Survivors from France dare the biggest theft so far against Messi and Argentina
meFrance is the new West Germany – unbending under pressure, not interested in claiming neutral hearts – time may have turned back to 1986. If so, that’s good news for Argentina. It’s been 36 years since South America beat West Germany in a thrilling final, and by the time the most unnerving finale of the World Cup is over at Lusail Stadium, most soccer romantics hope Lionel Messi has finally claimed victory. Placed next to Diego Maradona in Argentine folklore.
Destiny is waiting. Messi in 2022 was the equivalent of Maradona in Mexico 86, making the average team think they could win the biggest prize ever. This is definitely his time. Unless, of course, France overcomes the virus sweeping through its camp and carries out its latest heist. Didier Deschamps admitted: “I know that the Argentines, many people around the world, and maybe even some French people hope that Messi will win the World Cup.” “But we will do our best to achieve our goal.”
The message from Deschamps was that France was as prepared as any team with the flu. France’s captain, Hugo Lloris, added, “We know what Lionel Messi means in the history of football.” “But we will try to find the key to success.”
As Lloris pointed out, this is a clash between two great nations. In the brief moments when the focus deviates from Messi and Kylian Mbappe, the France striker’s express train, attention is riveted on two sides that have given both incidents hope of adding a third star to their badge.
Both show how pragmatism has become the dominant force in international football. Four years ago, Deschamps, whose discreet style drew criticism, led France to glory with his striking football. At the moment he is winning the argument. Even a defeat at the last hurdle would be a victory of sorts given that Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, has barely dispatched his team to play fantasy football. Lloris’ verdict on Argentina was “a very well organized team”. “They are strong defensively and have very strong pressure on whoever has the ball. They are very good in the second half.”
In that regard, it was interesting to hear Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann present their findings from the tournament in a FIFA technical briefing. Connecting in the central areas was the “dominant way of playing and defending”. He forced teams into wide areas, netting 45 assists (up from 24 in 2018) and underlining the renewed importance of the traditional No. 9 player. Quarter-final victory over England. Think Messi wriggling on the outside against Croatia, punching Josco Guardiol and pulling the ball back to score Julian Alvarez.
This was an example of the beauty of having strikers who can take past defenders. “You had a lot of teams that had a lot of possession but there was no result,” said Wenger, no doubt having Spain in mind. It was also pointed out that with the defensive lines pushed up a bit, there were a lot of balls over the top. In this way France threatens, with the pace of Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele on the wings.
But France does not control the pulse. They had 43% possession against England and 37% during the semi-final against Morocco. “In the second half we fell a lot, but that was also due to the good performance of the Moroccans,” Lloris said. Good but not enough France Nagaon. They divide their periods of dominance and maintain their form when they are in the lead. Sometimes, though, it’s like doing high wires. Morocco hit the post after falling behind. England were within a penalty kick from Harry Kane to make it 2-2.
But it works for the world champions. Aside from Mbappe, Giroud has shown selflessness in the absence of the injured Karim Benzema. Griezmann, excelling in his new role as the elusive No. 10 player, is a worthy contender for player of the tournament. Dembélé is set on the right. In midfield Aurelien Choameni and Adrien Rabiot can have important functions in closing down Messi’s space. Raphael Varane, accompanied by Ibrahima Konate or Dayot Upamecano, exudes composure at the heart of defence.
This is a strange team, summed up by the prospect of Lloris becoming the first captain to win two World Cups. Only France can survive the loss of Benzema, Lucas Hernandez, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kempebe and Christopher Nkunku to injury and still get this far. Yet, with illness disrupting their preparations, they will pick themselves up to beat Argentina.
Not that it will be obvious. Argentina, who were overtaken by France in the round of 16 in Russia, are a changing proposition under Scaloni. They surprised the Netherlands with five defenses in the quarter-finals, have good strikers like Paulo Dybala, Angel Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez in reserve and have treated every match as a final since losing their opener to Saudi Arabia.
Argentine fervor is on the rise. They will get the most support within Lusail. If the midfield is to be compact and lively, four Rodrygo de Paul, Enzo Fernandez, Alexis McAllister and Leandro Paredes will look to outpace France. Christian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi are warriors in the back.
Like Giraud, Alvarez has appeared from the shadows to impress in the lead. There is more to the Manchester City forward than goals, although he has four of them. Alvarez’s movement and willingness to run behind defenses also eased the physical burden on Messi, who made the most of running less by scoring five goals and assisting three. Everything is geared towards keeping Messi happy. It would be a concern for Deschamps if the young genius came up with ways to unmask Theo Hernandez, the attack-minded French left-back.
“Argentina are a strong team and they have a young generation,” Lloris said. “They are all dedicated to Leo Messi.” But there was no waving the white flag of France. They have Mbappe, who has five goals and the chance to become a two-time winners’ medal at the age of 23. They have an unwavering team spirit and were boosted by Kingsley Coman, Theo Hernandez, Varane, Konate and Tchoameni who returned to training last night.
“It will be a great occasion,” Lloris continued. He was giving it a big sale. Argentina hopes history is about to be made. France refuses to be swept away by feelings. They think they can deny Messi his romantic end.
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