In order to round off his illustrious career, Lionel Messi hopes to lead Argentina to World Cup victory on Sunday, but Kylian Mbappe’s history-chasing France stand in his way.
The World Cup in Qatar has been marred by controversies off the field, but it ends with the thrilling possibility of a championship game between two of the biggest teams in world football.
After their camp was hit by illness, forcing a number of players to miss training and giving coach Didier Deschamps an unwelcome headache, France may need every hour available as kick-off approaches.
The trophy is up for grabs again between Argentina and France, with Les Bleus competing again four years after their victory in Moscow.
The only teams to have done it before are Italy in the 1930s and Pele’s Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Winning back-to-back championships would be a monumental accomplishment for the team led by Deschamps.
But Messi’s pursuit of the game’s greatest prize in what is almost definitely his final World Cup game overshadows that possible accomplishment.
The former Barcelona star has claimed the Ballon d’Or seven times and has won every club competition available. Last year, he led Argentina to the Copa America title.
As the team recovered from a shocking opening-round loss to Saudi Arabia, Messi has been outstanding in his sixth World Cup, and his new partner, Julian Alvarez, has scored four goals.
“It is exciting to be in the final, but there is still one step to go,” said coach Lionel Scaloni.
CHASE FOR THIRD TITLE
Messi, 35, has scored five goals and provided some incredible assists in an effort to avenge Germany’s defeat in the 2014 final.
His final opportunity to emulate Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to victory in Mexico in 1986, is certainly this Sunday’s game.
“I am really enjoying myself. I have felt happy throughout this World Cup,” Messi said after Argentina’s 3-0 semifinal win against Croatia.
But will Messi’s World Cup be remembered, or will France win the tournament once more?
Despite never really being at their best, Les Bleus made it back to the championship game, and they now have to deal with illness in their camp.
Raphael Varane, Ibrahima Konate, Kingsley Coman, and other central defenders did not participate in practice on Friday due to cold-like symptoms.
Dayot Upamecano was out due to illness for the semifinal match against Morocco, and Konate filled in for him in defense. Adrien Rabiot was also under the weather.
Mbappe, who scored five goals in the team’s first four games but was largely kept quiet in the victories over England and Morocco, is the one player they cannot afford to lose.
At age 19, Mbappe helped France defeat Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup final, becoming the youngest teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele.
But the picture that will live in history of that competition is of Mbappe comforting Messi after helping France defeat Argentina in the round of 16.
They are currently club teammates who are vying for attention at Paris Saint-Germain, owned by Qatar, and are now duking it out on the biggest platform of all.
France is wary of focusing just on Messi’s confrontation with them in the 89 000-seat Lusail Stadium contest.
“Yes they have Leo Messi but there will also be 10 other players next to him who have lots of quality,” said midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni.
“So we will need to be ready, aware of the opportunity we have to make history.”
Deschamps said: “We will try to minimize his effect as much as possible, just as the Argentines will try to limit the influence of some of my players.” Deschamps can make history by becoming the first coach to win two World Cups in the post-World War II era.
In a new midfield position, Antoine Griezmann has excelled for France, and if his team wins, he may beat Messi to the Golden Ball.
Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna, a defensive duo, are welcomed back to Argentina following suspensions, and striker Angel Di Maria is anticipated to be healthy.
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