Sunday's World Cup final will not be the first time Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi have met on this stage.

If the encounter at Lusail Stadium is half as good as the instant classic witnessed in Kazan four years ago, then we'll be in for a treat.

France won 4-3 in their last-16 duel, a game that was defined by Argentina's fragility and Les Bleus' ruthlessness.

Didier Deschamps' men of course went on to win the tournament; Argentina soon sacked Jorge Sampaoli and Lionel Messi went into a self-imposed international exile.

It was a seismic contest in a variety of ways.

Mbappe elevated to superstardom

The final of Qatar 2022 is of course being billed as Mbappe versus Messi. Ahead of their meeting in Kazan, this wasn't really the case, with the latter undoubtedly the focus for many.

But at full-time, there was almost a sense of this game being Mbappe's 'arrival' as a global superstar.

 

While his talent was already well known having joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, Mbappe's performance against Argentina brought his prodigious ability to a worldwide audience.

He was devastating.

Argentina couldn't handle his speed and ability on the ball, with Mbappe tearing the Albiceleste's slow – and high – back-line to shreds.

First, he darted through them, drawing a foul from Javier Mascherano that resulted in Antoine Griezmann striking the crossbar.

Then he just ran away from them, leaving Mascherano and company in his tracks before surging past Marcos Rojo and winning a penalty that Griezmann coolly slotted home.

It wasn't just about his speed, though. Twice he delivered the decisive touch.

 

Somehow making space for himself in the box, he slammed a left-footed strike through Franco Armani to open his account.

Then he rounded off one of the most memorable goals of the tournament. An intricate counter-attack led to Mbappe steaming up the right flank and latching on to Olivier Giroud's prodded pass before emphatically finding the bottom-left corner with a first-time effort.

It made him the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since Pele in 1958.

"When you are to meet a player like Kylian or Leo, of course you make a plan to control them," Sampaoli said. "But if they have a day like Mbappe did, it's very difficult to make the plan work."

Mbappe had truly arrived.

Messi engulfed by the gloom

Just as Mbappe provided an utterly terrifying glimpse of what he'd go on to become, it seemed Messi was on his way out.

Having recently turned 31, there was a perception this was Messi's last tango at the World Cup; after all, he had already retired from international football once before.

And, to be fair, his performance offered little in the way of a response to the idea that he was done.

He did get a couple of assists. The first wasn't exactly one for the highlights reel – it was a tame shot that hit Gabriel Mercado on its way in. Then, his deep cross found Sergio Aguero to head home late on, but Messi was missing the inner fire he's so clearly embraced in Qatar.

At the point of Mercado's fortunate goal, everything was looking quite positive for Argentina as it put them 2-1 up, but they simply weren't defensively sound enough to keep Les Bleus at bay.

 

Similarly, Messi was unable to shoulder the burden of individually inspiring a team that was essentially in crisis, with prominent reports of rifts and a player mutiny against the coaching staff.

Exile followed for Messi.

Lionel Scaloni was appointed – initially as caretaker head coach – in August 2018, with Messi's future unclear. He was left out of Scaloni's early squads, but after a nine-month absence he did eventually return.

He's not looked back. Messi led Argentina to their first major title in 28 years in 2021 as they won the Copa America, and he's been the key figure in the Albiceleste's route to the final of Qatar 2022.

But can he finally win the biggest title that's eluded him?

Eat my goal

There was more to the Kazan classic than just Mbappe and Messi, however.

A topsy-turvy encounter that encapsulated Argentina's roller-coaster campaign had almost everything: drama, engrossing wider narratives, incredible players and some outrageous goals.

Griezmann's penalty opened the scoring, but the match truly came alive with Angel Di Maria's equaliser.

Given space about 30 yards out, he unleashed an unstoppable piledriver out of Hugo Lloris' reach up to his left, sparking maniacal celebrations from Argentina.

 

Those celebrations were matched – and the goal arguably trumped – when France brought the game back to 2-2.

Lucas Hernandez's cross fell kindly to Benjamin Pavard just outside the box and the defender met it with one of the most satisfying half-volleys you're ever likely to see, slicing across the ball to send it spinning with venom into the top-left corner.

Mbappe's exceptional second had Argentina 4-2 up, and even Aguero's ultimate consolation was a goal of real quality, particularly Messi's pass.

But the legacy of this game was Mbappe's elevation to a new plain, and it's from there that he's plotting to deny Messi's bid for immortality this time.

Lionel Messi "can play until he is 50", according to Brazil legend Ronaldinho.

Argentina can lift their third World Cup on Sunday, when they take on reigning champions France at Lusail Stadium in a highly anticipated match that will crown the tournament's winners.

At 35-years-old, Messi has played a vital role for Argentina in Qatar as he seeks a first World Cup crown, scoring five goals to become La Albiceleste's record goalscorer in the competition, surpassing Gabriel Batistuta.

Messi can cap his spectacular career against France, who are looking to make their own history as the first nation to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.

Ronaldinho, who was part of the Selecao team that won the 2002 World Cup and like Messi is a former Barcelona star, is not surprised that the forward is still performing at the highest level at his age.

When asked if he expected to see Messi playing at this high standard in Qatar, Ronaldinho told L'Equipe: "For Messi, this level is normal, isn't it?

"He has been the best in the world for many years already. 

"It's his last World Cup, but I was sure he would come back and do whatever it takes to win it. 

"For me, he can play until he is 50 because he has a lot more qualities than all the others."

Standing between Messi and international football's elite title are France, who beat Morocco 2-0 in the semi-finals to reach a fourth World Cup final, all of which have come since 1998.

Forward Kylian Mbappe has once again impressed with five goals at the tournament, joint-most with Messi, and at 23 he could become the youngest player since Pele to lift the World Cup twice.

