Stage set for clash of titans as Argentina take on France in World Cup final

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DOHA, DEC 18: After 63 matches, the World Cup in Qatar comes to a close on Sunday when reigning champions France take on Argentina in a showpiece final at Lusail Stadium with both teams looking to add a third star to their crest.

Croatia edged Morocco 2-1 in Saturday’s third-place playoff, an entertaining affair that served as a curtain-raiser to the main event where France stand in the way of Lionel Messi and his last chance at glory.

In the France dugout, coach Didier Deschamps has already taken his place among the sport’s greats — as a player and a coach — but can go one step further by becoming the first coach to win back-to-back titles in the post-World War II era.

The last time these two teams met was at the 2018 World Cup where France beat Argentina 4-3 in the last 16, an encounter that was arguably the most entertaining match of the tournament in Russia.

The final will also see a clash of generational stars when 35-year-old Messi, playing in his final World Cup match, faces his 23-year-old Paris St Germain teammate Kylian Mbappe.

Both players have scored five goals at the World Cup and could potentially leave Qatar with three trophies as they also vie for the Golden Boot for the top scorer as well as the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player.

Little genius

Argentina’s little genius Messi saved the potentially most magical script for his last World Cup — with one line left to write.

With immense pressure on him to match the late great Diego Maradona and send the trophy back to Buenos Aires, Messi has lit up the Qatar tournament while others in the superstar stratum — Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo — have underwhelmed and gone home.

From Argentina’s opening game until their semi-final win over Croatia, Messi, near the end of his career and at his fifth World Cup aged 35, has been the tournament’s out-and-out star.

His match statistics speak for themselves: six starts, five goals, three assists en route to Sunday’s final against France.

Smashing so many records it is hard to keep track, Messi has beaten Maradona’s tally of World Cup goals and appearances for Argentina, and on Sunday will jump ahead of Lothar Matthaeus’ joint record 25-match appearances at the tournament.

Beyond the dazzling data, however, it has been Messi’s mesmerising motion, and joyous celebrations, that have electrified football fans around the world.

Spending large passages of play at walking pace and barely bothering to defend at times, Messi has waited for his moments, employing with deadly effect his low centre-of-gravity, stunning change of pace and shimmying runs with ball glued to feet.

Mbappe seeks to re-order football’s hierarchy

Kylian Mbappe can become the youngest player to win two World Cups since Pele achieved the feat at the age of 21.

Mbappe, who turns 24 two days after the final, is the joint leading scorer with five goals at this World Cup and the face of football’s new generation.

While Messi has one final chance to claim an elusive World Cup title, Mbappe and France hope to usher in an era of dominance for a nation appearing in a fourth final in seven attempts.

With a squad decimated by injuries and struggling for form in the run-up, there were genuine concerns France would suffer the same fate they did as holders in 2002 and crash out in the group stage.

France may not have set the world alight en route to the final, but they have been masters of the key moments — demonstrating a ruthlessness and killer instinct when it matters most.

Much of that stems from Mbappe, the most feared player on the planet, whose goals have helped carry France to within one win of becoming the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.

“There is a great connection between the team. We work together but, when you start to come close to the title in this competition you need your main players at their best,” said goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris.

Mbappe announced himself on the global stage in 2018 with a brace against Argentina in last 16 in Russia, where he won the best young player award.

Aged 19, he became the youngest player to score in a World Cup final since a 17-year-old Pele in 1958, and Mbappe already has more World Cup goals than Portugal’s Ronaldo or Diego Maradona.

He bagged four goals in total in the 2018 edition — his first major tournament — drilling home France’s fourth in the 4-2 win over Croatia in the final.

Only Just Fontaine, who scored an incredible 13 times at the 1958 tournament in Sweden, has more World Cup goals for France.