How do we make sense of such bedlam?
Lionel Messi almost led Argentina to World Cup glory in normal time – and then in extra time – but Sunday’s gripping final ended 3-3 after 120 minutes before the South Americans finally edged France on penalties.
Kylian Mbappe notched a hat-trick and struck a successful spot-kick in the shootout, but his clinical and mature display wasn’t enough to earn the superstar his second World Cup winners’ medal.
Here are three takeaways from an unforgettable final to conclude the 2022 World Cup:
Di Maria wreaks havoc
Discussions around Jules Kounde during the tournament indicated the right-back slot was completely alien to him. It seemed an awkward fix – something akin to solving an antique dining table’s wobble with a few soggy beer mats under a leg.
But that wasn’t strictly true given the minutes Kounde spent in that position for Julen Lopetegui at Sevilla and now Xavi at Barcelona. He’s not a novice at full-back. But it is reasonable to suggest he’s significantly better at center-back. In hindsight, perhaps Benjamin Pavard – a more dependable player on the right of a back-four – would have been the better choice in that role.
Angel Di Maria taunted Kounde in the first half. The Frenchman distractedly glanced over at midfield runners while Di Maria jinked his way down the flank and, at one point, desperately dragged the winger down after being beaten. Kounde was overwhelmed – his head muddled by the decisions he faced and his body knotted by the 34-year-old wideman’s footwork. And no one stepped up to help their bewildered teammate.
Kounde was caught in a narrow position for the move that led to Argentina’s penalty. His preoccupation with Argentina’s forward-thinking midfielders and Julian Alvarez meant Di Maria only had Ousmane Dembele to beat, and his chop created the space to carve out a route into the box before Dembele clipped his heels.
Messi made no mistake from 12 yards.
Kounde wasn’t part of France’s attack before Argentina’s second goal, so he should have been well-placed to deal with the Albiceleste’s speedy transition. But Dayot Upamecano was caught high up the pitch while Raphael Varane tried to engage with Messi, forcing Kounde to leave his position and close down goal-bound Alexis Mac Allister. Mac Allister then rolled an inviting pass to an unoccupied Di Maria for one of the finest goals of the 2022 World Cup.
To France’s relief, Di Maria only lasted a little over an hour before being substituted for Marcos Acuna. Di Maria – now a scorer in the finals of the 2008 Olympics, 2021 Copa America, 2022 Finalissima, and the 2022 World Cup – could have helped put the match out of reach if he was fully fit – or just younger.
Messi, Mbappe put on a show
It was unavoidable in the buildup to the final. This was a battle between the master – perhaps the greatest player of all time – and a potential heir to his throne.
And how Messi and Mbappe delivered.
Here are some standout numbers following the superstars’ enthralling performances in a staggering final:
1 – At just 23, Mbappe is the top scorer in World Cup finals history with four goals.
2 – Messi is the second-oldest player to score in a World Cup final at 35 years and 177 days. Sweden’s Nils Liedholm converted against Brazil in the 1958 showpiece at 35 years and 264 days.
3 – Mbappe’s treble made him the second male player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Geoff Hurst previously stood alone with that record thanks to his legendary display in England’s 1966 triumph.
4 – Argentina’s No. 10 scored four penalties in Qatar (excluding the shootout against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals). Only Dutch winger Rob Rensenbrink in 1978 and Portuguese icon Eusebio in 1966 have tucked away that many spot-kicks in a single tournament.
7 – Messi had never scored a World Cup knockout goal until this month. He spread his seven goals at the 2022 edition across the group stage, last-16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final, meaning he’s the first player to score in each round of a single World Cup campaign.
8 – The last time a male player scored eight goals at a single World Cup was in 2002; Mbappe matched Ronaldo’s mark from Brazil’s success two decades ago.
10 – Messi and Mbappe both registered 10 goal involvements at the World Cup: Messi totaled seven goals and three assists, while Mbappe claimed eight strikes and two assists. The last player to reach that mark was Diego Maradona, who scored five and set up five during Argentina’s victorious 1986 campaign.
26 – Messi set a record with his 26th goal across his appearances on football’s biggest stage and his country’s continental competition. Brazil’s Ronaldo previously held the record with 25 goals scored at World Cup and Copa America outings.
100 – Messi’s second strike – and Argentina’s third – was his 100th career goal with his right foot.
A fitting end
Argentina was cruising, tapping the ball around the middle of the park to the soundtrack of “oles” from the crowd. The French players, chasing shadows around Lusail, appeared more tired than the annual debates over whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie or not.
It seemed to be a procession toward the trophy for the Albiceleste. So – naturally, for this tournament – the scene descended into blissful chaos.
From nowhere, Mbappe scored twice in 97 seconds – a penalty and a stunning lashed volley – to wipe out Argentina’s two-goal advantage by the 81st minute.
It’s impossible to ignore the atrocities that Qatar and FIFA tried to gloss over at this World Cup, including migrant worker deaths and abuses and the abhorrent treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in the Gulf state. But it’s also impossible to deny this was a marvelous tournament: There were surprise results -including, of course, Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina – several miraculous tournament runs highlighted by Morocco’s, and many other timeless individual and team performances.
The final kept up appearances. Mbappe’s quick-paced double salvo wasn’t even close to the peak of Sunday’s shock and suspense. Messi thought he’d won it when he scored in the 109th minute, but tears of happiness on the Argentine bench became tears of despair when Mbappe scored from the penalty spot following Gonzalo Montiel’s handball.
Even then, there was more drama to unfold. Randal Kolo Muani was inches from scoring the winner with his head, but that wasn’t his best late chance. The Eintracht Frankfurt forward was one-on-one with Emiliano Martinez in the 123rd minute, but his shot was spectacularly saved by Martinez’s foot; Lautaro Martinez then wastefully headed wide after one last sprint upfield from the Argentines.
It was breathless action to conclude a memorable World Cup, and Montiel’s game-winning penalty in the shootout tied a bow on one of the greatest matches in the old sport’s history.
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