Lionel Messi worked his magic on the Lusail Iconic Stadium pitch to deliver a third World Cup trophy for Argentina.
The PSG forward scored one and played a part in another as Argentina got to a comfortable 2-0 lead within the first 36 minutes of the match. The 35-year-old then scored again even as a Kylian Mbappe-inspired France staged a tremendous fightback. And then with Mbappe bagging a hattrick to force the match into tiebreakers, Messi stepped up and converted the spot kick to guide the Albiceleste to the title, the only one piece of silverware that was missing from his trophy cabinet.
While Messi is bound to get all the praise for what he did in the tournament, his long-time strike partner Angel di Maria will surely be credited with the spark that got the team into gear so early in the match.
The two veterans, who had been instrumental in Argentina’s success over the past 15 years – starting from the 2008 Olympic gold to the Copa America title last year, dictated the tempo of the game with seamless sync and intricate passing moves as the defending champions failed to find a footing in front of capacity crowd, largely cheering for Messi’s Argentina.
Things got worse for the world champions when Di Maria clinically finished off a move initiated with a flick from Messi and teed up by the tireless Mac Allister down the right.
Didier Deschamps was in need of a total shakeup and he did so by replacing Olivier Giroud and Dembele with Marcus Thuram and Kolo Muani before the end of the half and the changes apparently brought some life into the France side, who had looked rather pedestrian and short of ideas till that stage.
But if the ageless Messi was pulling all the strings for Argentina, France had Mbappe. The 23-year-old sparked Les Bleus to a marauding fightback as Argentina started to lose possession and control of midfield for the first time.
With the clock ticking down, Mbappe fired home a spot-kick in the 80th minute after Muani’s galloping run into the box was cut short cynically by Nicolas Otamendi.
The Les Bleus phenomenon was just getting started. In the blink of an eye, he got France on level terms with a brilliant volley even as he lost balance following a one-two with Thuram.
The two-goal burst from Mbappe had Argentina shell-shocked, but they gathered themselves to regenerate attacking moves again. Messi tried to create something out of nothing, having a go at goal from outside the box but Lloris summoned years of experience to parry the attempt for a corner as the match headed into extra time.
Substitutes Lautaro Martinez and Gonzalo Montiel forced excellent blocks from Raphael Varane and Dayot Upamecano as Argentina started to dominate again in extra-time and got rewards when Messi tapped in from close range – his seventh goal of the campaign – after Lloris could only parry Martinez’s shot in front.
Mbappe had other ideas though. With a second world title slipping away, he fashioned a fierce shot towards goal, earning a spot kick as the ball hit Gonzalo Montiel on the arm. Mbappe drove the ball powerfully to take the game into the shootout.
The 23-year-old Parisian, who became the first man since Brazil’s Ronaldo in 2002 to score eight goals in a single competition and the second man after Geoff Hurst of England in 1966 to score a hattrick in the final, was the first to step up for the penalty shootout. And he didn’t miss. Messi, too, was at his impeccable best. And the Messi-inspired Argentina team were at their best too as they converted all four of their spotkicks while France could only convert two.
In a contest reminiscent of their quarterfinal win against Netherlands but much more thrilling than that, it was once again Messi and the team’s excellent spot-kick technique that eventually drove them towards the ultimate glory. And perhaps there was more passion and hunger about the Argentina side which managed to dethrone Mbappe’s France, albeit after a mighty scrape.