The plethora of matches, the 24/7 media coverage, the engrossing storylines, the eternal soccer celebration...it all culminates here. Argentina vs France. Lionel Messi in his last great hoorah and Kylian Mbappe in his own bid to win his country back-to-back titles. On Sunday, December 18th, the world will watch what promises to be one hell of a final.
It’s been a ride, y’all, so take a moment to reflect on everything this tournament had to offer. Argentina was awoken early after a punch in the nose by Saudi Arabia in the dawning group stage. France stepped up and has defended their title, so far, in the staunchest manner, but got tested by an English side pining to “bring it home.” Morocco, the truest of Cinderella stories in the tournament, shocked the world as they played a disciplined and effective style of football on the back of a brand new manager, knocking out Spain and Portugal with wins over Belgium and Canada. And Croatia, try as they might, fought valiantly but ultimately came up just short of returning to the grandest of sporting finales.
Meanwhile, the worldwide soccer and sporting community lost a wonderful and heroic figure in Grant Wahl. Injuries held some of the greats out of the tournament, while the the XI members of some teams fought to prove a point, both for the sport and for the case of human rights, on the pitch. Fans saw some of the greats potentially play their last World Cup matches, all while witnessing some of the greatest upsets in tournament history. Giants were felled, underdogs were lifted, and the world’s game saw the potential rise of some new stars.
And it all ends here. Let’s take a look at the final preview of the 2022 World Cup.
One day the saga of Lionel Messi will be immortalized in movies, books, and unimaginable other media. The entire country of Argentina - and arguably Spain in addition to most of the world - are hoping it crescendos with Messi winning this match. Regardless of how the game plays out though, Messi has finally verified he won’t be returning to play in a World Cup.
While some view this match as a must-win to cement his status as the greatest of all time, arguably even more have already come to the simplest of conclusions: he already is the GOAT. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni subscribes to the latter and previously stated how he feels about the legacy of Messi.
But how does Argentina scrap out the win to place Lionel Messi, and the country, on the top of the footballing world?
It all starts with the defense, actually. While all eyes have been on Messi and his attacking co-stars, La Albiceleste’s defense just put on one of the most dominant showings of the whole tournament. They nullified a powerful Croatian midfield by focusing them entirely out of the match, and held Luka Modric’s side to only two shots on target. Croatia had 12 shots total, but Argentina’s center backs and full backs were dominant in keeping them to very low percentage chances. Nicolas Tagliafico was outstanding, with four interceptions and four blocks, while Nicolas Otamendi had an interception and four blocks of his own. In fact, Croatia’s two highest percentage shots only had an xG of .10, the rest were settled comfortably around or below .05.
This was supplemented by youngster Julian Alvarez being incredibly unafraid to fall back and play defense. His movements opened up the game and caused even more havoc in a midfield of Leandro Paredes and Enzo Fernandez that was fighting tooth and nail to force the game out wide.
Speaking of Julian Alvarez, he was admittedly the man of the match over Lionel Messi. Don’t get it twisted, though, Messi still scored on a PK and drug one of the best center backs in the world, Josko Gvardiol, through the ringer in an epic assist, but Alvarez had a say in everything Argentina did going forward. He was the one who drew the penalty after a forceful run into the box before then going on a full pitch solo run that culminated in a wonderful, albeit clumsy-looking, goal. He then found himself on the end of the aforementioned Messi assist to ice the game 3-0.
Argentina will have to switch gears a bit to handle a France side that loves to exploit the wings, a stark contrast from Croatia. Shutting down Kylian Mbappe will be key, but France have shown they can use that extra space for guys like Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann to exploit. Ultimately, though, it’ll be up to Lionel Messi and the supporting cast to try and get on the board first, and preferably do it early.
The talent of this French side is undeniable. Even without talisman striker Karim Benzema or star midfielder N’Golo Kante, Les Bleus possess wild speed and big bodies able to take advantage of counters, crosses, and set pieces, and they’ve ridden the train all the way back to their second World Cup final in a row. The last team to follow that route was Brazil in 2002 (it was actually their third in a row), and Brazil was the last team all the way back in 1962 to complete the achievement of winning the cup back to back.
Didier Deschamps’ side has remained promising in recent years, even after winning the 2018 Cup but then witnessing a slight dip in form. They, like Morocco and a few other teams in this tournament, play their own distinctly effective form of football that won't necessarily be defined later as “pretty.” That doesn’t matter, though, because Deshamps-ball has proven it’s worth time and time again as being a somewhat crotchety, stubborn, and downright frustrating style to play against. That isn’t to say the squad is defensive oriented, it simply means they somehow scrounge out wins, even - and especially - ugly ones. France’s strengths are highlighted by the speed of Kylian Mbappe on the left wing, and while their defense won’t be winning any awards, they perform just well enough to break Mbappe out on counters alongside Olivier Giroud (and Benzema when healthy) to outscore opponents more often than they concede goals.
France certainly isn’t invincible, though. Their defense clumsily gave away two penalties against England and the only clean sheet they’ve had in the tournament so far was, in fact, against their semi-final opponent Morocco. That match wasn’t convincing, however, as Morocco laid siege to the French backline for a solid spell in the waning moments of the first half and the beginning of the second. Still, France possesses the style of play that can punish even the best of teams for switching off, even momentarily, when they get numbers toward the box and when defenses begin to surround Kylian Mbappe.
Keep An Eye Out
While Argentina exploited Croatia’s wings instead of allowing any true midfield solidity, and France broke down Morocco by gaining the early goal and allowing Morocco some possession, this final will probably be a slower crescendo as both sides poke at each other until one can strike. Argentina will be looking to drop their midfielders over to their right to help contain Mbappe, just as England and Morocco did, so the Argentine left wing will have to be hyper alert for late runs into the box by Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, and Ousmane Dembélé.
Meanwhile, if Julian Alvarez starts again, expect him to be specifically tasked with tracking back into the midfield to help relieve some of that pressure when France is on the attack. He’ll then be a vital one-two with Lionel Messi in driving forward, and look for Messi to take full advantage of France’s left wing, as well. The true midfield pairing of Enzo Fernandez and Leandro Paredes (and to an extent Alexis MacAllister and Rodrigo De Paul on the outsides) will be doing a lot of pinching to one wing to shut down any passing lanes for France’s favored attacking mindset. The opposite side’s responsibility will then lie with settling in deeper positions and avoiding taking on France’s technical players 1v1.
Regardless of how Argentina vs France plays out, this final has the potential to be a soccer strategist’s dream, and no one is doubting its pure entertainment value. Two of the premier international sides are prepped to leave it all on the pitch, with both representing entirely different styles of play and a pairing of entirely separate motivations. Will France run it back once more and make history in a way not done in 60 years? Or will Lionel Messi finally ride off into the sunset having accomplished virtually everything there is in the world of soccer?
...except for the AmFam Cup, he doesn’t have one of those.
How To Watch the FIFA 2022 World Cup Final
Argentina vs France 10 A.M.
TV: FOX (English), Telemundo (Spanish)
Streaming: FOX Sports app (English), Peacock Premium (Spanish)