Sunday’s World Cup final will not be the first time Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi have met on this stage.
If the encounter at Lusail Stadium is half as good as the instant classic witnessed in Kazan four years ago, then we’ll be in for a treat.
France won 4-3 in their last-16 duel, a game that was defined by Argentina’s fragility and Les Bleus’ ruthlessness.
Didier Deschamps’ men of course went on to win the tournament; Argentina soon sacked Jorge Sampaoli and Lionel Messi went into a self-imposed international exile.
It was a seismic contest in a variety of ways.
Mbappe elevated to superstardom
The final of Qatar 2022 is of course being billed as Mbappe versus Messi. Ahead of their meeting in Kazan, this wasn’t really the case, with the latter undoubtedly the focus for many.
But at full-time, there was almost a sense of this game being Mbappe’s ‘arrival’ as a global superstar.
While his talent was already well known having joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, Mbappe’s performance against Argentina brought his prodigious ability to a worldwide audience.
He was devastating.
Argentina couldn’t handle his speed and ability on the ball, with Mbappe tearing the Albiceleste’s slow – and high – back-line to shreds.
First, he darted through them, drawing a foul from Javier Mascherano that resulted in Antoine Griezmann striking the crossbar.
Then he just ran away from them, leaving Mascherano and company in his tracks before surging past Marcos Rojo and winning a penalty that Griezmann coolly slotted home.
It wasn’t just about his speed, though. Twice he delivered the decisive touch.
Somehow making space for himself in the box, he slammed a left-footed strike through Franco Armani to open his account.
Then he rounded off one of the most memorable goals of the tournament. An intricate counter-attack led to Mbappe steaming up the right flank and latching on to Olivier Giroud’s prodded pass before emphatically finding the bottom-left corner with a first-time effort.
It made him the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since Pele in 1958.
“When you are to meet a player like Kylian or Leo, of course you make a plan to control them,” Sampaoli said. “But if they have a day like Mbappe did, it’s very difficult to make the plan work.”
Mbappe had truly arrived.
Messi engulfed by the gloom
Just as Mbappe provided an utterly terrifying glimpse of what he’d go on to become, it seemed Messi was on his way out.
Having recently turned 31, there was a perception this was Messi’s last tango at the World Cup; after all, he had already retired from international football once before.
And, to be fair, his performance offered little in the way of a response to the idea that he was done.
He did get a couple of assists. The first wasn’t exactly one for the highlights reel – it was a tame shot that hit Gabriel Mercado on its way in. Then, his deep cross found Sergio Aguero to head home late on, but Messi was missing the inner fire he’s so clearly embraced in Qatar.
At the point of Mercado’s fortunate goal, everything was looking quite positive for Argentina as it put them 2-1 up, but they simply weren’t defensively sound enough to keep Les Bleus at bay.
Similarly, Messi was unable to shoulder the burden of individually inspiring a team that was essentially in crisis, with prominent reports of rifts and a player mutiny against the coaching staff.
Exile followed for Messi.
Lionel Scaloni was appointed – initially as caretaker head coach – in August 2018, with Messi’s future unclear. He was left out of Scaloni’s early squads, but after a nine-month absence he did eventually return.
He’s not looked back. Messi led Argentina to their first major title in 28 years in 2021 as they won the Copa America, and he’s been the key figure in the Albiceleste’s route to the final of Qatar 2022.
But can he finally win the biggest title that’s eluded him?
Eat my goal
There was more to the Kazan classic than just Mbappe and Messi, however.
A topsy-turvy encounter that encapsulated Argentina’s roller-coaster campaign had almost everything: drama, engrossing wider narratives, incredible players and some outrageous goals.
Griezmann’s penalty opened the scoring, but the match truly came alive with Angel Di Maria’s equaliser.
Given space about 30 yards out, he unleashed an unstoppable piledriver out of Hugo Lloris’ reach up to his left, sparking maniacal celebrations from Argentina.
Those celebrations were matched – and the goal arguably trumped – when France brought the game back to 2-2.
Lucas Hernandez’s cross fell kindly to Benjamin Pavard just outside the box and the defender met it with one of the most satisfying half-volleys you’re ever likely to see, slicing across the ball to send it spinning with venom into the top-left corner.
Mbappe’s exceptional second had Argentina 4-2 up, and even Aguero’s ultimate consolation was a goal of real quality, particularly Messi’s pass.
But the legacy of this game was Mbappe’s elevation to a new plain, and it’s from there that he’s plotting to deny Messi’s bid for immortality this time.
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