Ronaldinho spoke of his admiration for Mbappe, as well as Didier Deschamps, who can become just the second head coach to lead a team to victory at two separate World Cup editions after Italy's Vittorio Pozzo.

"I love Didier Deschamps, he is very good," Ronaldinho added. "He is a lord, who was a very good player and who knows football very well. 

"I like the way France play under him. In Brazil, he has a very good image and we appreciate the way Les Bleus play.

"France are too strong really, even if before the competition they were among the favourites, so it's only a half surprise. I'm happy to see France in the final.

"I love watching him [Mbappe] play. He does everything very well and he is still very young. 

"He has all the qualities, the speed, the dribbling and, in front of goal, he has the composure. 

"These are the type of players that we Brazilians love to see play. He seems like a strong personality too."

Ronaldinho's Brazil were the pre-tournament favourites to lift a sixth World Cup in Qatar, but they crashed out after a penalty shoot-out defeat to Croatia in the quarter-finals.

He hopes the Selecao's current group can learn from their disappointment.

Ronaldinho added: "I think Brazil had a very good team too, but things didn't turn out the way we thought. Brazil are still under pressure because when we think football, we think Brazil. 

"It was a very good group with a lot of talent, though. I hope this generation will gain something [from their Qatar campaign]."

Lionel Messi is already set to make history in Sunday's World Cup final. It is up to France to ensure he does not also take home the trophy.

Messi, in likely his last World Cup match, will set the outright record for finals appearances (26) as he gets his second shot at glory.

The Argentina captain was part of the team defeated 1-0 by Germany in the final eight years ago. Their title tilt at Russia 2018 then ended at the last-16 stage, beaten by France.

But Messi has guided his side through to the Lusail Stadium showpiece this time, where France are again their opponents.

France have won only three of 12 meetings with Argentina in all competitions and lost two of three World Cup clashes, but that epic 4-3 victory at the previous World Cup set Didier Deschamps' men on course for the title.

 

Indeed, Les Bleus have won seven World Cup knockout games in succession – two shy of Brazil's record – as they look to become only the third side (after Brazil in 1962 and Italy in 1938) to successfully defend their title. Hugo Lloris could become the first player to captain a team to triumphs in consecutive finals, while Didier Deschamps could become the first coach to do so since Vittorio Pozzo oversaw both Italy successes in the 1930s.

Other omens are more positive for Argentina: the last time the two World Cup finalists had both lost earlier in the same campaign – Messi and Co. were stunned by Saudi Arabia, while France lost to Tunisia – the Albiceleste beat the Netherlands to the 1978 title. Cesar Luis Menotti, in charge of Argentina in 1978, was the last coach younger than Lionel Scaloni to lift the World Cup.

But it is the other Lionel who is understandably hogging the limelight.

Messi would be a popular winner just about everywhere – except in the country where he plays his club football with Paris Saint-Germain.

"We are the team of France in the final of the World Cup. We fight for our team, our country," said Ousmane Dembele of the possibility of he and his team-mates playing the role of party poopers.

"All the players and the French want to win the World Cup and bring back a third star. It would be good for his career if Messi won the World Cup, but we also want to win the World Cup.

"Every football player wants to win the World Cup. He has had a great career and he lacks this trophy, but we represent our country. We want to win the World Cup. I hope France will win this World Cup."

Dembele also spoke of the importance of France keeping the ball away from Argentina's "exceptional" talisman, someone he knows well from Messi's time at Barcelona.

Antoine Griezmann, another of their then Barca team-mates, may have a key role to play in that sense, although his new posting in midfield has done little to slow his productivity in the final third.

Griezmann has created more chances (21) with a higher expected assists value (3.5) than any other player at this World Cup. He has been vital to France's tournament-leading non-penalty expected goals total of 11.9, although Argentina have allowed just 5.7 shots worth 0.4 xG on average in Qatar – two 2022 lows.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina – Lionel Messi

There can only be one man, so influential has Messi been for Argentina to this point. His five goals and three assists at this tournament have boosted the 35-year-old to a joint-record 19 goal involvements across his World Cup career. Do not count against him reaching a landmark 20 with a goal in the final; he would become the first player ever to score in every round at a single World Cup.

France – Kylian Mbappe

Whatever Messi can do, PSG club-mate Mbappe will hope to do also. Of course, unlike Messi, he has won a World Cup, scoring in the final against Croatia in Russia. Should Mbappe net again, he would become the youngest player to get on the scoresheet in multiple finals at 23.

Either Griezmann or Mbappe have the opportunity to become the fifth man to score in two finals and the second (after Brazil's Vava in 1958 and 1962) to score in two in a row.

PREDICTION

It is very, very nearly too close to call. Just 0.1 per cent splits the two teams, according to Opta's prediction model, which probably matches the public perception of the fixture.

The supercomputer gives Argentina the slightest of edges at 35.1 per cent, with France rated at 35.0 per cent. With that in mind, do not discount extra time and penalties, with the draw considered a similarly strong 29.9 per cent shot.

Lionel Messi's stunning performances at the 2022 World Cup "show the evolution of modern sport", according to former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

Wenger made the observation while speaking alongside Germany legend Jurgen Klinsmann at a press conference for FIFA's Technical Study Group.

The tournament in Qatar has seen a number of older players feature in starring roles for their national teams, with 35-year-old Lionel Messi set to lead his Argentina team out against France in the World Cup final.

Luka Modric, 37, impressed for Croatia as they reached the semi-finals, while Olivier Giroud will likely lead the line for France on Sunday having broken Thierry Henry's record as Les Bleus' all-time top goalscorer at the age of 35.

At the other end of the scale, 19-year-old Jude Bellingham was a driving force in England's run to the quarter-finals and Kylian Mbappe, at 23, can become the youngest player to win two World Cup finals since Pele if France are victorious against Argentina.

Wenger feels this World Cup is demonstrating how modern sport is advancing, with new technology helping participants to lengthen their careers.

