DOHA, Qatar The World Cup final is unlike any other game, especially with two marquee, superstar-led squads facing off when Lionel Messi’sArgentina and Kylian Mbappé’s France meet in Sunday’s much anticipated decider (coverage starts at 9 a.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app) at Lusail Iconic Stadium.
Yet Sunday’s contest figures to be decided on the margins, just like any other high-stakes encounter between two elite, evenly balanced foes.
“There are two key players who can make a difference,” French coach Didier Deschamps said. “Maybe the team who manages to make fewer mistakes will win the match.”
Here are four factors that could determine whether the Albiceleste raise the trophy for the first time since 1986 or Les Bleus retain the title they earned four years ago.
[Nothing draws in the world quite like the World Cup final
How will France stop Messi?
This is obviously a question opposing coaches have been asking themselves for most of the past two decades. But France boss Didier Deschamps’s game plan limited Messi when Les Bleus shut down the living legend in the round of 16 in 2018. Messi’s lone goal contribution was an assist in his side’s 4-3 loss to the eventual champions.
But Messi has played a deeper-lying role in Qatar, meaning Deschamps’ center backs must decide whether to sit back and protect the area behind them or step up into the midfield to track him.
“That Messi actually played as a center forward against us caught us by surprise four years ago,” Deschamps said after Wednesday’s semifinal win over Morocco. “Now he’s playing in a tandem with or just in behind the center forward. He is picking up the ball a lot, and he’s running with it.”
The French central defenders will rely heavily on midfield destroyer Aurélien Tchouaméni and his partner (either Youssouf Fofana or Adrien Rabiot) to limit Messi’s time and space when he faces up in possession.
Argentina must defend Mbappé by committee
Matched up against all-world right backs Achraf Hakimi and Kyle Walker in the wins over England and Morocco, Mbappé didn’t do much. But he eventually got past Hakimi to set up the goal that sealed France’s victory. When he did, there was nobody there to cover and close him down.
It takes more than one defender to blunt Mbappé, who is quick and skillful enough to torch any opponent if given enough one-on-one opportunities. If Mbappé is able to get behind or around Argentina right back Nahuel Molina, right winger Rodrigo De Paul and center backs Nicolás Otamendi and Cristian Romero must anticipate the danger and be right there to help.
Can Julián Álvarez flummox France’s defenders?
With four goals so far in Qatar just one fewer than World Cup Golden Boot co-leaders Mbappé and Messi the 22-year-old Álvarez has been one of the breakout stars of the tournament.
But the Albiceleste striker doesn’t just score; he can both occupy the center backs to give Messi more room to operate behind him or drop into the midfield to find the ball. The first of his two strikes in Argentina’s 3-0 semifinal win over Croatia began with Álvarez collecting the ball inside his own half.
Against France, Álvarez will likely directly match up with veteran center back Raphaël Varane assuming Varane is available (more on that below). Varane has done well enough against center forwards in Qatar, including Poland’s Robert Lewandowski in the round of 16 and England’s Harry Kane, whose goal came from the penalty spot, in the quarters. But Álvarez isn’t a typical target man, and his unconventional movement could pull Varane out of position at times, leaving Les Bleus vulnerable.
Illness could decimate Les Bleus lineup
Varane would be a lock after starting all three knockout games, but he’s one of at least five players now in doubt because of the virus ripping though France’s roster. He and Dayot Upamecano had been Deschamps’ preferred center back pairing before the latter missed the semi. Ibrahima Konaté was excellent in Varane’s place, but he too is now sick.
Stricken with flu-like symptoms, Rabiot wasn’t well enough to leave the team hotel for the Morocco game. Winger Kingsley Coman is the other player infected, Deschamps confirmed on Thursday.
It’s a nightmare scenario for the coach.
Argentina’s fans could make a difference
Another thing that could help Messi & Co? The Albiceleste’s traveling support. French fans were outnumbered 10-1 against Morocco. They might make up an even smaller percentage of the crowd Sunday, with Doha overrun by tens of thousands of exuberant, expectant Argentines desperate to will the 35-year-old Messi to his first world title in his last World Cup appearance and, in the process, return the futbol obsessed South American nation to what they believe is their rightful place atop the global pecking order for the first time in 36 years.
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That sentiment isn’t limited to the diehards.
“This is what I always dreamed as an Argentinean,” Albiceleste coach Lionel Scaloni said after his side topped Croatia.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game,” said France midfielder Antoine Griezmann. “We know they’re gonna have a lot of support in the crowd.”
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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States mens and womens national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre