Headline act of a sparkling World Cup 2022 programme commences on Sunday at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, as Argentina and reigning champions France strive for international supremacy in a mouthwatering final.
Les Bleus will step out onto the Lusail turf as the first holders in 24 years to participate in the final, which they booked their tickets for courtesy of a 2-0 win over African trailblazers Morocco in the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, Lionel Scaloni’s men denied Croatia a second successive appearance in the showpiece event with a 3-0 victory in the final four, and the pre-match build-up has unsurprisingly been focused on one man.
A video of Lionel Messi has been doing the rounds on social media this week. Not one of his sublime strikes or awe-inspiring assists, but of a journalist waxing lyrical about the 35-year-old’s timeless qualities and reminding him just how much he inspires all the boys and girls back home.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has ticked nearly every box that there is to be ticked on his footballing checklist, except for the big one, and the script-writers are already busy drafting the act of Messi lifting the iconic trophy aloft in what will be his farewell World Cup match.
As eloquent as the Paris Saint-Germain attacker has been during the Qatar tournament, one man alone cannot steer his nation to the biggest sporting event on the globe. Nicolas Otamendi has rolled back the years in defence, Enzo Fernandez could become the next nine-figure footballer, and Julian Alvarez has clearly taken a few leaves out of his strike partner’s book.
A penny for Argentinian thoughts when Salem Al-Dawsari’s Saudi Arabia stunner flashed past Emiliano Martinez or when Wout Weghorst nearly made the impossible possible for the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, but the Copa America winners have been determined to avoid joining fellow esteemed nations Spain, Belgium and Germany on the well-stocked giant killings list.
A Croatia side who had already dumped out one of the pre-tournament favourites in Brazil were not expected to be pushovers in the semi-finals, but La Albiceleste made light work of the 2018 runners-up, thanks in no small part to their effervescent strike partnership.
Officiating controversy reared its ugly head when Dominik Livakovic was adjudged to have fouled Alvarez – Messi did what he does best from 12 yards in the aftermath – and the Manchester City man doubled his side’s advantage simply by running through the Croatia lines and getting lucky with a couple of ricochets.
Messi then founded an exclusive club of players to have made Josko Gvardiol look a fool at this World Cup, twisting and turning the 20-year-old breakout star before picking out Alvarez to put the tie beyond any measurable doubt, and a sixth World Cup final is now on the cards for the 1978 and 1986 champions.
However, three showpiece events have ended in tears of despair for Argentina – including the 2014 edition – and they could now equal Germany’s unwanted record of losing a joint-high four World Cup finals, but scoring two goals in every game since the opening matchday is certainly a reassuring statistic.
Only Spain in 2010 have also managed to propel themselves to World Cup glory after losing their opening match of the tournament, but Scaloni’s side have not faced more than six shots per game on average in Qatar, and they will need to employ such defensive expertise lest Messi’s clubmate Kylian Mbappe enjoy a field day.
France players react to reaching the World Cup final on December 14, 2022
Nearly everything that could go wrong for France did go wrong for France before they boarded their flight to the Middle East. A myriad of injuries to key players, perpetual controversy off the field and an almost unthinkable relegation from the Nations League, which they just about managed to stave off.
Very few had France down as one of the contenders to go all the way in Qatar, but those who received Les Bleus in the sweepstakes may be feeling a little more smug right about now, as the defending champions prove exactly why the trophy continues to glisten in their cabinet.
No Paul Pogba? No N’Golo Kante? No Karim Benzema, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner? No problem for Didier Deschamps. The World Cup-winning player and manager – one of only three men with such a title on their CV – was even asked about the prospect of bringing Benzema back for the final following his recovery from a thigh injury, but his exhausted sigh and refusal to answer the question was that of a man who only has eyes for his present protagonists.
After preventing football from coming home to England, France faced a true test of their mettle against the first-ever African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, and they were certainly given a couple of scares against a Morocco side roared on by their ever-vociferous support.
The gloves of Hugo Lloris and heroic interventions of Ibrahima Konate were needed on occasion for Les Bleus, who came up against a team yet to concede to an opposing player in the tournament, but Theo Hernandez changed all of that with his acrobatic fifth-minute opener.
Randal Kolo Muani then needed just 44 seconds as a substitute to double his side’s lead and end the Moroccan fairytale for another four years, which saw them become the first reigning champions to progress to the final since the Brazil team of 1998, whom they coincidentally saw off in that showpiece event.
Finally managing to keep a first clean sheet of the tournament is exactly what the doctor ordered for Deschamps’s men before they contest a fourth World Cup final, and they now endeavour to follow in the footsteps of Italy and Brazil as just the third nation to ever win back-to-back World Cups.
Not since the 1978 group stage have the 1998 and 2018 winners suffered defeat of any kind to a South American nation in the globe’s premier competition, although that was against Argentina, and football will take centre stage for another 90 or 120 minutes at Lusail before the inquest begins.
Fans will fondly look back on the Qatar tournament for its perennial ability to produce shock after shock, with the likes of Morocco and Japan capturing the hearts of the neutrals. However, the exigent issues surrounding migrant worker deaths, treament of the LGBT community and other human rights concerns means that a thick black cloud will forever overshadow a competition that even Sepp Blatter admitted should not have gone to the Gulf state in the first place.