"I managed [Arsenal] in 2006 against Barcelona in the Champions League final and Messi was already starting to play," Wenger said at the press conference.

"That’s 2006, we are in 2022 – that’s 16 years later and he’s still in contest for being player of the tournament.

"This tournament shows the evolution of modern sport.

"This tournament is the tournament of young players who are ready earlier and earlier in top-level sport, and as well the tournament of players who last longer and longer than ever before.

"We have not experienced World Cups with 35-year-old players being dominant, but we have Giroud, we have Messi, Modric – 37 – dominant players at this tournament.

"It shows that despite all the negativity about health and welfare of players, the life of a top-level sportsman lasts longer. They are ready earlier and they finish later."

Sunday's match likely represents the final chance for Messi to get his hands on the World Cup, the trophy that has eluded him for so long, including a heartbreaking extra-time defeat to Germany in the 2014 final.

With Messi potentially about to crown his career, Klinsmann believes there is a strong desire in the game for Argentina's star man to finally lift international football's top prize.

"Messi - everybody wants him to do well," Klinsmann stated. "We talked before the tournament about the big superstars who will put their stamp on the tournament and most of them delivered.

"Most of us are Messi fans no matter what. We want him to win the World Cup and be seen on the same level in his home country as [Diego] Maradona.

"We all know that for [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Messi it could be the last tournament. They have established themselves on the world stage for the last 15 years."

Klinsmann cited Mbappe as the potential heir to Messi and Ronaldo's throne, adding: "We talk about those big superstars towards the end of their career but also who is the next one taking over.

"Mbappe has the advantage because of his age.

"I was amazed about a lot of young players coming through, like [Cody] Gakpo from the Netherlands, or even with Germany going home early, there’s a special kid coming up with [Jamal] Musiala."

The World Cup in Qatar has come under intense scrutiny, particularly on the host nation's treatment of migrant workers and views on same-sex marriages.

With the end in sight, FIFA president Gianni Infantino labelled it "the best World Cup ever", with Klinsmann agreeing it had been a great tournament.

"It’s been wonderful," Klinsmann declared. "[A] huge success off the field and on the field.

"We all have many moments with people here, the atmosphere, the stadiums, the organisation itself.

"Every time you are at a World Cup you think it’s the best. I’ll leave that up to other people. It’s been an unbelievable experience and tomorrow will be an amazing final."

David Trezeguet admits Sunday's World Cup final will be "difficult personally" as the France World Cup winner with Argentine roots finds himself pulling for Lionel Messi.

Former Juventus star Trezeguet is torn by his loyalties to each country, but his feeling is that Messi deserves to be a World Cup winner and needs this more than Kylian Mbappe.

The Paris Saint-Germain team-mates are shaping to be the principal players in the Lusail Stadium drama that will unfold, with 35-year-old Messi seeking his first triumph at this level while 23-year-old Mbappe chases his second winner's medal.

Trezeguet was a champion with Les Bleus in 1998, having elected to play for France, where he was born, over Argentina, from where his parents hailed.

Looking at the position Messi finds himself in, Trezeguet told TyC Sports "I repeat it continuously, for me emotionally, knowing that it will be his last World Cup, Leo deserves to be champion.

"He makes people dream, this does not take away from France's ambition to want to keep the title.

"France came to be world champion, there is no doubt. Here the difference is age, Leo is at the end of his career, Mbappe has just started and will set all kinds of records.

"Together at PSG they are the perfect combination, but Argentina plays for Messi, everything goes through him.

"It's difficult personally, emotionally. Something I didn't want, but hey, this has to be a party and it's a great final. 

"It is what we all expected, due to characteristics, history, they are the two best teams in the World Cup."

Trezeguet could be overtaken by Mbappe on the list of France's all-time highest goalscorers on Sunday.

Presently, Mbappe has 33 goals for his country from 65 games, one shy of Trezeguet's career haul of 34 in 71 international matches.

While Trezeguet will be able to celebrate either victory, there will be broken-hearted players on one side come the end of the final.

His admiration for Mbappe is fulsome, and Trezeguet believes the forward and his bullish ways only bode well for his long-term prospects.

"He has a healthy ambition, he wants to be better than Messi, that's his motivation," Trezeguet said. "Living in everyday life with Leo and Neymar [at PSG] makes him learn."

Most World Cups have one truly iconic player who is intrinsically linked to that tournament for eternity, a standout star head and shoulders above the rest.

Pele had 1958 and 1970, Diego Maradona had 1986. There was Paolo Rossi in 1982, while Ronaldo was arguably that man in both 1998 and 2002.

But there aren't many instances of a World Cup final having two players vying for a victory that would have seismic consequences on their respective legacies. Or at least not to this degree.

Qatar 2022's final is France against Argentina, but it's more than that. It's also Kylian Mbappe v Lionel Messi.

Both are teetering on the precipice of achievements that'll long outlive them, and it all rides on one match.

Messi's last chance

For many, there is no debate.

"Sometimes as Argentinians it of course looks like we say it just because we are Argentinian. Maybe it's selfish [but] I don't have any doubt saying that: Messi is the best in history," Lionel Scaloni said after the 3-0 semi-final win over Croatia.

But it's not just Argentinians.

His goals and assists record should be enough to settle the discussion on its own, but beyond that, when you think about what defines a good footballer in the simplest sense, for most it comes down to technical ability; literally being a good footballer.

Of course, being a professional player is a bit more nuanced than that and perhaps such simplicity is biased in favour of forwards, but the majority of football spectators don't pay their money to see great defenders.

In addition to his goals and assists, Messi's natural ability should swing any debate in his favour, yet there remains a popular suggestion he will not be regarded as the greatest of all time until he's won the World Cup.

