WC 2022 Final: Argentina 3 (4) – France 3 (2)

Messi finally wins his World Cup

Celebration in Buenos Aires

On the stage in the middle of the field of the golden Lusail stadium, Argentina’s Lionel Andres Messi finally lifted his first World Cup, the only trophy to have eluded him in his long and glorious career. Throughout this tournament, Messi played the best football of his life. The game was his crowning achievement. The numerous youth games that his grandmother took him to,  hundreds of games with Barcelona, the couple of seasons at Paris St. Germain, all of the international matches, had prepared him to be able to perform at the highest level in soccer’s most important competition.

For the final celebration, the lifting of the Jules Rimet Trophy, in the middle with all his teammates, Messi wore a bisht, a traditional Arab robe that was given to him by the Qatari Emir. The bisht is made of camel hair and goat fur and is given to those as a high sign of respect in the Arabic culture. As he has proven throughout his career, and finally capped off with a World Cup triumph, Messi can no longer be denied the title as the greatest soccer player ever to play the game.

Messi hoists the World Cup Trophy

As if everything he had already accomplished wasn’t enough: all of those Champions Leagues, La Liga titles and cups, multiple Ballon D’Ors, the Copa America, all of the wonderful and magical goals. The World Cup was missing from his trophy case. His nearly 20 year professional run is unmatched. With that void filled, is it fair to speculate that this man’s career may never be duplicated ?

The championship game in which Messi emerged triumphant was a glorious spectacle. Championship games are supposed to be competitive, back and forth affairs, featuring multiple lead changes, drama aplenty. But they don’t often deliver on that promise. This one did, it lived up to the hype, the battle of the two superstar club teammates, and in the end it wasn’t decided until the very last kick.

For the first 70 minutes, Argentina were in complete control. From the offset they were the more aggressive team, firmly planted on the ground, willing to attack France and deny them any opportunities to do the same. The incessant approaches finally paid fruit in the 21st minute as Angel DiMaria, who had made various incursions on the left flank, got Dembele to bite on a fake to the end-line and cut the ball back and then penetrated into the box. Once past Dembele, two French defenders awaited DiMaria’s approach. Dembele’s unnecessary if slight push from behind drew a penalty. Messi calmly converted the PK (his fifth of six in the Cup) and Argentina were off to a flying start.

France attempted to respond but made few incursions into the Argentinian zone. The game reverted to form as Argentina continued their dominance. The French, a team who doesn’t usually press high, attempted to do so in the 35th minute and forced a turnover. On the throw-in, Mbappe took it out of the air and accelerated into the box, but the ball got away from him a bit and Nahuel Molina tapped it back to Argentinas keeper Emiliano Martinez.

In the subsequent sequence,  Argentina struck again on a classically constructed counter attack. Argentina’s center back Romero intercepted a French pass and passed it ahead to Mac Allister, who quickly one touched it to Messi and then started a sprint up the field. Messi had drifted back slightly in his inimitable slow trot to his own half just below the center circle. As he received the ball, Messi quickly popped the ball up and then, in one motion, flicked a pass to Julian Alvarez with the same foot to the right wing. Alvarez took one short dribble and slotted it forward to the streaking Mac Allister. Mac Allister’s dribble took him wide to the right away from the French goal and had the effect of both penetrating into the French zone and attracting two defenders to him. His subsequent no-look cross found Angel Di Maria all alone to Lloris’ right. DiMaria first-timed the ball into the ground and that slight bounce eluded the French goalie’s left leg. It’s interesting to note that the two forwards initiated this play in their own half, far away from goal, and a defensive midfielder and winger finished it off. This inverted offensive attack was proof of the talent and ability of the Argentinian team at all positions. It also proved that Messi, as the initial creator of the play, can be lethal from anywhere on the field.

Argentina’s beautiful team goal (5 passes, 6 players) spanned 90 yards and took less than 10 seconds. It’s hard to pinpoint which of the elements of this counter are more aesthetically beautiful: Mac Allister’s pass and sprint forward, Messi’s delicious popup and flick, Mac Allister’s no-look pass, or DiMaria’s bounce shot. Four brilliant but connected individual plays. It’s as if this play was designed specifically to beat the French defense and each Argentinian player knew exactly what to do and when to do it.

To quote Norberto Longo, who served as the color commentator to Andres Cantor’s play by play for Univision in the 1990s: “Great teams are made up of great players and great great players make great plays.”

The result of the second goal was that it forced Didier Deschamps into not one but two tactical substitutions in the 40th minute, removing the ineffective Dembele and Giroud in favor of Marcos Thuram and Kuolo Mani. It’s completely unheard of for a manager to make a substitute 5 minutes before half of a championship game, let alone two. But Deschamps must have feared that Argentina could score a third goal and fully finish off the game before the first half ended. 

Di Maria’s goal barely elluded the diving Lloris for the 2-0 lead.

The second half began much as the first half had played out. Argentina had the majority of the ball, the better ideas, and more shots on goal whereas France appeared completely discombobulated, at times not able to execute simple throw-ins and at others having to scramble on defense to prevent the third goal. 

With the game lingering towards its finish, France began to have a bit more possession and Mbappe, who had previously been largely ineffective and absent from the game, finally got his first shot on goal in the 70th minute. Just eight minutes later, France finally found a chink in the Argentinian armor. Kuolo Mani outraced Otamendi to a loose ball (Otamendi should have just booted it but he tried to control it), then outmuscled him as the ball went into the box forcing Otamendi to foul him. Mbappe made the PK to put France right back in it.

