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France face ultimate test- keeping Messi at bay

Messi’s extraordinary control and explosive movement obviously remains the focal point for Argentina in attack, the emergence of Julian Alvarez has given them an extra dimension

Despite the high profile performances of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe in Qatar, Argentina and France can create danger all over the pitch, so stopping the superstars is only one battle in Sunday’s World Cup final war.

In the early group games, Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele were both raiding out wide, operating almost as old-fashioned wingers, with Olivier Giroud holding a traditional centre-forward role and Antoine Griezmann given licence to roam.

That is still probably Didier Deschamps’ model of choice, but as he found in the knockout stages, better defences were able to shackle the wide men somewhat, forcing them to forage inside and deeper for possession.

Argentina have switched between three central defenders and a flat back four during the tournament and coach Lionel Scaloni is expected to stick with the latter on Sunday.

England were quick to double-team Mbappe whenever he picked up the ball and Argentina, probably through Nahuel Molina and Rodrigo De Paul, will try to do the same.

As England and Croatia found to their cost, however, putting resources into one area necessarily creates space elsewhere and there has been nobody at the tournament better at finding it and using it than Griezmann.

Drifting wide, but deeper than Giroud, he poses questions that central defenders don’t like – go out and meet him or hold station and wait for him to come?

The problem with the latter option is that he often does not advance, instead pinging in crosses and long passes or bringing an advancing midfielder into play, as he did when setting up

Aurelien Tchouameni for his goal against England.

Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot have both been excellent in Doha, with the latter expected to return after missing the semi-final through illness. Hard working and tactically disciplined, they give those in front licence to roam, safe in the knowledge that there will usually be a defensive screen behind them should the opposition gain possession and break.

France’s defence looked shaky at times against England but they settled to their task and, as against Morocco, did not give up too many clear chances, often happy to sit deep and let their rivals play the ball around in front of them, but rarely allowing them to get behind.

The only goals they have conceded in the knockout phase have been two penalties.

THE MESSI FACTOR

Of course, they face the ultimate test on Sunday – keeping Messi at bay.

As hundreds of opponents before them can attest, there is no real way to plan to keep him quiet. All teams can do is try to limit the flow of passes to him and then make sure they are laser-focused when he does explode into life.

Messi baffles opponents by spending passages of play at walking pace – even sometimes when his team is pouring forward – and switching flanks at will as team mates mould themselves seamlessly around him. Then he pounces at high speed, zigzagging through defences or dragging several opponents around him in close space before releasing to a team mate.

France’s Theo Hernandez had to work overtime against England’s Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka in the quarter-final and Messi can be expected to probe repeatedly down the right on Sunday.

With Mbappe the only player not being asked to defend, France look vulnerable on their left flank, although Rabiot’s return to that side of the midfield might partially compensate that weakness.

As with France, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister have provided Argentina with midfield security, at times vital as Cristian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi have sometimes looked edgy behind them, most notably when Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands scored twice in quick succession against a wobbling defence.

Fullbacks Molina and Marcos Acuna – or possibly Nicolas Tagliafico – will be the men tasked with keeping Mbappe quiet, and often will be the first to front up Griezmann as he drifts.

Right back Molina returns after suspension and though he has had a good tournament, Scaloni might decide he is not the ideal man to face Mbappe and might look to Romero in a revisit of the approach used against the Netherlands.

While Messi’s extraordinary control and explosive movement obviously remains the focal point for Argentina in attack, the emergence of Julian Alvarez has given them an extra dimension.

Having forced his way into the starting lineup, he showed with his bullocking runs, particularly against Croatia, that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

In general, the two attacks look stronger than the two defences, which, for the neutral at least, is always a good thing in a World Cup final.

  • FIFA WORLD CUP 2022

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