To some, the fact he's been the key player behind almost countless successes in all the biggest club competitions he's played in – some of which are arguably a higher level than the World Cup – isn't enough.

No, until he's done what Maradona did in inspiring Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, this defiance to accept Messi as the greatest will linger – and that's not up for debate.

Messi confirmed – or rather reiterated – after the semi-final that Qatar 2022 will be his last World Cup, and he seems to be playing with a vengeance.

Let's not forget, before this tournament, he'd never scored a World Cup goal beyond the group stage; on Tuesday he became the first Argentina player to net in three different knockout rounds of the tournament.

And if you look at the quality he's producing, there's an insistence to leave no stone unturned. Just take his defence-splitting assist against the Netherlands, for instance, or the brilliant run that left Josko Gvardiol – one of the finest young defenders in world football – in knots before teeing up Julian Alvarez against Croatia.

World Cup success would finally render Messi's detractors defenceless.

The King?

Will Mbappe ever be considered the greatest of all time ahead of Messi? As incredible as he is, it seems unlikely at this point.

Obviously, that shouldn't be seen as criticism of Mbappe, rather an indicator of Messi's remarkable ability and longevity.

But as the debate around Messi proves, historically we view football success – and the sport's all-time greats – through the prism of World Cup success.

Maybe that'll change over the coming years because club football has only become more advanced, but perhaps it won't.

After all, the World Cup will likely always be the greatest and most-watched sporting spectacle on Earth.

Success for Mbappe on Sunday will give him two World Cup triumphs before the age of 24, the age he turns on Tuesday. Pele won his second at 21, so he is little behind the Brazil great, who went on to win a record three.

However, context is key. Pele played only two matches at the 1962 World Cup due to injury and did not feature in the final; if France win, Mbappe will have had an inspirational impact on two triumphs.

Again, this isn't about saying whether Mbappe is better than Pele or not, instead how the young Frenchman will be perceived historically in the future.

Playing a central part in two World Cup successes before the age of 24 is something no one has done before.

For many, Pele is regarded as the greatest World Cup player ever, perhaps the player most synonymous with the tournament.

His is a legacy that will stand the test of time, but victory on Sunday would have Mbappe on course to rival – potentially even overthrow – him as 'The King' of the World Cup.

Lionel Messi has had a career most could barely even dream about, let alone achieve.

And yet, the greatest prize of all has continued to elude him – the closest he has come to being a World Cup champion was in 2014 when Argentina were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the final in Brazil.

The magician has one last chance to right that wrong when Argentina face off against France in Sunday's showpiece in Qatar, the perfect stage to put the cherry on top of the cake.

But standing in his way is another Paris Saint-Germain megastar in the form of Kylian Mbappe, whose Les Bleus side know how to get the job done having been crowned winners four years ago in Russia.

So, will it be Messi walking off into the World Cup sunset finally a champion on international football's biggest stage? Or is it the younger pretender's time to further enshrine himself as a legend of the tournament?

Two Stats Perform writers, John Skilbeck and Pete Hanson, argue the toss prior to Sunday's final.


Messi's time has finally arrived – John Skilbeck

No pressure, Leo, but it's now or never. You'll take now, you say?

Sunday will be an extraordinary day in an extraordinary life as Messi chases the crowning glory that has eluded him until now.

The great Messi will at last be a World Cup winner if he and Argentina can get the better of a France team who will not relinquish the trophy easily.

He's been on this very brink before, of course, with Argentina beaten by Germany in the 2014 final. So what's changed? And why will it be a different story this time?

Put simply, Messi needs this more than anyone who will be on the pitch on Sunday. He needs it, and he not only knows what it takes now, but he is performing at a level to take this into his own hands.

You can look at those 672 goals and 35 trophies for Barcelona, the silverware he has added at PSG, and even the Copa America he won with Argentina last year, and you can marvel.

But ending his career without a World Cup triumph would be treachery to his talent, and collectively Argentina know they must rise for their captain, do the spade work to help him over the line this time.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic says it is "already written" that Messi will lift the trophy, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic often talks bunkum. On a more evidence-based level, Messi is in great shape. He has five goals and three assists at this World Cup, with that combined total of eight goal involvements higher than anyone else's tally.

Three of those strikes were penalties, of course, and he should really be on six goals, given the spot-kick he failed to convert against Poland. But Messi is making things happen. He has created 18 chances so far (only Antoine Griezmann, with 21, has created more) and played 88 forward passes and 39 passes into the final third, in both cases the most of all players classed as forwards by Opta.

Sunday is his last World Cup match. The greatest player of his generation knows what he must do. He's ready for this, and so is all of Argentina. Messi is finally ready to move alongside Maradona in the Albiceleste pantheon.


Football has no time for sentiment, Mbappe will deny Messi's moment – Pete Hanson

The greatest of all time debate throws up some strange oddities, particularly on social media. 

I can completely accept that it is subjective, yet to suggest Messi finally getting his hands on the World Cup would not enhance his own claims is, frankly, absurd.

For what it's worth, I think, regardless of the outcome at the Lusail Stadium, Messi has done enough to prove he sits atop the mountain.

And yet, I fear, Sunday will not provide Messi the World Cup swansong he and football romantics the world over so desperately desire, and it is a man he knows well from Paris Saint-Germain who will instead further entrench his legacy with football's greatest tournament.

Kylian Mbappe has some way to go to matching Messi's genius in the domestic game and at some point you feel he will have to leave the home comforts of Paris, but in the here and now he is the leading light in a well-oiled Les Bleus machine that simply wins the big moments.

Julian Alvarez aside, Messi's supporting cast has not been the best in Qatar. An opening-game loss to Saudi Arabia has long been forgotten but had it not been for their diminutive superstar dragging them through the tournament it feels unlikely Argentina would have made the knockout stages, let alone the final.

