If France are the new West Germany – unflinching under pressure, unconcerned with claiming neutral hearts – then perhaps time has spun back to 1986. If so then it is good news for Argentina. It has been 36 years since the South Americans edged past the West Germans in a thrilling final and, by the time this most unsettling of World Cups comes to an end at the Lusail Stadium, most football romantics will hope that Lionel Messi has finally claimed his place alongside Diego Maradona in Argentinian folklore.
Destiny awaits. Messi in 2022 has been the equivalent of Maradona at Mexico 86, making an ordinary team believe they are capable of winning the greatest prize of all. This is surely his time. Unless, of course, France overcome the virus sweeping through their camp and pull off their latest heist. “I know that Argentinian people, many people around the world, maybe even some French people hope Messi will win the World Cup,” Didier Deschamps acknowledged. “But we will do everything to achieve our objective.”
The message from Deschamps was that France are as ready as any flu-ridden team can be. “We know what Lionel Messi means in the history of football,” France’s captain, Hugo Lloris, added. “But we will try to find the key to success.”
As Lloris pointed out this is a clash between two big nations. In the brief moments when the focus drifts from Messi and Kylian Mbappé, France’s bullet train of a forward, the attention falls on two sides whose realism has given both 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 restrained approach has attracted criticism, led France to glory with counterpunching football. Right now he is winning the argument. Even defeat at the final hurdle would be a victory of sorts given that Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, has hardly sent his team out to play fantasy football. “A very well organised side,” was Lloris’s verdict on Argentina. “They are strong defensively and have a very aggressive press on whoever has the ball. They are very good on the break.”
On that note it was interesting to hear Arsène Wenger and Jürgen Klinsmann deliver their findings from the tournament at a Fifa technical briefing. Compactness in the central areas has been “the dominant way to play and defend”. It has forced teams into the wide areas, which has led to 45 goals from crosses (up from 24 in 2018) and underlined the renewed importance of the traditional No 9. Think Antoine Griezmann’s whipped delivery for Olivier Giroud to head home the winner during France’s quarter-final win over England. Think Messi wriggling down the outside against Croatia, beating Josko Gvardiol and pulling the ball back for Julián Álvarez to score.
That was an example of the beauty of having forwards who can dribble past defenders. “You had a lot of teams with a lot of possession but no result,” Wenger said, no doubt thinking of Spain. It was also pointed out that, with defensive lines pushing slightly higher, there have been a lot of balls over the top. France, with the pace of Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé on the wings, threaten in that way.
But France do not set the pulse racing. They had 43% possession against England and 37% during their semi-final against Morocco. “In the second half we dropped back too much but that was also due to a good performance by the Moroccans,” Lloris said. Good, but not enough. France are survivors. They ration their periods of dominance and maintain their shape when in front. Sometimes, though, it resembles a high-wire act. Morocco hit the post after going behind. England were a Harry Kane penalty away from making it 2-2.
But it works for the world champions. Away from Mbappé, Giroud has performed selflessly in the absence of the injured Karim Benzema. Griezmann, excelling in his new role as an elusive No 10, a worthy contender for player of the tournament. Dembélé has been disciplined on the right. In midfield Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot could have important jobs shutting down Messi’s space. Raphaël Varane, accompanied by either Ibrahima Konaté or Dayot Upamecano, exudes calm in central defence.
This is a gnarly side, summed up by the possibility of Lloris becoming the first captain to win two World Cups. Only France could survive losing Benzema, Lucas Hernandez, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Presnel Kimpembe and Christopher Nkunku to injury and still make it this far. Even now, with illness disrupting their preparations, they will back themselves to beat Argentina.
Not that it will be straightforward. Argentina, who were outplayed by France in the last 16 in Russia, are a shapeshifting proposition under Scaloni. They surprised the Netherlands with a back five in the quarter-finals, have quality attackers such as Paulo Dybala, Ángel Di María and Lautaro Martínez in reserve and have treated every game as a final since losing their opener to Saudi Arabia.
Argentinian fervour is growing. They will command most of the support inside the Lusail. If it is to be a compact and energetic midfield four of Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernández, Alexis Mac Allister and Leandro Paredes they will look to outnumber France. Cristian Romero and Nicolás Otamendi are warriors at the back.
Like Giroud, Álvarez has emerged from the shadows to impress up front. There is more to the Manchester City forward than goals, even though he has four of them. Álvarez’s movement and willingness to run in behind defences has also lightened the physical load on Messi, who has made the most of running less by scoring five goals and making three. Everything is geared towards keeping Messi happy. It will be a worry for Deschamps if the little genius works out ways to expose France’s attack-minded left-back, Theo Hernandez.
“Argentina are a strong team with a young generation,” Lloris said. “They are all dedicated to Leo Messi.” But there was no waving of the white flag from France. They have Mbappé, who has five goals and the chance to the become the owner of two winners’ medals at the age of 23. They have an unshakeable team spirit and were boosted by Kingsley Coman, Theo Hernandez, Varane, Konaté and Tchouaméni returning to training last night.
“It is going to be a tremendous occasion,” Lloris continued. He was giving it the big sell. Argentina hope history is about to be made. France refuse to be swept away by sentiment. They believe they can deny Messi his romantic ending.