Defending champions France will take on two-times champion Argentina in the final of the World Cup at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar on Sunday.
Didier Deschamps’ France will aspire to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1962, while Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina will want to win their first World Cup in 36 years, with the legendary Lionel Messi being central to their scheme of things.
The two nations had last met in the Round of 16 at the last World Cup in Russia, with France prevailing 4-3 in that match.
Here are three things to watch for in the final:
France must stop Messi’s runs through the inside-right channel
Throughout this World Cup, the 35-year-old Messi has tormented Argentina’s opponents with his deadly runs through the inside-right channel and France must guard against them.
Messi, who has scored five goals and registered three assists in the World Cup, prefers to drop down and then dart through the inside-right channel from the right flank, using his potent left foot to full effect.
Julian Alvarez, who has been a shining light in the tournament, will be looking to make the most of any pass that comes his way, like he did against Croatia.
With France’s left-back Theo Hernandez being a bit more comfortable going into attacks than defending, the role of left centre-back becomes very critical in stopping Messi’s runs. Dayot Upamecano, who missed the semifinal against Morocco owing to an illness, might be fit for the final.
Should he be unavailable, a major responsibility will be on the shoulders of Ibrahima Konate, who did a good job against Morocco. He will, however, have to rely on support from France’s defensive midfielder, who in probability is going to be the versatile Adrien Rabiot.
Even in Rabiot’s absence, France has a strong defensive midfielder in the form of Youssouf Fofana, who impressed against Morocco following the former’s illness, and should be able to give adequate cover to Upamecano or Konate – whichever of the two is fit to start.
Argentina playing with a back-three and attacking through counters:
Argentina might decide to start with a 3-5-2 formation in the final, with the additional centre-back coming in handy to deal with Kylian Mbappe’s surging runs. Both England and Morocco managed to curb the effect of the 23-year-old PSG forward, who has scored five goals and had a couple of assists in the tournament, by playing the extra centre-back.
So, we should expect Lisandro Martinez to start along with Christian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi in the heart of Argentina’s defense. However, Mbappe will continue to try to move inside and create opportunities for his fellow forwards.
With left wing-back Marcos Acuña free to start after serving a one-game suspension, Argentina will have width in attack through the left allowing Scaloni to fill his midfield with solid, defensive players like Rodrigo De Paul, Alexis Mac Allister and Enzo Fernandez.
It might also enable Argentina to have good ball retention at the centre of the pitch while also reducing the impact of the dangerous Antoine Griezmann, who has to be one of the most complete footballers in the world. If Rabiot is fit to play, it will bolster France’s attacks as he often plays box-to-box and is usually a dangerous presence in and around the opposition penalty box.
The likes of Fernandez and De Paul should have a good battle with Griezmann and Rabiot and it might go a long way toward deciding the fate of the match. Argentina might also allow France to dominate ball-possession and attack through counters by playing forward passes to Messi and Alvarez, like they did against Croatia.
Giroud’s aerial threat and French substitutes loom large over Argentina
France have the quintessential big No. 9 upfront and the 36-year-old Giroud will try to make his presence felt on crosses sent into the box from open play and from set-pieces.
Giroud, who became the highest goal-scorer ever for France earlier in Qatar, will look to increase his tally. He could not score against Morocco, but took a shot that tested goalie Yassine Bounou.
With the extra focus on Mbappe, Giroud can make use of that opportunity and punish Argentina at any point in time. Otamendi will likely take the unenviable responsibility of marking Giroud in the final.
France also have quality substitutes such as Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani, who scored in the semifinal, to put the pressure on the Argentine defense. It remains to be seen how well the Argentine defenders cope with the obvious quality in France’s attack.