Messi chases glory; Argentina meets France in World Cup final

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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — It is now or never for Lionel Messi.

The Argentina superstar’s once-in-a-generation career will be defined — for many — by whether he leads his country to the World Cup Title on Sunday.

Can he finally, at the age of 35, win soccer’s biggest prize to secure his place alongside Pelé and Diego Maradona in the pantheon of the game’s greatest ever players?

His path is blocked France, the reigning champion. Kylian Mbappé, the player best positioned to take over from Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as soccer’s marquee name.

That’s if he hasn’t already.

Mbappé also is standing on the cusp of history heading into the match at the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium, a title decider that is filled with storylines.

The 23-year-old France forward is looking to emulate Pelé by being a champion at his first two World Cups and set up the prospect of a third title, a feat only ever achieved by the Brazil great who has been hospitalized during this year’s tournament because of a respiratory infection.

Mbappé was 19 when he led France to its second World Cup title in 2018, becoming the youngest scorer in a final since a 17-year-old Pelé did so in 1958. While Pelé ended up being a peripheral figure in Brazil’s 1962 triumph — he didn’t play in the knockout stage because of injury — Mbappé has been France’s go-to player in the team’s bid to repeat.

Indeed, Mbappé enters the final tied as the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals. He is accompanied by whom? Naturally, Messi.

Who wins the Golden Boot — the award for the top scorer — is just one of the many other narratives around the final.

France, the dominant nation team of this generation, is looking to become the first country to win back-toback World Cups. The country that produced Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and now Mbappé will be playing in the final for the fourth time in the last seven World Cups, more than anyone else.

Didier deschamps is another World Cup winner, having won it as a player 1998. He now wants to win it again as a coach. Vittorio Pozzo was also the coach of two world champion teams with Italy in 1934, 1938.

Like France, Argentina is seeking a third World Cup title — after 1978 and 1986 — to move into outright fourth place in the all-time list. It would be the end of 36 years of waiting for soccer’s most prestigious prize since Maradona’s series in Mexico in 1986.

Maradona was a hero in Argentina and an icon throughout the soccer world. Messi now appears to be at that level — win or lose on Sunday when he’ll play in a record 26th World Cup match.

Messi has evoked comparisons with Maradona In the way he’s done it pushed Argentina to the final, His five goals were followed by three more. He also set up three more goals. This has delighted his legion of supporters, who have come to Qatar in numbers not even equalled by those from Morocco, during the World Cup.

In that sense, it will seem like a home game for Argentina, with France’s supporters sure to be heavily outnumbered amid a sea of blue-and-white jerseys — many of which will have “MESSI 10” written on them.

It can be difficult to choose the winner.

France is a tough tournament team with a lot of experience. It also has the ability to win when it is not playing at its best. France has maintained a high level of play despite losing key players. Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe And Karim BenzemaThe reigning World Player of the Year is.

The French are the masters of being pragmatic, defending compactly and breaking at pace, typically through Mbappé down the left and through Antoine GriezmannReimagined in the past month as an active midfield playmaker.

Indeed, expect to see Mbappé and Messi walking around a lot during the game, not bothering to defend or press. This is not a sign that they are lazy, but it is written in. Deschamps’s skill and that of Lionel Scaloni, Argentina coach, is in their ability to build a team capable of defending a man light.

Argentina’s team is set up largely to get the best from Messi. Scaloni will likely select four central midfielders, just like the 3-0 win against Croatia in the semifinals. They will press, scrape and finally give the ball to Messi who will weave his magic. Or to Julián Álvarez, the striker who started the tournament as a backup for that unthinkable 2-1 opening loss to Saudi Arabia He is now undroppable and has four goals.

Álvarez is pinching himself that, at 22 and pretty much at the start of his career, he is the attacking foil for Messi at the great man’s last World Cup.

Similar to the Qatari stadiums, thousands of people watched the match live from around the globe.

Anyone who isn’t French, or maybe a fervent fan of Ronaldo, is likely to be willing on Argentina’s diminutive No. In the most important match of his career, he was ranked No. 10.

Eight years ago, Messi walked away from the 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2014 final with the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player.

He’ll be aiming to lift another trophy made of 18-carat gold this time to complete a remarkable career.

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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