Arsene Wenger has praised “leader of the orchestra” Lionel Messi as the Argentine great bids to inspire his team to glory in Sunday’s World Cup final against defending champions France.
But much of the pre-match focus has been on whether Paris Saint-Germain superstar Messi can cap his glittering career with the one major title that has so far eluded him.
Wenger, who is FIFA’s football development chief, said the 35-year-old had rediscovered his ability to hurt teams with his change of pace in Qatar.
“The boss of the orchestra is Messi and the music starts when he has the ball,” the former Arsenal boss told AFP. “But the rest of the orchestra is ready to work very hard.
“What is surprising for me in this tournament is that he has rediscovered that physical capacity to accelerate again at the right moment.
“He played a little bit last year at Paris Saint-Germain one-paced but he has mastered slow-quick again.
Arsene Wenger is FIFA’s chief of global football development
“He was never super quick but he was a master in change of direction and change of pace and he has found that again in this tournament.
“He attracts the opponent and suddenly he has that little burst that makes the difference.”
Wenger, 73, said Messi was like a lion tamer when he was surrounded by defenders.
“I’ve seen him here in the middle of three players and he’s like a guy with a lion in the circus,” he said. “He tells the ball ‘you listen to me, my friend, I’m the boss here’.
“And overall I would say that he has always had unbelievable quality for such a master of dribbling – he knew always when to pass the ball and usually when players are very talented in dribbling they exaggerate a little bit.”
– Mbappe threat –
Messi will go head-to-head on Sunday with France’s 23-year-old attacker Mbappe – a player many believe will take on the Argentine’s mantle of the world’s best player.
Both men have five goals each in Qatar which puts them joint top of the goalscoring charts with one game to go.
But Wenger was wary of making direct comparisons between the two players, who both play for PSG.
“I would say they are different players,” said the Frenchman. “Mbappe has huge flexibilty, huge power and he’s very intelligent as well but in a different way.
“He uses his power and he knows how to use his physical potential but he is also very creative in the final third.
“Both of them have something that is very difficult to get – they are not nervous with a lot of traffic around them in the final third. They keep their vision.”
Victory for France would make coach Didier Deschamps just the second man in history to lead his team to back-to-back World Cup triumphs after Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930s.
But Wenger was hesitant about whether that would make him the greatest-ever international boss.
“Overall he has had an exceptional career and that’s down to his exceptional qualities and that will just confirm I feel that he benefited a lot from his experiences as well,” he said.
Wenger said Deschamps, who also captained France to World Cup glory in 1998, had learned from tournaments in which the team had fallen short.
“Somewhere it gave him that deep desire to show that he has still got it and he has still got it,” he said. “He will never lose that.”
Wenger said one key factor for France was that they have the confidence of champions, which helped get them over the line against a talented England side in the quarter-finals.
“In this team they have a good mixture of newcomers, who want to show they have the level because we have big injuries, and players who have the knowledge of how to win the World Cup,” he said.
“So he got the right mixture in there and since the start of the tournament he has always made the right decisions.”