After 63 matches the last month, we’re finally here. The 2022 World Cup final has arrived and we have one of the most cinematic matchups you could have hoped for.
The reigning World Cup champs France are attempting to do what hasn’t been done in more than 60 years, repeat as champions. They would join Brazil in 1958 and 1962 and Italy in 1934 and 1938 as the only three teams to ever achieve that nearly impossible task.
On the other side, Lionel Messi and Argentina are trying to cement the legacy of one of the greatest footballers of all time, and end a period of European reign at the World Cup. They are seeking to become the first non-UEFA nation to win the World Cup since Brazil in 2002.
Those are the stakes, so who are the players that will do the most to decide who carries the trophy?
Let’s not get too cute with a list like this. The Lionel Messi we’ve seen in the last few World Cup matches is game-breaking. The tight ball control in his forward-progressing runs has been vintage and he’s getting so good at picking his spots, he seems to have the juice to pull off two or three match-defining runs.
Messi has become so excellent at choosing when to make a solo run in these matches that it isn’t a matter of the old Barcelona and the Argentine problem of his teammates occasionally just standing around and watching. Argentina have set themselves up on the attack so efficiently at this point that when they pick spots to attack, their half-chances have been getting converted into full-on goal-scoring chances more often as the tournament has gone along.
Messi can make one or two plays against even the best setup defenses to win a match. If there’s a time and place for yet another vintage performance, this is the match.
Not to be outdone by his PSG teammate, Kylian Mbappe is having yet another once-in-a-lifetime World Cup performance thus far. Everyone knows Mbappe is one of the fastest footballers in the world, and he’s shown that multiple times in this tournament. However, he’s also gotten so much better at his take-ons in the final third.
FRANCE MAKES IT TWO— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 14, 2022
Randal Kolo Muani scores his first international goal for France pic.twitter.com/kTND4IeiUO
Mbappe is doing his best Messi impersonation for this chance against Morocco and is in incredible form heading into the final. The Argentina defense hasn’t faced an individual attacker the likes of Mbappe yet. He puts any team’s backline in situations where they’re forced to forgo most thoughts of forward advancement in lieu of staring at Mbappe, and he still punishes them.
Mbappe has a chance to put his stamp on this tournament with the potential to torch Argentina. If they aren’t careful, he has the same game-wrecking ability that Messi has and will put a bow on a back-to-back World Cup title for France.
Rodrigo De Paul
If you think of the Argentine team as a machine, De Paul is one of the more used and active cogs in their structure. He’s one of the most active central midfielders in the tournament in terms of passes per game and how effectively he receives and distributes the ball in transition is key to how Argentina have progressed.
Emphasizing the importance of De Paul on offense shouldn’t minimize what he’s done defensively. De Paul’s interceptions in defense have continually been a key part of keeping pressure off of the Argentine back line and Emiliano Martínez.
How well De Paul does with Antoine Griezmann being the gnat at his heels will be fascinating to watch. The often meandering style of De Paul will have to be as active as ever with Griezmann’s box-to-box deployment. The one concern with De Paul has been his fitness. Argentina need a vintage 65-minute De Paul performance to ensure success in the final.
If Giroud had capitalized on a few missed chances in the French semifinal win over Morocco, it could have been a four-goal effort from the Les Bleus. He was consistently in great spots to receive and distribute service in the box. Giroud’s ability to envision what Griezmann and the wingers will do before they make their final play is incredible chemistry. He isn’t the most athletic striker in the world, nor is he going to stun you with shot power. The fact remains, Giroud seems to be one of the best strikers in the world for leading the French line, that’s become clear over the last 10 years.
Giroud’s contribution to the French team doesn’t stop with simply being in the right place at the right time. In the win over Morocco, Giroud was tasked with man-marking Sofyan Amrabat. He did such a solid job, Amrabat was quoted as telling Giroud to “stop” following him around. Giroud did so the entire match and was still able to read key moments to break away from defensive responsibilities to spearhead the attack.
The midfield of Morocco dazzled their entire World Cup run, and Griezmann had a field day against it in the semifinal. The Atletico Madrid attacker turned box-to-box midfielder for this World Cup is playing some of the best football of his career in a spot that few expected him to excel at.
Griezmann created twice as many chances as anyone else in France’s win over Morocco and was a stalwart defensively nailing two tackles and three clearances. The best French attacks — that didn’t start with an Mbappe 40-yard dash — have started with Griezmann making a defensive play and springing the counterattack.
How Argentina target Griezmann in the attack is vital to their chances of stopping the French offensive. The problem is, England and Morocco both knew that, and it didn’t stop Grieznmann from doing what he wanted in each match. He’s been the unsung star of the show for France and can help propel them to another World Cup win if his play continues at such a high level unchallenged.