Mbappe, conversely, can rely on a much more rounded threat. Antoine Griezmann has legitimate claims for the Golden Ball himself, Olivier Giroud – now his country's leading goalscorer – provides the perfect foil for more technical players, and the industry of Aurelien Tchouameni can keep Didier Deschamps' men ticking.

France were not always convincing against England nor much more – if at all – against Morocco, but crucially they have a canny knack of getting the job done at the most crucial times in a match.

In Mbappe, whose five goals are matched only by Messi, they have the ideal man to deny football's best ever his greatest moment.

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe have dominated the 2022 World Cup.

Both have been the driving forces behind Argentina and France's respective runs to the final.

And the Paris Saint-Germain team-mates are not just vying for glory for their nations in Sunday's showdown at Lusail Stadium.

The Golden Ball award – for the best outfield player at the tournament – as well as the Golden Boot, are up for grabs.

But what do the Opta numbers say ahead of the mouth-watering clash?

 

Game time

The pair have both appeared in all six of their side's games in Qatar. However, while Mbappe came on from the bench in France's surprise loss to Tunisia at the end of the group stage, Messi has played every minute for Argentina, which is quite extraordinary given his age.

Naturally, it's Messi – set to become the all-time leading appearance-maker in World Cup history when he takes to the field on Sunday – who comes out on top for minutes played, with 570 to Mbappe's 477.

 

Goals

It's five goals apiece heading into the final, though it's worth noting three of Messi's strikes have come from the penalty spot, whereas Mbappe has scored all of his goals from open play.

Messi has averaged a goal every 114 minutes, while his club-mate has registered one every 95 minutes. Both players have outperformed their expected goals (xG), albeit Mbappe, whose xG stands at 3.46 in contrast to Messi's 4.75, more so.

The 35-year-old is now Argentina's all-time leading scorer at the World Cup, with 11 goals, while should he score against France he will become the first player to find the net in the group stage, the round of 16, the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final in a single edition of the tournament.

A goal involvement will also make Messi the first player to record 20 at the competition (since 1966), while if Mbappe scores he will be the youngest player to net in multiple World Cup finals (at the age of 23 years and 363 days). That would also make France's main man surpass the late Gerd Muller as the youngest player to hit 10 World Cup goals.

Shooting

The duo are incredibly close in this category, too. Messi has taken 27 shots, two more than his opposite number, who boasts a slightly better shot conversion rate (20 per cent compared to 19). Mbappe has hit the target 11 times, with Messi doing so on 14 occasions - a tournament high.

Creativity

Assists are not always the best barometer for assessing a player's creativity, of course. Messi does edge out Mbappe in this statistic (three assists to two), but the differential is greater in terms of chances created – Argentina's talisman has crafted 18 goalscoring opportunities to Mbappe's 11.

Messi's expected assists (xA) of 1.63 suggests the finishing of his Argentina team-mates from the opportunities he has provided has exceeded expectations, while Mbappe has also outperformed his xA (1.23).

It's Mbappe who leads the tournament for involvement in open play shot-ending sequences, with 45. Unsurprisingly, Messi is a close second (43); Antoine Griezmann is third, with 13 fewer such involvements.

With his assist for Julian Alvarez's goal against Croatia on Tuesday, Messi matched Diego Maradona's record of eight assists in World Cup finals (since such data is available from 1966 onwards). 

Across the last two World Cups, Messi and Mbappe are the players to have generated the most chances following a carry – moving at least five metres with the ball – with 27 and 22 respectively. 

 

On the ball

Neither player is renowned for his off-the-ball work, but in possession is when they turn on the style.

Messi is the focus of Argentina's play, and that's reflected by his 432 touches; Mbappe, in comparison, has had 319 touches. However, it is the France forward who has had more touches in the opposition's box (58 to 37).

Of Messi's 294 passes, 249 (84.7 per cent) have been accurate, a slight improvement on Mbappe's 82.7 per cent accuracy. 

Mbappe has played 83 successful passes ending in the final third, way down on Messi's total of 121.

It is the 23-year-old who has completed more dribbles (21 to 15), though Messi edges it out for duels won, winning 39 to Mbappe's 29.

Kylian Mbappe's 15-year-old brother Ethan made his first senior appearance for Paris Saint-Germain in a friendly against Paris FC on Friday.

Ethan Mbappe replaced midfielder Fabian Ruiz as Christophe Galtier rang the changes at half-time, after Nordi Mukiele had given PSG a 1-0 lead at the Camp des Loges training centre.

The Ligue 1 champions went on to claim a 2-1 victory, with the teenager featuring alongside senior players including Sergio Ramos, Marco Verratti and Renato Sanches.

Ethan Mbappe joined PSG from AS Bondy in 2017 before signing a new three-year contract with the club in June 2021.

The midfielder, who was called up to France's under-16 squad last year, took to Instagram after the game, writing: "Very excited for my debut in the pros."

With Kylian Mbappe looking to cap another fine World Cup campaign by leading France to a second successive triumph at the tournament on Sunday, it could be a particularly memorable week in the Mbappe household.

Fabio Capello praised the performances of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe for Argentina and France in their respective World Cup semi-finals, but suggested the former has largely been below par at Qatar 2022.

The Paris Saint-Germain team-mates have been the headline stars of the tournament, and will face off in Sunday's final in Qatar with the trophy on the line.

For Messi, it is the chance to collect the major honour that has eluded him throughout his career, while for Mbappe it is an opportunity to defend the crown he won in Russia in 2018.

Former England boss Capello had kind words for both men, saying they were key figures in steering their sides through with wins over Croatia and Morocco respectively.

"Messi and Mbappe made the difference [in their semi-finals]," he said.

"Messi produced a great game and Mbappe arrived decisively twice near the goal, his two shots caused two deflections and they won against Morocco."

Capello does believe Messi had not always shown a spark before his impressive semi-final showcase against Croatia, though.

