A titanic clash awaits on Sunday, as Copa America winners Argentina face reigning world champions France in a mouth-watering World Cup final encounter. Can Argentina deliver a first World Cup since 1986? Or will France record historic back-to-back successes? Can Messi go one step further and achieve the fairy-tale ending, or will Mbappe stamp the authority of the next generation? Rhys Thomas previews the tournament finale.
On the football side of things, it has been a memorable World Cup for largely the right reasons. The upsets from Saudi Arabia and Japan in the group stage were stunning, as was the early exit of Germany. Morocco’s glorious run to the semi-finals was a seismic achievement for African football the continent reached the semi-finals for the first time. Yet after all the shocks and drama, two of the tournament favourites have prevailed to reach another final in their glittering histories.
Messi, their messiah, was on hand to calmly convert penalties in normal time and the shootout despite his shaky record, signalling that this may truly be his tournament
Argentina recovered from a disastrous opening-game defeat to Saudi Arabia, winning their group and progressing into the quarter-finals. There, however, they suffered a major scare as the Netherlands scored two in the final ten minutes to take the game to extra-time and then penalties. Messi, their messiah, was on hand to calmly convert penalties in normal time and the shootout despite his shaky record, signalling that this may truly be his tournament.
Though the South Americans looked far more composed against Croatia, across the tournament they have looked vulnerable. Even when 2-0 up, the 2018 runners-up generated panic in the Argentinian backline. Argentina are satisfied to give up possession – Croatia had 61% – to set up counter-attacking opportunities, but you wonder how they will fare against a more potent France side.
Interestingly, though, the French have averaged less of the ball than Argentina this tournament, sitting at 52.5%, only marginally above Canada. The European side were hardly dominant in their win against Morocco, allowing the Atlas Lions a 62% share of the ball and almost an equal amount of shots. It will be fascinating to see how this tactical element plays out between the two teams on Sunday.
Though most saw the Three Lions as the better side in the quarter-final, France were praised for their tournament know-how, and clinical ability to get the job done
France’s unconvincing run to the final has perhaps been covered up by their victory over England and ability to end Morocco’s journey where other powerhouses failed. Though most saw the Three Lions as the better side in the quarter-final, France were praised for their tournament know-how, and clinical ability to get the job done.
Ahead of the Morocco game, France’s backline had failed to keep a clean sheet. Only a litany of Hugo Lloris saves prevented a sixth failure to keep the opposition out. Argentina’s talent going forward has been tremendous, with the breakthrough of Alvarez into the starting side a vital shift. Both sides average close to five shots on target per 90, behind four other sides in the competition. France though, have conceded shots on target at double the rate of their opponents. This is surely something they will need to address before facing the pinpoint accuracy of Messi and co.
What is a big game preview without an intense scrutiny of the crucial battles that are likely to take place on the pitch?
Beginning at the base of the tree, both goalkeepers will likely be crucial to their side’s efforts to become world champions. Each are highly rated Premier League stoppers, with Lloris a stalwart in the France team for years. Martinez has been critical for Aston Villa despite their poor form. However, he hasn’t had the best of tournaments, recording –1.8 goals prevented based on the quality of the shot (pre-semi-finals).
French skipper Lloris, alternatively, is 0.3 to the good in this statistic, meaning he has conceded marginally less goals than would be expected. Martinez also ranks poorly for saves per game and save percentage in the World Cup – despite his shoot-out heroics, it is critical the ex-Arsenal keeper steps up in this final.
Konaté had a brilliant game against Morocco and put on strong showings in Varane’s absence earlier on
Refocusing on the French defence, they have had a difficult competition. Injury kept leader Varane out of the team for some of the group stage, and Upamecano has been shaky as his partner. Cynical this may be, but his unavailability for the semi-final may have been a blessing for France. He was replaced by Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konaté, who has often been imperious alongside Van Dijk at club level. Konaté had a brilliant game against Morocco and put on strong showings in Varane’s absence earlier on. However, recent reports suggest that all three are suffering from illness ahead of the final, creating great uncertainty in the French camp. Social distancing measures have been introduced to try and mitigate any further issues.
Deschamps has a crucial decision to make in his centre-back department ahead of the final. Konaté has only recently come to the fore in the France setup, at times a victim of their embarrassment of riches in central defenders. Upamecano has been the first-choice partner for Varane of late, but Konaté’s superior form and semi-final performance surely warrants serious consideration.
Whoever is picked will face a mega battle against the Argentina front two of Messi and Alvarez. The latter has been in imperious scoring form, justifying his inclusion in the team after Martinez faltered. It is hard to imagine that Alvarez will return to warm the Manchester City bench after this tournament – Guardiola surely now has a headache trying to fit him in. Alvarez works incredibly hard on and off the ball, making up for the energy-conserving Messi. He’s extremely dangerous in the box and the France defence will do well to keep him quiet.
Similarly, Argentina will be looking to keep Golden Ball contender Griezmann on the periphery. A difficult few seasons behind him, the Frenchman has starred in a new, deeper role in Qatar, pulling the strings and creating numerous chances for his fellow forwards. Enzo Fernades and Rodrigo de Paul will have their work cut out trying to restrict his influence.
The stars seem aligned for him to go all the way and ascend into immortality, having achieved everything in the game
Finally, we arrive at the dominant narrative that is Messi versus Mbappe. It’s experience against youth, master against the challenger, king against the heir apparent. 35-year-old Messi has had an exceptional World Cup, perhaps his best at the fifth attempt. The stars seem aligned for him to go all the way and ascend into immortality, having achieved everything in the game.
His PSG teammate though, will have other ideas. His five non-penalty goals are the highest at the tournament, and his clinical and direct style is truly a joy to watch. Against England, much was made of Walker’s challenge to stop the French ace. The City defender was largely successful, and if Molina can do a similar job for Argentina, he will have muted the explosive cog in the France attack.
France have allowed 17.8 opposition touches in their box per 90 minutes, an average higher than most of the favourites. If a even a small portion of these fall to Messi, they will surely be punished if the GOAT continues at his brilliant, still unstoppable best.
Argentina, on the other hand, have recorded the second lowest opposition touches in their box per 90 minutes. However, perhaps the greatest France danger comes from the wide areas, with Mbappe, Dembele, and Griezmann all exceptionally dangerous from such positions. With Giroud lurking in the area, a goal reminiscent of his winner against England will be difficult to prevent.
Featured image courtesy of Dorian Hurst via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes were made to this image.
In article image 1 courtesy of @fifaworldcup via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.
In article image 2 courtesy of @fifaworldcup via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.
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