France and Argentina are gearing up for a heavyweight World Cup final that pits Kylian Mbappe against Lionel Messi in a hotly anticipated duel, with history on the line.
Defending champions France beat Morocco 2-0 on Wednesday without needing to find top gear and now stand 90 minutes away from becoming the first team for 60 years to defend their title.
Didier Deschamps’ men will approach Sunday’s final at the Lusail Stadium with confidence but Messi has his own date with destiny in his last match on the biggest stage.
Goals from Theo Hernandez and substitute Randal Kolo Muani at Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday snuffed out the challenge of Morocco, the first African or Arab side ever to reach a World Cup semifinal.
France are into the final for the fourth time in seven editions and if they triumph on Sunday they will be the first team since Brazil in 1962 to retain the trophy.
They were congratulated in the dressing room by President Emmanuel Macron, while supporters erupted in jubilation around the Champs-Elysees in Paris, waving tricolour flags and setting off flares.
“We are in the final. We are in the final,” hundreds of French supporters chanted as drivers sounded horns and anti-riot police lurked in vans lining the area.
Delighted France coach Deschamps, who led the nation to success in Russia in 2018, 20 years after captaining them to glory, said: “There is emotion and pride.
“Obviously it was another important step today and now there will be another one.
“We’ve been together for a month. It’s never easy, but here it is – it’s been a joy so far and my players have been rewarded.”
Defeat for Morocco ended their fairytale run in Qatar that captured the imagination of Africa and the Arab world.
“We gave the maximum, that’s the most important thing,” said coach Walid Regragui. “The most important thing is to have given a good image, to have shown the world that Moroccan football exists and that we have beautiful supporters.”
MESSI V MBAPPE
The final will inevitably be billed as a battle between Messi and his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Mbappe.
The two players are joint top of the World Cup goalscoring charts on five goals apiece, with Argentina’s Julian Alvarez and France’s Olivier Giroud just one behind.
The Copa America champions, who produced arguably their best performance of the tournament in beating Croatia 3-0 on Tuesday, will sense vulnerability in a France team that have not found top gear in Qatar.
Messi, playing in his fifth World Cup, has been a man on a mission, desperate to crown his career by leading Argentina to their first win at the tournament since Diego Maradona inspired the South Americans to the title in 1986.
On Tuesday he produced flashes of genius to help Argentina overcome 2018 finalists Croatia, confirming after the match that he expects Sunday’s final to be his last appearance at a World Cup.
“Being able to achieve this, being able to finish my journey in the World Cups by playing my last game in a final, is something very exciting,” said the 35-year-old Argentine captain.
Deschamps said he would come up with a plan to counter the threat of the “scintillating” Messi, who will seek to exploit France’s vulnerability in the full-back positions.
“He looks in great shape and of course he is one of the best players in the world so we will try to counter Messi’s threat as much as possible, just as Argentina will try to stop the influence of some of my players,” he said.
Deschamps also has another headache in the form of an illness stalking the camp after midfielder Adrien Rabiot missed the Morocco game due to illness.
Defender Dayot Upamecano also dropped out of the line-up for the semifinal, although he was named among the substitutes.
“The air conditioning is on all the time and so we have had a few cases of flu-like symptoms but we will try to avoid it spreading,” said Deschamps.