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Messi’s Argentina crowned champions after ‘greatest’ final decided on penalties

Argentina 3 France 3 AET (Argentina win 4-2 on penalties)

(Telegraph)-This was the greatest of all-time. The greatest World Cup Final of all-time involving the greatest player of all-time and the player who could one day rival him for that honour. The GOAT debate is at an end.

Lionel Messi’s place in the pantheon was already assured but he has, at last, crowned it by finally winning the World Cup in what was his fifth and last attempt. Kylian Mbappe is already set to follow him as the world’s best and he does not turn 24 until Tuesday.

Messi scored twice; Mbappe scored a hat-trick – the first in a World Cup Final since Sir Geoff Hurst for England in 1966 and only the second ever – but it was not enough as France failed to retain the trophy Mbappe had helped them win four years ago, losing 4-2 in an emotional, highly-charged penalty shoot-out with Gonzalo Montiel striking the decisive kick.

There was gamesmanship from Argentina and Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez who was the souped-up hero again as he made an incredible save deep into injury-time and then repelled Kingsley Coman in the shoot-out. With the next French kick, he tossed the ball away from Aurelien Tchouameni who was so unnerved he sent his effort wide. It means France have now lost two World Cup Finals in penalty shoot-outs, after being defeated by Italy in 2006.

Mbappe took France’s first spot-kick in the shoot-out and scored. Messi took Argentina’s first and also scored with an audacious, rolled effort. As Mbappe walked back to the half-way line he passed Messi going in the other direction, which felt symbolic.

Nobody could have done more than Kylian Mbappe CREDIT: AFP via Getty Images

But not before Messi, his team-mate at Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain, claimed the trophy he so obsessively craved and without which his career would have felt incomplete. The kiss as he came face-to-face with it was tellingly tender.

Messi celebrated, the tears flowing amid the smiles. Mbappe, who ended up as the top-scorer and won the Golden Boot with eight goals, to the seven scored by Messi (who wore golden boots) stood staring into the distance. He could not have done more. But then neither could have Messi.

We all talked and wrote about this being a match-up between these two phenomenal players. So often that does not happen and the hype falls flat. Not this time. This time it exceeded expectation.

What a game. What a final. What a privilege to witness it. Fifa president Gianni Infantino had declared this was the best-ever World Cup and although that is disputable, on several levels, no-one would surely deny the primacy of its 64th and final fixture.

But for almost 80 minutes it was as one-sided as it could possibly be. Argentina were imperious and France appeared almost sedated by the virus that had swept through their camp. Mbappe did not get a kick and then he exploded into life with the two goals, in 97 dizzying seconds, to draw France level and force the extra 30 minutes.

Maybe we should also thank Nicolas Otamendi because it was not until the defender’s crude challenge, gifting a penalty, that the contest exploded. And explode it did. End to end. Chances for both sides; great saves and even greater drama.

Nicolas Otamendi unwittingly ignited the contest by fouling France’s Randal Kolo Muani in the box CREDIT: AP

Given the sheer weight of support inside the stadium and their dominance it was almost like a baying home match for Argentina who played with a swagger and were fully deserving of their two first-half goals.

Messi was already arguably above Pele and ahead of Diego Maradona in the hall of fame of football greats but that claim was always questioned by the bare fact that, after four previous World Cups, he was yet to leave as a champion unlike those two other gods of the game.

No more. The last dance did indeed turn into a tango for the 35-year-old as Argentina, coached by the former West Ham defender Lionel Scaloni who has built a team to service Messi, were crowned world champions for the third time and the first time since Maradona led them in 1986.

While the attention will understandably focus on Messi, who was mesmerising, the influence of Angel Di Maria, another feted veteran, was huge as he was recalled and won the penalty and scored to complete a wonderful counter-attack. He tormented France. There were tears from the 34-year-old after his goal and when he went off Argentina began to struggle.

But kudos also to Didier Deschamps. The France coach showed cojones. He made bold substitutions, including withdrawing Olivier Giroud, who threw a water bottle in frustration, and Ousmane Dembele in the first-half, and the ineffective Antoine Griezmann in the second, and changed shape as France went 4-4-2. It worked. Deschamps kept trying things – and his substitutes were involved in the goals with Randal Kolo Muani outstanding – and did not accept France’s apparent fate.

Before that it had been all Argentina. France railed against the penalty they conceded but Di Maria was canny, Di Maria was clever and Dembele was isolated. The Argentina winger went over and there was enough contact to convince the Polish referee Szymon Marciniak.


Messi closed his eyes. Messi composed himself – at the other end Martinez kissed the post – before Hugo Lloris was deceived with Messi watching all the way as he became the first player to score in the group stages, the last-16, the quarter-final, the semi-final and now the final of a World Cup. Yes, four of those goals were penalties but he delivered.

France were being torn apart. When yet another loose pass, this time from Dayot Upamecano, was intercepted, Argentina countered and inevitably it was a deft touch from Messi that helped make it as he found Julian Alvarez who picked out the run of Alexis Mac Allister. Suddenly the Brighton midfielder was free down the right and as France tried to cover Mac Allister, who had an excellent game, had the vision to sweep a pass across field to the unmarked Di Maria who finished.

The story was France not turning up. Or France not able to compete through illness because they did not have a shot until the 71st minute. But what a difference a panicked challenge made and when Otamendi bundled Kolo Muani over, Mbappe drove home his first penalty before running to collect the ball.

Surely it was a consolation? No, France were transformed. They had energy they previously appeared to lack. Coman held off Messi and they were away with a smart one-two involving Mbappe and Marcus Thuram who hooked it back into the forward’s path. There was much to do but Mbappe caught out Martinez by volleying the ball powerfully across him.

What kind of madness was this? Argentina were dazed but Messi hammered in a shot that looked set to beat Lloris who excelled in turning it over to force extra-time.

So often that period is a disappointment. This time it was remarkable with Lloris beating out a fierce drive from Lautaro Martinez with Messi pouncing to bundle in the rebound before Upamecano could clear. Messi knew and the goal was confirmed.

Surely that was it. That was the story. But, as great players do, Mbappe was having none of it and when his shot smacked off Leandro Paredes’s elbow he had the calmness to again beat Martinez from the spot and force the shoot-out.

But, hold fast, before that France should have actually won it when Kolo Muani was sent clear inside the area. There were just 20 seconds to go – only 20 seconds – and he had to score. The shot was low enough and firm enough – but Martinez stuck out a boot and turned it away. What a save and it would not be his last decisive intervention.







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