“It is being seen as The Mbappe-Messi final. The Golden Boot race is going down to the wire. Both men have scored 5 goals in this tournament, Messi with three assists to Mbappe’s two. They are teammates at Paris St. Germain to add another nuance”.
After 48 group stage games, eight Rounds of 16 ties, and four quarter-finals, Day 24 of the ongoing football fest saw Lionel Messi lead the Argentina national team onto the pitch against Croatia in the first semi-final encounter of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. He was appearing in his 171st game for Argentina. He is the scorer of 11 World Cup goals in 25 games.
The opening half an hour made viewers think that they might be destined for a Croatia staple – penalty kicks as the decider. Both sides kept things defensively compact. Croatia had no shot on target sixty-four minutes into the match.
It took the Croatian goalkeeper, Livakovic bringing down Alvarez and conceding what some see as a contentious penalty to break the deadlock. Magician Messi converted and Argentinians could begin to see their team going all the way.
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Five minutes later, the artful Alvarez made it 2-0. Captain Fantastic Leo Messi provided Alvarez with the assist in the second half to make it 3. He is the first player to score and assist in three different games of a single edition of the FIFA World Cup since 1966. The sea of blue and white could celebrate in earnest. 22-year-old Julian Alvarez is one to watch.
Morocco carried the weight of a continent of over one billion people on their shoulders as they entered the Al Bayt stadium for their semi-final against France. The first African semi-finalists at a World Cup, Africans were rooting for a continuation of the fairy-tale. France had not conceded a goal in the knockout stages. Morocco had not conceded to the opposition in the whole tournament. France came in as the fifth defending champion to reach the final, and the first to do so since Brazil in 1998.
Didier Deschamps had to make do without Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano owing to illness. President Macron was in the stands to cheer his compatriots on. Many of the Moroccan players were born in France; France’s Ousmane Dembele is married to a Moroccan and Morocco coach Walid Regrarui was born in France. The stage was set for an almost-derby.
Theo Hernandez lit up French hearts with his fourth-minute goal that put Les Bleus ahead. It was the earliest goal in a World Cup semi-final since 1958. Morocco pressed and dominated possession but chance after chance went begging. Hugo Lloris, in goal for France, had to be at his most alert and made a few saves. At 79 minutes, Kolo Muani, just 44 seconds after coming on, scored the third-quickest goal for a substitute in World Cup history.
Unfortunately, the Atlas Lions were bested by their French counterparts. Antoine Griezmann stood out. The fairy-tale run has come to an end, but they gave a good account and can stand proud. They beat both Spain and Portugal in the knockout stages. Tweets with a similar theme poured in – Morocco lost the match but won hearts and respect. It was a symbolic game for Africans. Regrarui summed it up best in a post-match interview, “We gave it our best, it doesn’t take away everything we gave before.” They will face Croatia in a third-place match with their fans still solidly behind them.
France’s fifth win in Qatar takes Didier Deschamps to second on the list of all-time manager wins at the World Cup with twelve. He is only the fourth manager to lead a team into back-to-back World Cup finals. He is the third man (joining Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer) to have won the World Cup both as a player and a manager, having won in 1998 as France’s captain. Will he make history by winning it twice as a manager?
France and Argentina will meet on 18th December for the fourth time at the World Cup. It’ll be the first final for France outside Europe. Fans are set for a cracking game. Despite there being twenty other players expected on the pitch, it is being seen as The Mbappe-Messi final. The Golden Boot race is going down to the wire. Both men have scored 5 goals in this tournament, Messi with three assists to Mbappe’s two. They are teammates at Paris St. Germain to add another nuance.
It will either end with Argentina taking away a third title or France becoming the first champions to retain the title since Brazil did the same in 1962. It will be Messi’s swansong. He will have the chance to make history by making the 26th appearance at the World Cup, surpassing Lothar Matthaus on 25. The 35-year-old has had a phenomenal career with records continuing to tumble, and his footballing genius is almost undiminished.
The G.O.A.T debate distracts from two outstanding players of this era. Both Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dazzled on the football stage; their names will be forever engraved in the hearts of fans and their legacy will last beyond our lifetimes. Their contributions to football have been immense.
Tune into the grand finale, will it be Messi’s Moment or will Mbappe Magic see France triumph?