This is, admittedly, a slight departure from the format of our prior coverage throughout the men’s World Cup, but it seems harsh to name winners and losers from the Bronze Medal game between Croatia and Morocco. Yes, Croatia were the literal winners, and Morocco the literal and figurative losers, as two more Moroccan players were forced out of the game by injury. But rather than dwell on that, we’ll say congratulations to both teams and keep it moving because we’ve got a World Cup Final to worry about.
On such a big occasion how are you supposed to know what to focus on? Obvious or otherwise, what are the major narratives from outside of the stadium that will see their particular storylines wrapped up in dramatic fashion? What are the particular match-ups that seem most likely to determine the outcome? Well, let’s see if we can’t clear some of that up for you.
Messi’s World Cup: It’s undeniable that Lionel Messi is one of the greatest footballers to ever grace the game with his presence. He may even be the best men’s footballer of all time, although that’s a harder concept to nail down, especially when the guys he’s generally compared to have a lot less video evidence of their greatness, and relative greatness across eras of the game is really, really hard to compare objectively. For all of Messi’s accomplishments, though, there’s really only one major trophy that he’s pursued without lifting: the World Cup trophy. That lack of a World Cup championship is the last thing held over his head when comparing Messi to fellow Argentine and football royalty Diego Maradona, as Maradona won with Argentina in 1986. Now Messi finds himself leading Argentina in a World Cup Final for the second time, having fallen to Germany in the 2014 Final. Taking down France will be no easy feat, although Les Bleus have kept only one clean sheet in the tournament. Messi and his teammates will likely have to be at their best to complete his collection, but this is their best chance yet at winning Argentina’s third World Cup, and their first in 36 years.
Back-to-back World Cup Champs: For France this World Cup is less about the legacy of any individual player, and more about making history. Both Argentina and France currently sit on 2 Men’s World Cup titles, behind Italy and Germany with 4 and Brazil with 5. Winning would be huge regardless, but if France win they enter even more rarified air as only the third Men’s National Team to win back-to-back World Cups. Italy did it almost as soon as the competition started, winning the second and third World Cups in 1934 and 1938, and Brazil became the second team to repeat when they won in 1954 and 1958. There are players, like Olivier Giroud, who I’m sure the French would love to see end their international careers with another World Cup win, but for all that their individual stars do shine, this French team feels like a collective effort. Will that be enough to overcome a football demigod?
The Golden Boot Race: The Golden Boot will almost certainly be decided by this game, as the top four players on the scoring chart at this tournament are all in this game. France has Kylian Mbappé with 5 goals and Giroud with 4, while Messi has 5 goals and his countryman Julián Álvarez also has 4. Mbappé and Messi are also neck-and-neck on total goals contributed, as Messi has 3 assists to go with his goals and Mbappé has 2. It seems entirely plausible that the race and the final itself will be decided by one of these men, and it would be absolutely glorious.
The French defense vs. their own bodies, and also the Argentine attack: Okay, this is admittedly so vague as to be effectively useless as a match-up, because obviously a major contest in a game will be the defense from one team against the attack of the other. It’s hard to be much more specific than that, though, as almost all of the first-choice French defenders have been at least questionable with illness or injury leading up to the Final. That’s a problem, considering that plenty of players on their best day have trouble containing Ángel Di Maria and company, to say nothing of Messi.
Argentina vs. the ball getting to Mbappé: This is an especially tricky nut to crack, and one that’s not dissimilar to the challenge that France face: there is one player in particular on both sides more capable than anyone of hurting you, but if you commit too many resources to shutting him down the team has other players capable of exploiting the space you’ve left as a result. With Mbappé you must accept that one player is not going to stop him. No disrespect to Nahuel Molina or whoever ends up playing fullback on Mbappé’s side, but you’re just not doing it, and you probably won’t do it if you have help. So the way to keep Mbappé from hurting you is to
not fall in love with him prevent service to him. Specifically that means primarily limiting the time that Antoine Griezmann has to pick out passes, but more broadly it means making sure that pressure comes quickly, but not recklessly, in the midfield. That should hopefully limit Mbappé’s opportunities, as well as Ousmane Dembélé and whoever among Giroud, Randal Kolo Muani and Marcus Thuram is up top.
There will, lord willing and the creek don’t rise, be drama, delight and goals in this Final. Let’s all sit back and enjoy. You can watch the game on Fox, Telemundo, or streaming on FoxSports.com and Peacock.
You can catch replays of all games in English on TubiTV.com or Spanish on Peacock 30 minutes after the final whistle.