Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez
Argentina's Lionel Messi (left) and Julian Alvarez celebrate after scoring against Croatia in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 football semifinal at the Lusail Stadium on December 13, 2022. Alvarez scored from a Messi assist. A repeat of that will be required for Argentina to beat France in the final on December 18, 2022. Image Credit: AP 

Lionel Messi with the World Cup: that would make a fantastic picture. An iconic one. It could even sit alongside the photo of Pele celebrating after Brazil’s 1970 win in Mexico. That would be a piece of history. But I don’t see that happening in Qatar.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a massive supporter of Messi. I’d love to see him sign off his international career with a World Cup — the only missing trophy in a humungous list of laurels. That would silence the critics who are reluctant to place Messi in the pantheon of football greats. A World Cup would be the crowning glory of a phenomenal career.

That would be a fairytale ending. The stuff of dreams. Yet, the reality could be different, says my pragmatic mind, which refuses to be blinded by my admiration of Messi. I loved every bit of Messi magic in Qatar, but beyond those brilliant moments, Argentina looked pedestrian. So I don’t see a Latin American win at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday.

My belief has been strengthened by the efficiency of France, who are without the quality of Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante. They are very organised, winning games even with below-par performances: the matches against England and Morocco are prime examples.

How France always find a way to win

France have been motoring in second gear for the better part of the World Cup. Much of the efforts were directed at defending their citadel. They looked solid, with Raphael Varane marshalling at the back and Antoine Griezmann cleaning up superbly. The defence isn’t impregnable, yet they gave the impression of being capable of lasting 90 minutes without conceding a goal.

Didier Deschamps’ team don’t play attractive football: they hardly build moves. Most of their goals have stemmed from swift counter-attacks. And they have been deadly as the speed and power of Kylian Mbappe tore rival defences apart. Young Aurelien Tchouameni has been fast maturing into a fine midfielder, although his creativity can be overshadowed by the impetuosity we saw against England (he struck a fine 25-yard goal and conceded a penalty kick with a careless tackle). And the old warhorse Olivier Giroud still can smell goals.

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All that and more have helped France ease into the final. Look back at their six games in the 64-match tournament, and you won’t find any barnstorming victories. Most of them have been on slender margins, yet the impression was they still had plenty in the tank. Almost as if they did just enough to win. It’s the kind of form that wins tournaments.

It’s not the kind of game I enjoy. I’m a football romantic, who loves Brazilian artistry, the flowing Dutch moves and the Spanish passing bouts. That’s why I adore Messi and his wizardry. He seems to stroll around the field for the most part. His deft touches, body feints, dribbling skills and occasional bursts of speed combine to create a work of art. The work of a genius.

The same cannot be said of the rest of the Argentinian players. There’s talent, but none comparable to Messi or Mbappe, who are generational players. The biggest quality of this Latin American team is their ability to scrap it out. We saw that in the ill-tempered clash against the Netherlands, who rallied from a two-goal deficit and lost on penalties.

Look out for Enzo Fernandes and Julian Alvarez

Two Argentinians who caught my attention are Enzo Fernandes and Julian Alvarez. After that shock loss to Saudi Arabia in the opener, Argentina have been well served by Fernandez’s presence in the midfield. Messi didn’t always have to travel to the Argentine penalty box to fetch the ball.

More impressive has been Alvarez, who struck four goals. His speed and scoring instinct have helped Messi launch counters, and Alvarez also draws defenders to him, giving Messi the sliver of space needed to work his magic. Such a player was missing in 2014 when Argentina lost to Germany. Alvarez could do for Messi what Jorge Burruchaga did for Diego Maradona in 1986 and Claudio Caniggia in 1990.

If that happens, the legend of Messi will rise in Lusail.