"Messi is back to being Messi," he added. "That only applies to the Argentina-Croatia game, though. Before that match, he just walked around the pitch."

Capello has enjoyed the World Cup and thinks its timing has been an important boost to the spectacle.

The Italian added: "It's been a good World Cup. The coaches did not give space to their opponents and I've seen great attention to detail. 

"The players arrived fresh and ran a lot. Players arrived in the middle of the current season, so they were all fresh.

"We have seen a [World Cup] of running and a good level of competition, different to when the World Cup is usually held in June when the players are tired.

"The two sides in the final are the teams who were able to reach another level technically. I think it's going to be very difficult for either side to win. I don't know how it's going to end."

Messi and Mbappe are tied in the race for the Golden Boot with five goals apiece heading into their final game of the tournament.

On a visit to Qatar in January, Kylian Mbappe predicted France would play Achraf Hakimi's Morocco at the World Cup.

The Paris Saint-Germain star was examining the surroundings in Qatar with club team-mate Hakimi when Mbappe jokingly put forward to possibility they would face one another, adding "I have to destroy my friend," to which Hakimi replied, quick as a flash, "I am going to kick him."

Fast-forward 11 months and that semi-serious guess came true, with the very serious prize of a World Cup final place on the line.

Separated in age by just six weeks, Mbappe and Hakimi have built a strong bond in Paris since the latter moved to PSG in July 2021, with a clear respect on the pitch as well as off it.

Mbappe called Hakimi the best right-back in the world after the former Inter man's free-kick for Morocco against Malawi at the Africa Cup of Nations sent the Atlas Lions into the quarter-finals of that tournament in late January.

Hakimi returned the compliment in April when asked about Mbappe's club future, saying: "Mbappe is one of the best players in the world, and my friend."

When Morocco's surprise run to the final four in Qatar lined them up against the defending world champions, Hakimi v Mbappe promised to be more than merely a contest between good pals, because they also happen to be among the best footballers on the planet.

In 2021-22, Mbappe became the first player to finish as both the top scorer (28 goals) and top assister (17 assists) in a Ligue 1 season since those two awards have been handed out (2007-08), and was directly involved in more goals in all competitions (60 – 39 goals, 21 assists) than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.

During that same season, Hakimi was the defender involved in the most sequences in open play that ended in a goal in Ligue 1 (22).

Their brilliance extended to the World Cup, where, prior to the semi-finals, as well as being the tournament's top scorer at the time (five), no player had attempted more than Mbappe's 32 dribbles, with only Germany's Jamal Musiala (19) completing more than his 15, while no defender had won as many duels as Hakimi's 35, made as many tackles as his 19 or won as many tackles as his 13.

Coach Walid Regragui said before the semi-final that there would be no "anti-Mbappe plan" from his team, adding: "To focus on Mbappe would be a mistake. Hakimi is one of the best in the world in his position, too, so it will be a great duel between two champions, both going at it hell for leather."

In the fifth minute at Al Bayt Stadium, Mbappe had a chance to get the upper hand as he received the ball in the Morocco penalty area, and though his effort was blocked, the ball fell kindly to Theo Hernandez to fire France into an early lead; in fact, the earliest scored by any side in a World Cup semi-final since 1958.

It took until the 35th minute for Mbappe to show off his electric pace, racing in behind after Aurelien Tchouameni had won the ball and played him in, only for his scuffed attempt to be cleared.

Hakimi was largely having the better of their duel, tackling Mbappe well on one occasion while he also made more passes in the final third than anyone else on the pitch in the first-half as Morocco looked for an equaliser.

Early in the second half the two were in a race again as Antoine Griezmann played in Mbappe, but Hakimi was able to ease his friend away from the ball after anticipating the sort of run he is so familiar with.

Even when Mbappe finally got away from Hakimi, he found himself getting absolutely clattered by the impressive Sofyan Amrabat as France struggled to stay on top.

The personal battle looked effectively over when Marcus Thuram replaced Olivier Giroud in the 65th minute, with Mbappe moving centrally.

However, with 11 minutes remaining, Mbappe drifted slightly back out left and turned beautifully away from Hakimi as he dribbled through the Moroccan defence before his deflected shot fell kindly to substitute Randal Kolo Muani to put the game beyond doubt.

 

When Mbappe said in January with a wry smile that he was going to "destroy" Hakimi, he followed up with: "That will break my heart a little bit, but you know football, it is what it is. I have to kill him."

The 79th minute was the first real moment where Mbappe had got the better of his friend, and it proved to be the final dagger that would kill Morocco's World Cup dreams.

Hakimi did have one final moment where he was able to stop Mbappe from adding to the score with a determined tackle, but ultimately the last laugh belonged to the French forward as Les Bleus secured a 2-0 victory, with Mbappe likely having the full support of his friend when he lines up to potentially win his second World Cup against Argentina on Sunday.

They shook hands and swapped shirts after the final whistle having enjoyed a battle. While Mbappe may not have destroyed his friend, he ensured bragging rights for the next few years at least.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui has no special tactical plan to stop France's star forward Kylian Mbappe.

The Atlas Lions are the underdog success story of the World Cup, having beat Belgium, Spain and Portugal en route to becoming the first African team to reach a semi-final in the tournament's history.

France, on the other hand, lost their last meeting with an African side – against Tunisia in the group stage in Qatar – but are aiming to reach the final for a second successive World Cup after their triumph in 2018.

Mbappe has been their driving force, scoring five goals and setting up a further two. No other player in the competition has contributed to as many goals as the 23-year-old, who is the tournament's top scorer.

Trying to stop Mbappe will be his Paris Saint-Germain club-mate Achraf Hakimi, though Regragui – whose side have conceded only once at the World Cup – does not think Morocco can only focus on one threat.

"[Achraf] knows Mbappe better than me, he trains with him on a daily basis, I'm sure he is better placed than I am to know Kylian," Regragui said at a press conference.

