ON THE VOLLEY: World Cup Final Preview

By Charlie DeMatteo

After one month of playing and 63 matches, only two teams remain of the 32 who entered this FIFA World Cup. While there have been surprises along the way, a final encounter between two juggernauts of the game is all that remains of this controversial tournament. 

Will France become the first team to retain the title since Brazil in 1962? Or will Lionel Messi finish his World Cup career on the ultimate high and become immortal in the world of football? Whatever the outcome, Sunday’s final will be a must-watch sporting event, and I’m here to preview the biggest game of the year.

Let’s start with France. The French entered the tournament off the back of a disappointing Euro 2020 exit and with injuries galore. The disappointment at the Euros combined with the injuries, as well as some off-the-field drama, did a good job of making people forget how good the French truly are.

On top of that, the defending champion’s curse, which had plagued the past three World Cup winners who failed to get out of their group the next time around, felt like a real possibility for this team. 

The heartbeat of the French side who won it all in 2018 is gone. The midfield duo of N’golo Kanté and Paul Pogba both missed the tournament due to injury. In addition, 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema also missed this tournament due to injury. Despite these injuries and a few more, the French have demonstrated their depth and quality across the field at this tournament.

Without their midfield stars of 2018, Aurelien Tchouameni — at just 22 years of age — has shown he is truly world-class with dominating performances in the middle of the park. At the back, the injury to Presnel Kimpembe has allowed Ibrahima Konaté to demonstrate his immense talent in an air-tight defense.

And while his lack of goals in the 2018 run was a slight issue, striker Olivier Giroud has slotted in for the injured Benzema and has been sublime. Giroud’s four goals have propelled him ahead of the great Thierry Henry to become France’s all-time leading goal-scorer.

While the replacements for injured players have served France well, the known quantities have also done their bit. Kylian Mbappé has been electric and continues to make the case for being the best player on the planet currently. Antoine Griezmann, who has been out of form at the club level for a few years now, has completely changed his game and become an all-around machine for the French, seemingly linking all of their talents on the field in a way that gets them over the line every game.

Despite still being a world-class team, France and manager Didier Deschamps have still managed to surprise many with this Cup run. If they are to repeat, it will no doubt be remembered as one of the greatest periods of French football ever.

Now on to Argentina. My pick to win the tournament a month ago, the Argentines have slowly built up to the level they are at right now. An opening match shock loss to Saudi Arabia seems to have triggered some alarms in the heads of the Argentina squad and they have well and truly woken up now. I said at the beginning of this tournament that not only Messi’s performance levels would be a deciding factor of how far Argentina would go but also his teammates elevating their performances to try and get this man the World Cup he deserves. After six games, I like to think that that analysis has been proven right.

When Argentina has needed him most, Messi has delivered. Whether that be his goals vs. Mexico and Poland or his assist versus the Netherlands, we are seeing a prime Messi and one that is determined to win eternal glory for his country at this tournament. I said before this tournament that the harmonious nature of the Argentina squad we saw at Copa America would be an advantage for them, and I think that has also been the case in Qatar.

When you see Argentina’s lineup, it is not the best in the world on paper. In fact, there is a case to be made it isn’t even in the top three. With that being said, countless squad players have upped their levels like Nicolas Otamendi, Nahuel Molina, Rodrigo De Paul and Enzo Fernandez to name a few. Julian Alvarez is showing his talent in front of goal, and Emi Martinez has been solid as always in net. 

Similar to France’s run in 2018, Argentina has grown into this tournament gradually. What I mean by that is they have saved their best performances for last, including their convincing 3-0 win against a top Croatia side. The momentum is with Argentina and Messi, and the togetherness and unity behind their legend is their biggest strength.

So, how will this game look? With each team possessing quality on the ball and the ability to counterattack, I expect it to be an even game, with key players making the difference. For Argentina that obviously means Messi, but also midfielders like Leandro Paredes, De Paul and Fernandez, who will have to match Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot for France. Whoever wins the midfield battle will have a great chance of winning this match.

For the French, Mbappé is the obvious player who can change the game in an instant, but I actually think Griezmann’s performance is more important. Throughout the tournament, Griezmann has demonstrated his ability to dictate both sides of the ball, and while Mbappé is incredibly dangerous going forward, Griezmann’s work all across the field could be the difference maker. If Griezmann is able to get on the ball and be a force defensively, I like France’s chances.

While France may seem like this imperious force who can’t be beaten, a decent Morocco team looked very bright in periods of their semifinal match against France, and it is possible to break them down. If one man is able to run a game and be the difference-maker, it’s Messi. Argentina has to be careful though. Like we saw against England, even when France is suffering in the game, they have the quality to hurt you just like that. It’s going to take a full 90 minutes (or more) of focus for Argentina to beat the French. You aren’t going to want to miss this one as I expect it could be a fascinating affair.

Prediction: Argentina 2-1 France (After extra time)