Two observations are merited here. The first is I had always feared that Otamendi was vulnerable to the speed of the French attackers and there would ultimately be a moment when his lack of pace would expose this major liability. Although it wasn’t Mbappe who got the better of Otamendi, it was another tall lanky and explosive player that did. Argentina had done well throughout the game to minimize this defensive vulnerability but with only 10 minutes left in the game, France finally exploited it. The other is this occurred with Argentina comfortably ahead and supposedly in cruise control. The French had looked completely ineffective up until that point, but after the goal, the energy of the game changed.

Argentina were still reeling from that vicious left jab when they got hit by a yet more dangerous right hook only a minute later. Messi, of all people, lost possession in midfield to the recent substitute Kingsley Coman. Andre Rabiot collected Coman’s pass in the midfield and found Mbappe’s head with a nice switch of play. Mbappe’s header to Thuram was the beginning of a wall pass which culminated in Mbappe getting the ball back unmarked and one on one with the keeper. Rather than dribbling it as he is inclined to do, Mbappe let the looping return pass drop as far as he could before striking it with his right foot. His angling downward motion before striking prevented him skying the ball. The resulting shot went skimming hard on the ground past a fully outstretched Emiliano Martinez. It was, simply put, a perfectly placed dagger. While Messi’s Argentina had won the earlier rounds convincingly, Mbappe’s France was on the verge of what appeared, just minutes before, an improbable comeback.

Argentina had finally succumbed to one of soccer’s biggest truisms: the most dangerous lead in soccer is 2-nil. 

The danger of the 2-nil lead of course is that, if the team with the lead lets the opponent get one back, the team trailing start to believe they can get a second. And when they do, and especially as fast as the French did, the team that has come from behind now has completely gained all of the momentum, has all of the energy on their side. The team that was in the lead loses control of the game. To belabor the boxing analogy further it’s the tale of the boxer, who in control over most of the bout, suddenly gets punched with a devastating 1-2 combination. Now groggy from the suddenness of the counterpunch, is easily susceptible to the knockout himself. 

Messi’s goal in the overtime.

With the game now in overtime, Messi’s goal in the 109th minute appeared, finally, to be the winner. The play that led to the goal started with a ball passed seemingly innocent high ball into the air where it was masterfully back-heeled on a short-hop by Martinez to Messi, who passed it to Alvarez, who then finished off the triangle back to Martinez. Martinez’s shot was blocked by Lloris but Messi, like any good forward knows to follow the path of the ball, was right there to pounce on the rebound. A French defender cleared the ball but only after it was a full three yards past the goal line. The holographic offside replay showed that Martinez was onside only because the last French defender’s derriere enabled it.

It’s important here to take a detour into past history. This game’s ebb and flow was similar to that of the 1986 World Cup Championship game between Argentina and Germany. In that game Argentina raced off to a 2-0 lead before Germany struck back with two quick goals of their own to tie it. An undaunted Maradona led his team back by providing the assist for Burruchaga’s winning goal at the very end of the game. Like Maradona, Messi provided the key play here as well.

It is at this juncture, however, that this game eclipsed the 1986 thriller played in the Azteca both in terms of quality of play and the drama that is a direct consequence of it. A late penalty kick awarded to France from a handball by Gonzalo Montiel gave Mbappe a chance to score yet again. Montiel jumped up to block a shot from Mbappe and it hit his extended right arm in the elbow. Mbappe, who had already made one PK, stepped up and hit the second one hard to Ramirez’s right. The game was tied yet again; the French having come back a second time.

Mbappe ties the game again with his third goal of the match.

More drama and late heroics were to come. Deep into the second half of extra time. Emiliano Martinez came to the rescue, His acrobatic kick save off of Muani’s shot saved Argentina. It would have been a dramatic way for France to cap off their comeback. That would have been France’s knockout blow; it would have denied Messi his Cup.

What made this game exceptional was the fact that it changed course so dramatically. While one team completely dominated for 80 minutes, the last 40 were as scintillating a game as there has ever been played, especially given the stakes. The back and forth, the swings in momentums, the extra time, Messi vs Mbappe. The storylines discussed before the game all materialized during the game. This was not only a heavyweight match between two great teams, but it was also one between two great players: one Messi the GOAT, and one Mbappe, who if he keeps playing at this level, seems to be the only current player on path to eclipse Messi someday.

Argentina’s team runs towards Montiel after his final PK clinched the title.

At the end Argentina won a tense penalty kick shootout 4 to 2.Gonzalo Montiel, whose handball had allowed France’s Mbappe to tie the score at 3 in the dying moments of extra time, calmly slotted the ball past Hugo Lloris to finally win it.

The team quickly embraced Montiel and celebrated their third win overall and their first cup in 36 years. Messi finally had his trophy, and in the process, had finally eclipsed his idol Diego Armando Maradona.

Notes:

The back and forth was not only for team but also for individual glory. Messi started out one goal ahead of Mbappe in the Golden Boot, then went ahead by two goals before Mbappe scored three to eclipse his Paris St. Germain teammate. A consolation prize no doubt but still a great individual triumph for a player that showed great character by never surrendering, by willing his team to not one, but two, improbable comebacks.

Messi set a number of records in this game: a) most games 26 surpassing Lothar Matthaus , b) most minutes 2,300(surpassing Paolo Maldini), c) Argentina’s leading scorer at the WC, beating  Gabriel ‘Batigol’ by three goals.

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