"I'm not going to set up a plan to counter Mbappe, unfortunately for us France have other great players. [Antoine] Griezmann is on his game, [Ousmane] Dembele on the other wing is a great complement to Mbappe.

 

"To focus on Mbappe would be a mistake. Hakimi is one of the best in the world in his position too so it will be a great duel between two champions, both going at it hell for leather.

"We shouldn't focus on Kylian but how we will cause problems for France. I'm sure Hakimi will be on top of his game."

France might be favourites to go on and reach the final, but Morocco are not here to make up the numbers.

"We want to try and get rid of the mentality we perhaps had before," Regragui said. "We came with great ambition and to change mindsets in our continent in particular.

"If we say we are happy to reach the semi-final, many people might see that as a success, but I don't agree. 

"We're one of the best four teams in the world now and we'll give everything. We're confident, we've had perhaps the most difficult run beating some top sides. The closer we get to the final, the closer we get to our dreams.

"If you get to a World Cup semi-final and you're not hungry, there's a problem. We are determined to rewrite the history books, we want Africa to be at the top of the world.

"We know we're not the favourites but we're confident, you might call me crazy but I think a bit of craziness is good. We're not just going through the motions. We're not satisfied, we want to go further. Everyone is ready to pull off an upset."

Regragui's team have averaged just 31.3 per cent possession across their five games in Qatar, more than only Costa Rica (30.2), while their 39 shots is 16 fewer than any of the other teams left in the tournament.

Yet Morocco's coach is unconcerned by criticism of his defensive approach, adding: "This idea of possession – it's amazing how the journalists love these figures but what's the point if you have no shots? If we can keep the ball we will, but if they don't let us so be it. We're going to fight with the tools we have. 

"Didier Deschamps is probably the best coach in the world and he knows how to set up a team to win as well. 

"A lot of journalists have criticised our style, they don't like to see a team of our stature playing like a European team – cleverly. African teams before have been praised because they were fun, but they got knocked out.

"Well, those days are over. We want to win now, to win for Africa and for developing countries who are learning you can win."

Morocco's celebrations said it all. Having done what many deemed the impossible against Spain, the Atlas Lions went one better by beating Portugal 1-0 in 90 minutes.

They only qualified for the World Cup semi-finals, so to some their jubilation might have even looked over the top.

But the significance of the win was not lost on Morocco's players.

Family members were on the pitch at full-time: goalkeeper Yassine Bounou brought his young son out to have a kickabout on the grass while the toddler adorably ran around wearing his dad's comically large gloves; Sofiane Boufal shared a heart-warming embrace with his mum, who subsequently joined him out on the turf; captain Romain Saiss held his son aloft; coach Walid Regragui was engulfed by a group of relatives in the stands.

These genuinely were comparable to celebrations that would be seen after winning the World Cup, and why not? After all, this is the closest any African team has ever come to lifting the famous trophy, with Wednesday's clash against France the first World Cup semi-final to include a CAF country.

While few would have picked them out as semi-finalists before the tournament, this run has been defined by tirelessness, spirit, and quality, with some perhaps surprised by how much of the latter they possess.

But who have been their standout performers to this point?

Bono's beautiful day

Any team that goes deep into a World Cup needs a dependable goalkeeper; when you look at the first-choice numbers ones in the semi-finals – Emiliano Martinez, Dominik Livakovic, Hugo Lloris and Yassine Bounou – the evidence is all there to see.

Bounou, or 'Bono' as he wears on his shirt, was named player of the match against Portugal. While he only made three saves, two of those were crucial stops near the end, and he was also just a generally assuring presence, swatting away high deliveries effectively.

The Sevilla goalkeeper, who was born in Canada, made his 50th appearance for Morocco on Saturday and became the first keeper to record three clean sheets at a single World Cup for an African team.

But he was also vital to Morocco's progression to the last eight, saving two spot-kicks in the penalty shoot-out that saw them past Spain.

If the Atlas Lions get past France, he'll have surely played a key role again.

Hakimi living up to his reputation

If there's one player in the Morocco squad who needs no introduction...

Paris Saint-Germain right-back Achraf Hakimi has been exceptional for Regragui's men. Some might have expected more from him in attack, but defensively he's really shown his class and work ethic.

 

No defender left in the tournament has contested (62) or won (35) more duels than Hakimi, while he also tops the charts for tackles (19) and tackles won (13).

Morocco haven't been scored against by an opposition player at the 2022 World Cup, with their only goal conceded coming via an own goal against Canada. They've kept four clean sheets, with the last two sides to record five in a single edition going on to lift the trophy (Spain 2010, Italy 2006).

Hakimi's certainly played his part.

Amrabat and Ounahi: the engine room

Sofyan Amrabat was by no means an unknown quantity coming into the tournament given he's had a bright start to the season with Fiorentina.

Azzedine Ounahi will have been much less familiar to many, but he'll leave Qatar with his reputation massively enhanced.

The 22-year-old Angers midfielder is a very satisfying player to watch. Elegant on the ball and a competitor without it, Ounahi has really stood out as a midfield all-rounder.

No other central midfielder can better his four carries leading to a key pass, while he has completed seven of 10 dribble attempts.

 

This elegance is matched by his guile, with just five midfielders winning more duels than Ounahi (26). With him alongside Amrabat, Morocco possess a legitimately excellent central pairing.

Amrabat can match Ounahi's combativeness, with his eight tackles won the fourth-highest among midfielders, but he also has a fine understanding of how to read the game, as demonstrated by his tournament-leading 41 recoveries.

 

The X-factor

There's rarely a dull moment when Boufal or Hakim Ziyech have the ball.

Of course, Ziyech came into the tournament with something of a point to prove after falling out with the previous coach.

