Mbappe Messi
TWO GENIUSES: France’s forward Kylian Mbappe (left) and Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi. The two will play decisive roles as Argentina clash with France in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 football final in Doha on December 18, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe are a special breed. A cut above the rest. How do you stop them? It’s a daunting prospect, but it has to be done. Lionel Scaloni and Didier Deschamps, rival coaches, must be wracking their brains to hatch plans to stop the football geniuses in the Qatar World Cup final.

Messi’s frail frame bears Argentina’s dreams, and the French hopes ride on Mbappe’s sturdy shoulders. The destination of the World Cup will depend on their impact or lack of it. As Frenchman Deschamps plots to stifle Messi in the final third [of the field], Argentina’s Scaloni will be chalking out plans to keep the Frenchman quiet on the left flank.

Argentina’s shock and revival

Argentina, who came to Qatar on the back of a 36-game unbeaten streak, have had a rebirth in the World Cup. After the shock defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia in their opener, the Latin American team have patched together five wins in a row. Messi was singularly responsible for that.

He’s Argentina’s talisman. Take away the left-footed wonder, and the Latin Americans have been mediocre. For much of the tournament, they have had to rely on Messi’s magical skills to produce a non-existent goal or a dream pass.

Messi leads in multiple categories: Goals 5, Assists 3, Shots 27, Shots on target 14, and Chances created (18). Not just that. He also has the most Man-of-the-Match awards (4). The statistics bear out Messi’s value to Argentina.

Now, you know why Deschamps desperately wants to stop Messi. He’s the fount of all Argentine moves. If the French can cut off supplies to the Argentina captain, the Latin Americans will struggle to stay alive. That would be the central theme of Deschamps’s strategy. Messi can stroll around the pitch, but without the ball, he cannot work his magic.

Scaloni’s strategy to stop Mbappe

That would also be Scaloni’s strategy to choke Mbappe and France as he prepares to deliver Argentina their first World Cup in 36 years. But there’s a tiny problem. France aren’t totally reliant on Mbappe, although the 23-year-old has played a critical role in the wins. There’s also a greased lightning that goes from box to box: Antoine Greizmann is the name.

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But all eyes will be on Mbappe. The French striker delivered precious little against England but had a hand in both goals against Morocco in the semifinals. Mbappe’s mere presence is enough to give jitters to rival defences, and he draws two or three defenders to him, giving his teammates the space to operate. So the idea is to prevent the balls from reaching Mbappe. Scaloni will have a good look at how coach Gareth Southgate bridled the fiery forward with some help from right wing-back Kyle Walker.

France have been pretty average. With a recast midfield in the absence of injured Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante and a new spearhead in the ageing Olivier Giroud, coach Deschamps found ways to win. France weren’t pretty. Not dominant either. Yet they scrapped out victories, which were often stamped with the class of Mbappe in the form of a raking pass or a pearly strike. Much like Messi.

The two have had contrasting fortunes at the World Cup. Messi, 35, is yet to win the cup in five attempts. Mbappe stands in his way. The Frenchman, who won his first World Cup at age 19, could become the first player since Pele to win two by age 23. Messi stands in his way.

The Argentine is arguably the finest footballer in the world. And Mbappe is his successor. Both turn out for Paris Saint-Germain, but they face off on Sunday (December 18). With five goals each, the two are in the race for the Golden Boot too. Looks like the winner of the Golden Boot will also walk away with the World Cup winners’ medal.