Lionel Messi has had a career most could barely even dream about, let alone achieve.
And yet, the greatest prize of all has continued to elude him – the closest he has come to being a World Cup champion was in 2014 when Argentina were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the final in Brazil.
The magician has one last chance to right that wrong when Argentina face off against France in Sunday’s showpiece in Qatar, the perfect stage to put the cherry on top of the cake.
But standing in his way is another Paris Saint-Germain megastar in the form of Kylian Mbappe, whose Les Bleus side know how to get the job done having been crowned winners four years ago in Russia.
So, will it be Messi walking off into the World Cup sunset finally a champion on international football’s biggest stage? Or is it the younger pretender’s time to further enshrine himself as a legend of the tournament?
Two Stats Perform writers, John Skilbeck and Pete Hanson, argue the toss prior to Sunday’s final.
France are one game away from their second straighttitle
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup)
Messi’s time has finally arrived – John Skilbeck
No pressure, Leo, but it’s now or never. You’ll take now, you say?
Sunday will be an extraordinary day in an extraordinary life as Messi chases the crowning glory that has eluded him until now.
The great Messi will at last be a World Cup winner if he and Argentina can get the better of a France team who will not relinquish the trophy easily.
He’s been on this very brink before, of course, with Argentina beaten by Germany in the 2014 final. So what’s changed? And why will it be a different story this time?
Put simply, Messi needs this more than anyone who will be on the pitch on Sunday. He needs it, and he not only knows what it takes now, but he is performing at a level to take this into his own hands.
You can look at those 672 goals and 35 trophies for Barcelona, the silverware he has added at PSG, and even the Copa America he won with Argentina last year, and you can marvel.
But ending his career without a World Cup triumph would be treachery to his talent, and collectively Argentina know they must rise for their captain, do the spade work to help him over the line this time.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic says it is “already written” that Messi will lift the trophy, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic often talks bunkum. On a more evidence-based level, Messi is in great shape. He has five goals and three assists at this World Cup, with that combined total of eight goal involvements higher than anyone else’s tally.
Three of those strikes were penalties, of course, and he should really be on six goals, given the spot-kick he failed to convert against Poland. But Messi is making things happen. He has created 18 chances so far (only Antoine Griezmann, with 21, has created more) and played 88 forward passes and 39 passes into the final third, in both cases the most of all players classed as forwards by Opta.
Sunday is his last World Cup match. The greatest player of his generation knows what he must do. He’s ready for this, and so is all of Argentina. Messi is finally ready to move alongside Maradona in the Albiceleste pantheon.
football has no time for sentiment, Mbappe will deny Messi’s moment – Pete Hanson
The greatest of all time debate throws up some strange oddities, particularly on social media.
I can completely accept that it is subjective, yet to suggest Messi finally getting his hands on the World Cup would not enhance his own claims is, frankly, absurd.
For what it’s worth, I think, regardless of the outcome at the Lusail Stadium, Messi has done enough to prove he sits atop the mountain.
And yet, I fear, Sunday will not provide Messi the World Cup swansong he and football romantics the world over so desperately desire, and it is a man he knows well from Paris Saint-Germain who will instead further entrench his legacy with football’s greatest tournament.
Kylian Mbappe has some way to go to matching Messi’s genius in the domestic game and at some point you feel he will have to leave the home comforts of Paris, but in the here and now he is the leading light in a well-oiled Les Bleus machine that simply wins the big moments.
Julian Alvarez aside, Messi’s supporting cast has not been the best in Qatar. An opening-game loss to Saudi Arabia has long been forgotten but had it not been for their diminutive superstar dragging them through the tournament it feels unlikely Argentina would have made the knockout stages, let alone the final.
Mbappe, conversely, can rely on a much more rounded threat. Antoine Griezmann has legitimate claims for the Golden Ball himself, Olivier Giroud – now his country’s leading goalscorer – provides the perfect foil for more technical players, and the industry of Aurelien Tchouameni can keep Didier Deschamps’ men ticking.
France were not always convincing against England nor much more – if at all – against Morocco, but crucially they have a canny knack of getting the job done at the most crucial times in a match.
In Mbappe, whose five goals are matched only by Messi, they have the ideal man to deny football’s best ever his greatest moment.