France vs Argentina is about Mbappe and Messi, but there’s something else

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has flown by. Wedged into the middle of the European club season, it has had to.

It’s hard to believe that the tournament began 26 days ago, yet so much has transpired in that time, including whittling down a field of 32 to just France and Argentina, who will meet in Sunday’s final at 10 a.m. ET.

Many would have expected France, the defending champions, to be here. But with Argentina having suffered an upset to Saudi Arabia in their opening game, their rally to reach a second World Cup final in eight years is more of a surprise. Although, when your team boasts Lionel Messi, can you ever really be surprised to be in contention for a major trophy?

So, with the World Cup final now just 48 hours away, what should we expect from a meeting of two of football’s powerhouses? To find out, ESPN asked Gabriele Marcotti, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens and James Olley to weigh in on this intriguing matchup of Les Bleus and the Albiceleste.

Lionel Messi vs. Kylian Mbappe: Can the GOAT hold off his heir apparent?

This is maybe the greatest individual matchup we have ever had in a World Cup final. Two world-class superstars — and club teammates at PSG as well, adding to the drama. The greatest player of all time, Messi, against heir to his crown Kylian Mbappe.

For Messi, it would be the perfect fairy-tale ending for a World Cup journey that has, thus far, been full of disappointments: from early exits to a final defeat in 2014 against Germany.

For Mbappe, it would be another piece of history made. At 23 years old, he would become the second-youngest player, after Brazil legend Pele, to win back-to-back World Cups.

There can be only one winner, of course. Sunday will be a showcase of their incredible talent, leadership and how they can impact a final on the biggest stage of all. And beyond the World Cup itself, there is also the next Ballon d’Or at stake here, the best player of the tournament prize and the top goal-scorer award (they are both on five goals at the moment.)

There is so much to look forward to in the battle between these two geniuses, not least because the last time they played, in the 2018 round of 16, it was 4-3 to France! — Laurens

After an up-and-down World Cup, did we get a great final?

The final is good for the Qataris, given it pitches two of Paris Saint-Germain’s leading stars against each other in a heavyweight match. Furthermore, for a tournament overshadowed by off-field controversies in the buildup — and during much of the action — the football itself has been highly entertaining. In that context alone, this World Cup gets the final it deserves.

Either winner will add a fresh chapter to their rich football history; France becoming only the third back-to-back winners in history or Argentina ending a 36-year wait for a World Cup win with Messi immortalised on the grandest stage of all. As much as this competition has been enriched by surprising success stories — think Saudi Arabia beating Argentina, Morocco’s remarkable run to the semifinals — the final pitching together of two powerhouses of the global game is what everyone wants to see. It is also probably what Qatar had in mind when winning the bid to host this tournament 12 years ago. — Olley

Who is each team’s X factor?

FRANCE: Antoine Griezmann

Olivier Giroud is more handsome and Mbappe more hyped, but Griezmann has arguably been France’s most important player in Qatar and could prove decisive in the final. A natural forward, he’s been reinvented as a midfielder in this tournament and will have a massive dual task in helping to prop up France’s midfield while also offering the creative spark behind striker Giroud. His mobility will also prove a challenge for an Argentina midfield who often play narrow.

ARGENTINA: Enzo Fernandez

Other than Messi and Angel Di Maria (who may well not start), Argentina are short on creativity, and that will be an issue if, as expected, Didier Deschamps plays on the counter, as he loves to do. The Benfica youngster is more of an all-rounder than a creator, but he has the spark and dynamism to create overloads and make runs down that inside left channel. He has the personality to be a disruptor, and that’s what Argentina might need against a tight France setup. — Marcotti.