He undoubtedly brings the capability to do something special out of nothing, though he also works extremely hard, with his 61 duels contested the joint-best among all midfielders in the tournament.

 

While that may not be what Ziyech is best known for, Hakimi will undoubtedly be happy for the help against Kylian Mbappe next time out.

Boufal on the other flank has been similarly tireless. Classed as a forward by Opta, only two other forwards have been in more duels (63) than the mercurial winger.

Additionally, his 22 take-on attempts has been bettered by only six players in the whole tournament, and his 54 per cent take-on success is the third best among players to attempt at least 12.

There's never been any doubt about Boufal's natural ability; he has just tended to frustrate. In Qatar, his talent on the ball has been key in helping Morocco turn defence into attack.

 

En-Nesyri out to silence the doubters

It's been a difficult 18 months or so for Youssef En-Nesyri, who is a team-mate of Bounou's at club level with Sevilla.

Injuries have disrupted his progress, and he's struggled to recapture his best form after a promising first full season at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Nevertheless, he's got two goals now at this World Cup – that's two more than he has in LaLiga this term – and the second of those highlighted the striker's biggest strength: his aerial ability.

While that goal against Portugal went down as a Diogo Costa error, En-Nesyri's leap was remarkable. Counting it as a goalkeeping mistake arguably does the forward a disservice.

 

Regardless, he capitalised to become Morocco's all-time leading scorer at the World Cup, with his two in Qatar adding to the one he netted against Spain in 2018.

Whatever happens on Wednesday, Morocco will have two more matches, with a final or a third-place game to come. One more goal for En-Nesyri and he becomes just the fourth African player to score three or more at one tournament after Roger Milla in 1990 (four), Papa Bouba Diop in 2002 (three) and Asamoah Gyan in 2010 (three).

Judging by Morocco's giant-slaying narrative so far, however, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if one of their two remaining games is for the title.

Neymar will "come back stronger" after Brazil's World Cup elimination, legendary striker Ronaldo hopes.

Brazil were dumped out of the World Cup by Croatia on penalties on Friday, despite Neymar putting Brazil a goal up in the second half of extra time.

Bruno Petkovic's deflected finish pegged Brazil back with four minutes left to play, and Rodrygo and Marquinhos missed their spot-kicks as Croatia reached the semi-finals for a second consecutive tournament.

Neymar was due to take the fifth penalty for Brazil, but his team-mates' misses meant he never got the chance and the Paris Saint-Germain star was left in tears after the conclusion of the shoot-out.

Ronaldo, who won the Golden Boot as Brazil lifted the 2002 World Cup, hopes Neymar will bounce back from his disappointment in Qatar. 

"I think at the moment he is upset by the elimination," Ronaldo told reporters on Monday. "It's normal for him to feel that way but I'm sure he'll come back stronger and keep playing for the team.

"He is still young, and I believe he can play in the next World Cup. I am very happy that he has shown the world his commitment to the national team and that he has taken care of himself over the past six months.

"It's very important to us, so I hope he will recover quickly and come back stronger with PSG and the Selecao."

Ronaldo feels Brazil's lack of ruthlessness in Friday's quarter-final defeat ultimately cost them a place in the final four, explaining: "Brazil had a great World Cup. 

"We only lacked the vice, that is to say knowing how to waste time when you are leading. After this goal in extra time [Neymar's strike to put Brazil 1-0 up], the match should have been over.

"You have to know how to circulate the ball well and chase the opponent, keep it away from the goal. You need this little trick, be smart. I think that's the only thing we lacked against Croatia."

Brazil arrived in Qatar as the favourites to win the tournament a record-extending sixth time.

But their exit looks to have opened the door for reigning champions France to become the first team to retain their World Cup crown since Brazil did in 1962.

Ronaldo views Les Bleus as the team to beat now, with Didier Deschamps' side set to face Morocco in the semi-finals on Wednesday.

"My forecast, before the start of the World Cup, was a final between France and Brazil," the 46-year-old declared. "Brazil is no longer there, but France confirms with each match that it is one of the favourites. 

"I even think it's the big favourite. France has a very solid team, both in defense and in attack."

France's Kylian Mbappe has been one of the stars of the World Cup, and currently leads the goalscoring charts with five in five games at the tournament.

Ronaldo lauded the 23-year-old's abilities, saying: "Mbappe is having a very good World Cup. He has incredible physical and technical qualities, for me he will be the best player in the World Cup.

"He reminds me a bit of me when I was playing. He knows how to use his skills, his speed and his power, how to go faster than the others and use them to pass or score. He is impressive."

Marcus Rashford is only second to Kylian Mbappe as the best player in the world right now, says Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag.

The forward has rediscovered his best form under the Dutchman this season, earning a recall to the England fold and featuring in their World Cup campaign.

Rashford and the rest of the Three Lions ultimately came up short in the quarter-finals against Mbappe and France on Saturday, in a close-fought Qatar 2022 encounter.

But his performances this term have got Ten Hag singing his praises, crediting him for his tactical intelligence and positional play.

"From the first moment, I recognised huge potential [in Marcus]," the former Ajax boss stated.

"When Marcus' positioning is on the back of the defending line, there is almost no better player in the world. It's really difficult to stop him.

"There is Mbappe [at] this moment [who is better than him]. When [Rashford] is getting in that position, he's great, and he's really improved."

Rashford has coincidentally been linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain, where Mbappe penned a new contract ahead of the this campaign.

With a deal at Old Trafford that expires at the end of the season, the forward could be headed for the door, though Ten Hag says they will activate a one-year extension.

The manager acknowledges the final call on his future rests with the player, however, adding: "He has to make a decision.

"The only thing we can do is show him this is the best club to be in, in the way we play and the way we train and if we are offering the right environment to progress," he added.

"It's a financial issue as well. Then it is up to him to make the decision. But for one-and-a-half years, he will be here."

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