The FIFA World Cup in Qatar has seen an increase in playing time, yet its climax between France and Argentina on Sunday will likely be decided on individual moments — those small details at the Lusail Stadium — such as a defence-tearing run by Kylian Mbappe or a defence-splitting pass from Lionel Messi.
It is going to hinge on that moment of brilliance largely because both defending champions France and challengers Argentina are so similar. Both try to keep their shape and sit behind the ball, and neither looks to boss possession.
You only have to look at the semi-finals for that as both the teams had a mere 39 per cent possession against Morocco and Croatia respectively.
Yet, they emerged as winners thanks to their ruthless efficiency in those moments when they needed it. For France, Mbappe’s quick feet eventually saw them finish off Morocco whereas for Argentina it was Messi’s magic that floored Croatia.
“Both France and Argentina are similar in approach,” Juergen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner with Germany in 1990, told reporters at a news conference of FIFA’s Technical Study Group on Saturday.
“They have this explosive speed because of individual quality and it’s a fascinating final which leaves us wondering which side comes out to get the first goal but at first we believe they will try to neutralise each other in midfield,” he said.
Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s chief of global football development who heads the Technical Study Group, concurred before adding: “Mbappe goes a lot behind the defenders while Messi receives the ball behind the midfield”.
It is from their respective positions, the duo will look to inspire their sides.
The battle between the two superstars of Paris Saint Germain — the club effectively owned by the Qatari state — for glory remains the central debate for the final which comes on the hosts’ National Day, December 18.
For all the debate on the issues surrounding the first Arab host of the World Cup in the buildup to the tournament, this is the perfect ending. No matter who wins on the pitch, off it, Qatar will be the big winner.
The three-day gap between the semi-finals and the final — that felt like an eternity at the most congested 32-team World Cup ever where games have come thick and fast — saw the football debate involving Messi and Mbappe take centre stage.
“Messi and Mbappe made the difference in the semi-finals,” revered Italian coach Fabio Capello told reporters during the Legends Cup, a sideline tournament organised by FIFA during the days between the semi-finals and the final.
“Mbappe arrived decisively close to the goal on two occasions and his shots resulted in two deflections from which the goals came. Messi produced a great game against Croatia and is back to being Messi. They’re the ones who will be important and it will be difficult for both of them to win it,” he opined.
Both Messi and Mbappe have their reasons for battling for the World Cup trophy.
In a career in which he’s won every piece of silverware, the greatest prize in the game is still missing from Messi’s collection. At 35, this is — by his own admission — his last chance to move out of the overreaching shadow of Diego Maradona, who delivered the last World Cup for Argentina a year before Messi was born.
For the phenomenal Mbappe, victory on Sunday will see him become only the second player after the legendary Pele to have become world champion twice before his 24th birthday, which falls on Tuesday (Dec 20).
“Messi can decide matches from every part of the pitch while Mbappe plays further up the pitch but he can do magical things,” former Dutch international midfielder Clarence Seedorf told reporters at the Legends Cup.
“There is the factor of Messi playing his last World Cup — his last chance to win a title that many feel he deserves. But France have played very well and I think it will be a very competitive final, and a technical game with a lot of pressure and intensity.”
There will also be a lot more playing this time than before. At FIFA’s closing press conference on Friday, a point was made that with the referees adding more time in the end for stoppages during the game, the playing time — effectively the time when the ball is rolling — at the matches of this World Cup was just a shade under 60 minutes.
Yet, the decisive factor could very well be found in those split-second interventions, cheeky shots, key passes or subtle movements. It could also come down to the goalkeepers. A moment of misjudgment could be fatal in the final.
“As a keeper, you need to be perfect,” former Germany goalkeeper Jens Lehmann told Dawn.com at the Legends Cup. “Emiliano Martinez (of Argentina) is having a really good tournament. (France’s) Hugo Lloris had a fantastic game against Morocco but for me, Martinez is more complete,” he said.
The small details go all the way down to getting the tactics and the line-ups right as well.
While Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni has a squad that rallies around Messi and that came into the World Cup on a 36-game unbeaten streak, France coach Didier Deschamps has patched up his team despite the absences of key midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante as well as star forward Karim Benzema to injury.
“Didier has always innovated the team,” Christian Karembeu, a member of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning squad alongside Deschamps, said.
“We’re a competitive side with a young generation of players who’ve done really well. Midfielders such as Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot have come in and have been essential for the balance in the centre.”
If France win, Deschamps will become only the second man after Italian Vittorio Pozzo to win back-to-back World Cups as a coach.
While Mbappe and Messi have hogged the limelight, there is the slight frame of the silky Antoine Griezmann, who could prove just as crucial, having adapted seamlessly to his new role in midfield for Les Bleus.
“He’s been incredible,” said Karembeu. “I think everyone is surprised but when he was young, he could play as a number 10, as a number eight and the new position he has is this free role where he can give us what we need.”
When these two sides last met at the World Cup — four years ago in the round of 16 in Russia — Mbappe tore through Argentina with his pace as France won a chaotic contest 4-3.
It was his announcement on the world stage but Sunday could be his coronation as the best player in the world at this point in time.
Messi is looking to go one step better than they did in 2014 when Argentina lost the final to Germany in Brazil.
The pressure at that game was so much that Messi threw up on the pitch at the Maracana. The World Cup title is for his legacy and he will be gunning to do better in Lusail. After all, all he needs is just that one moment to change things.