the globe in the hope of seeing Messi finally lift the trophy in his last World Cup. Now that chance is here, and the atmosphere for the final will be something never seen before outside of a home ground. It will be beautiful. It will be emotional, especially if Argentina win. It will be heartbreaking if they don’t.
But these fans surely will make their country proud once more on Sunday. Their song “Muchachos” — which tells the story of all the past disappointments but also of Diego Maradona and Messi and how winning the Copa America in 2021 at the Maracana changed everything in their bid to add a third World Cup star to the jersey — is one of the best football songs ever. — Laurens
Marciniak appointment a win for sensible refereeing
Szymon Marciniak will take charge of the World Cup final, and the appointment of the Polish referee is a victory for those officials who adopt a sensible but authoritative approach to the role. The 41-year-old has already taken charge of both finalists at this World Cup — he was referee for France’s opening game against Denmark and Argentina’s round-of-16 tie against Australia — and issued just five yellow cards over the two games.
With the latter stages of Qatar 2022 overshadowed by criticism of the performances of referees Antonio Mateu Lahoz (the Spaniard issued 18 yellow cards during Argentina’s quarterfinal against Netherlands) and Brazil’s Wilton Sampaio, after his unpredictable performance during France’s win against England, the selection of Marciniak points to the game being played in a controlled atmosphere under a strong referee.
Marciniak, whose biggest game to date was the 2018 UEFA Super Cup final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, revealed earlier this year that he missed out on Euro 2020 after being diagnosed with tachycardia, an irregular heartbeat, following a bout of COVID-19. But he has been back in action at the top level since the start of last season and has now been given the ultimate prize for any referee. — Ogden
Sam Marsden explains why he thinks Lionel Messi will finally get his hands on the World Cup trophy after Argentina eased into the final.
Argentina 2-0 France: In reality, it’s such an evenly matched game that you expect whoever scores first to perhaps add another on the counter and win. Why am I going with Argentina? Because they have Messi. And, for now, he’s ahead of Mbappe. — Marcotti
Argentina 1-2 France: I expect Les Bleus to crash the Messi World Cup fairytale party! They will concede most of the ball to Argentina, stay compact to frustrate them and then force them to play wide. They will watch the runs of Alvarez and double up on Messi. Then, it will be Mbappe’s game and Argentina won’t be able to stop him. — Laurens
Argentina 1-3 France: Everyone outside of France (and maybe Brazil) wants to see Messi crown his career with the ultimate prize of the World Cup, but ultimately, France are a team of strength in every department and Argentina, beyond Messi, just aren’t in the same league. So this won’t be an occasion when romance wins, unfortunately. — Ogden
Argentina 2-1 France: England could have beaten France; Morocco arguably should have beaten France. Argentina probably will beat France. — Olley