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A video of Lionel Messi has been doing the rounds on social media this week. Not one of his sublime strikes or awe-inspiring assists, but of a journalist waxing lyrical about the 35-year-old’s timeless qualities and reminding him just how much he inspires all the boys and girls back home.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has ticked nearly every box that there is to be ticked on his footballing checklist, except for the big one, and the script-writers are already busy drafting the act of Messi lifting the iconic trophy aloft in what will be his farewell World Cup match.
As eloquent as the Paris Saint-Germain attacker has been during the Qatar tournament, one man alone cannot steer his nation to the biggest sporting event on the globe. Nicolas Otamendi has rolled back the years in defence, Enzo Fernanez could become the next nine-figure footballer, and Julian Alvarez has clearly taken a few leaves out of his strike partner’s book.
A penny for Argentinian thoughts when Salem Al-Dawsari’s Saudi Arabia stunner flashed past Emiliano Martinez or when Wout Weghorst nearly made the impossible possible for the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, but the Copa America winners have been determined to avoid joining fellow esteemed nations Spain, Belgium and Germany on the well-stocked giant killings list.
Messi then founded an exclusive club of players to have made Josko Gvardiol look a fool at this World Cup, twisting and turning the 20-year-old breakout star before picking out Alvarez to put the tie beyond any measurable doubt, and a sixth World Cup final is now on the cards for the 1978 and 1986 champions.
However, three showpiece events have ended in tears of despair for Argentina – including the 2014 edition – and they could now equal Germany’s unwanted record of losing a joint-high four World Cup finals, but scoring two goals in every game since the opening matchday is certainly a reassuring statistic.
Only Spain in 2010 have also managed to propel themselves to World Cup glory after losing their opening match of the tournament, but Scaloni’s side have not faced more than six shots per game on average in Qatar, and they will need to employ such defensive expertise lest Messi’s clubmate Kylian Mbappe enjoy a field day.
Two Argentinians were forced to watch the semi-final from the suspension step after picking up their second bookings of the tournament against the Netherlands, but Marcos Acuna and Gonzalo Montiel are at Scaloni’s disposal once again.
Montiel is fighting a losing battle to come in for Nahuel Molina on the right, but Acuna can feel confident of taking Nicolas Tagliafico‘s place in what will most likely be a four-man backline, as Lisandro Martinez is restricted to substitute minutes again – much to the chagrin of Manchester United fans.
La Albiceleste should only be working with one injury doubt in the form of Alejandro Gomez, who is not fully over an ankle sprain and may only make the bench at best, and hearts were in mouths when Messi was pictured giving his hamstring a once-over in the semi-finals.
There is nothing to suggest that the veteran attacker will not be able to take his place in the starting lineup, where he ought to become the outright record-holder for World Cup appearances with 26, and a formation tweak could see him joined by another in the twilight of his international career in Angel Di Maria.
The hot-headed Leandro Paredes would be the unfortunate name to make way if Di Maria can prove his fitness in time, as Paulo Dybala and Lautaro Martinez aim to improve their output as impact substitutes once more.
Over in the France camp, the constant air conditioning in Qatar claimed its next victims in Dayot Upamecano and Adrien Rabiot, while Kingsley Coman was also feeling under the weather before the semi-finals and has now reportedly been joined in the sick bay by Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate. All five players are said to have reported back for training over the weekend, but with their immune systems working overtime, Bleus doctors will still need to give a last-minute green light.
Rabiot and Upamecano are understood to be feeling better and should apply for places in the first XI. The former can expect to slot straight back in for Youssouf Fofana in the middle, but Deschamps is facing more of a quandary at the back.
Konate deservedly earned high praise for his performance against Morocco but is reported to be feeling worse than Varane, so Deschamps will still be expected to bring Upamecano back into his tried-and-tested formula, while Coman was never likely to push for a starting role anyway.
Left-back Theo Hernandez took a couple of blows to the knee against Morocco, but that is not expected to jeopardise his place in the starting lineup for the final, while Kylian Mbappe will resume his individual battle with fellow five-goal star Messi for the Golden Boot.
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The 23-year-old would become the youngest ever player to net in more than one World Cup final should his attacking endeavours prove successful, and he will be supported by creator-in-chief Antoine Griezmann, who has fashioned a tournament-high 21 chances for his teammates so far.
Argentina possible starting lineup:
E. Martinez; Molina, Romero, Otamendi, Acuna; De Paul, Fernandez, Mac Allister; Di Maria, Messi, Alvarez
France possible starting lineup:
Lloris; Kounde, Varane, Upamecano, T. Hernandez; Tchouameni, Rabiot; Dembele, Griezmann, Mbappe; Giroud