DOHA, Qatar — In one corner is a reigning champion with the chance to do something that hasn’t been done in 60 years. In the other corner is a hungry contender, eager to deliver its first world championship in 36 years to a country desperate to experience the euphoria that comes with lifting the World Cup.
France and Argentina both have two World Cup titles on their books, but the motivation is as different as the matchup itself is extremely close. When they meet at Lusail Stadium on Sunday, it will be a French quest to establish a dynasty against an Argentinian side convinced it is their destiny to see Lionel Messi to finally lift the trophy he feels destined to hold.
Four years removed from its impressive run to the 2018 World Cup title, France didn’t enter the tournament has favorites. A rash of injuries to key stars such as N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba raised questions about how Les Bleus would cope with those absences. The response has been impressive, with Antoine Griezmann elevating his game, young standout Aurelien Tchouameni blossoming in the heart of the French midfield and Kylian Mbappe flashing his dangerous attacking quality.
Argentina came in as a contender, but a notch below bigger favorite Brazil and England. The Albiceleste have Lionel Messi though, and their run to the Copa America title a year ago showed the world how much Argentina had grown from the disappointments of past finals.
This World Cup started in disappointing fashion though, as Argentina suffered a stunning loss to Saudi Arabia. That defeat ultimately became a needed wake-up call, and the South Americans responded with a run of wins led by Messi, who took his game to a dominant level while youngsters Enzo Fernandez and Julian Alvarez provided the necessary support Messi hadn’t had in some past editions of the World Cup.
The current edition of Argentina is arguably the best and most balanced squad Messi has been a part of, featuring a confident goalkeeper in Emiliano Martinez, a veteran defense and an attack that has had its depth tested by injuries to standout Angel DiMaria and Lautaro Martinez.
DiMaria is fully recovered from the foot injury that has limited in the past two rounds, which could lead Lionel Scaloni to shift Messi to the false-nine role, with Julian Alvarez shifting to the left wing.
Scaloni has shown a willingness to adjust his lineups to match up well with opponents, as evidenced by his shift to a 5-3-2 system in the quarterfinal win against the Netherlands. France favors a 4-3-3 setup, with Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele across the front three, so Argentina is likely to roll out a similar tactical setup.
France may be the reigning champion, but Les Bleus looked vulnerable at times in their quarterfinal win against England and semifinal win against Morocco. Messi will present the most difficult challenge the French have faced all tournament, and the red-hot form of Alvarez — who has scored four goals in his past four matches — will have Didier Deschamp concerned about how his defense deals with Argentina’s dynamic duo.
DiMaria could be the wild card. The Juventus winger is a big-game player, having scored in the 2014 World Cup final, and having scored the winning goal in last year’s Copa America final triumph over Brazil. DiMaria. could find plenty of room to operate on the right wing given how little defensive support Mbappe provides on that side of the field, and given French left back Theo Hernandez’s defensive deficiencies.
Conversely, Argentina will have to content with Mbappe’s game-changing speed, and his matchup with Argentinian right back Nahuel Molina is a mismatch Les Bleus will work to exploit.
One advantage Argentina should have is in the area of crowd support, with the Albiceleste fanbase dominating the scene at every knockout-round match to date. That won’t change on Sunday, and that support could ultimately be what helps propel Argentina to its first title since 1986, which would deny France the chance to be the first team to repeat as World Cup champions since Brazil in 1962.