THE ‘M versus M’ will be the most talked about confrontation in the final match of Qatar’s World Cup on Sunday (11.00pm)..
Messi v Mbappe on Sunday.
Two outstanding celebrity stars, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, who are team-mates at Paris Saint-Germain.
But never two winners. Or for the matter, twolosers.
Only one will return to the French capital happy.
Both have scored five times en route to the final, with Messi in particular growing in influence the deeper Argentina have progressed at what is his last World Cup.
They will have a big say over who hoists the trophy, the searing pace and devastating finishing of Mbappe up against the mesmerising close control, precision and vision of Messi.
Three of Messi’s goals have been scored from the penalty spot, while all five of Mbappe’s have come from open play — mainly the result of quick transitions where France are at their most dangerous.
Now can Argentina exploit France’s achilles’ heel on the left side?
Messi produced one of the moments of the tournament when he danced down the right wing, twisting Josko Gvardiol inside out, before pulling back for Julian Alvarez to seal Argentina’s 3-0 victory over Croatia in the semi-finals.
That Messi was able to have his way with one of the best defenders at this World Cup suggests France’s left side will be an area Argentina will attack with regularity.
FREEDOM TO ROAM
Mbappe has been given the freedom to roam for France but very rarely does he get back to help out defensively, a point Didier Deschamps addressed by bringing on Marcus Thuram against Morocco with France protecting a 1-0 lead.
In my opinion, Theo Hernandez is a more dynamic left-back than his injured brother Lucas, but it could allow Argentina right-back Nahuel Molina — set up by Messi for the opening goal in the quarter-final against the Dutch — to push forward as well.
Another big mystery: The virus concerns in France squad.
France left Adrien Rabiot behind at the team hotel for the game against Morocco, while Ibrahim Konate replaced Dayot Upamecano in defence after the pair experienced “flu-like” symptoms in the build-up.
Deschamps downplayed concerns over Upamecano, who was well enough to sit on the bench, and said Rabiot “should be available” for the final.
But there was surely growing unease at the illness spreading through the squad when Konate, Raphael Varane and Kingsley Coman all sat out training due to illness.
“There is little bit of flu going around but nothing serious,” said Randal Kolo Muani, scorer of France’s second goal against Morocco less than a minute after coming on as a substitute.
Will Griezmann continue to dictate play?
Mbappe and Olivier Giroud have combined for nine of France’s 13 goals, but Antoine Griezmann has flourished in a playmaking role in midfield — his diminishing strike rate offset by creative output. Griezmann is third on France’s list of all-time leading scorers with 42 goals, the last of which came over a year ago in an 8-0 rout of Kazakhstan.
With injuries forcing Deschamps’ hand, his decision to deploy Griezmann in a deeper position has worked wonders, with the Atletico Madrid star now focused on supplying the frontmen.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni opted for a compact four-man midfield against Croatia, limiting the time and space for Luka Modric to effectively strip the opposition of their main weapon.
The talking point: How will his plan to nullify the threat of Mbappe and Griezmann work in this grand finale match?
Pray tell me: What’s your call? Will this match go to mandatory penalty-kicks to decide the new world champion?
* Suresh Nair is an award-winning sports journalist who is also a qualified international coach and international referee instructor.
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