And when all was said and done it came down to this, the shy little kid from Rosario, and the boy from Bondy.
Okay, so it’s definitely not all that it's coming down to, there are another 20 players on the field, not to mention two managers nearby. But it’s hard to not let the narrative shift that way.
After all for many (including this author), Lionel Messi will go down as the best to ever play the game. And for even more, Kylian Mbappe is the heir apparent to his throne.
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They are not quite the same player, but one thing they share is the sheer terror they instil in opposition defenders. Mbappe has pure acceleration that is hard to find anywhere else. He combines that with lethal finishing whether he plays out wide on the left or through the middle. Messi has the same burst, although he could never get to the same top speed as Mbappe, but he has that incredible close control, combined with an eye for the game few can match.
Even though they play together for PSG this feels like a passing of the torch moment. Messi has already confirmed that, win or lose, this will be his final World Cup match. Mbappe will play in his second World Cup final just two days before his 24th birthday. He’s already won one.
TOPSHOT - France's forward Kylian Mbappe kisses the World Cup trophy after winning the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15, 2018. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO
Image credit: Getty Images
Vinicius Jr and Erling Haaland will battle Mbappe for the next decade (as well as Jude Bellingham, you might think) but in terms of pure star power there is no one else quite like Mbappe in world football right now. He is the player kids are emulating on FIFA and in their back gardens, he’s the one who has produced the same kind of magic you can only view when watching the greats.
So how on earth do you go about stopping them both?
Well let’s start with Messi, who has been playing almost universally in a central position for Argentina in this World Cup, either as a second striker in a 5-3-2 system or as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2. The biggest way to stop Messi, providing that you have the players to do, is to keep the ball away from him.
Argentina are different to Barcelona and PSG, they don’t always dominate the ball in the same way. If France’s midfield can keep the ball away from him, Messi will most likely drift a little deeper to try and get involved.
The problem with this is that we are seeing a slightly different version of Messi at this World Cup. He’s really proven himself to be willing to be patient at times, and even when he’s not had the ball too much he’s still been ruthless with it. Whether it’s Adrien Rabiot or Youssouf Fofana who partners Aurelien Tchouameni, they have to stay tight to Messi. It’s always a risk given how quickly he can get away, but it’s the best chance they are going to have.
LUSAIL CITY, QATAR - DECEMBER 13: Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates the team's 3-0 victory in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 semi final match between Argentina and Croatia at Lusail Stadium on December 13, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Clive Bru
Image credit: Eurosport
It's a similar story with Mbappe, he hasn’t been the focal point for France (more on who has in a bit) but he has the chance to end games in an instant if you switch off. So what do you do?
Well for starters keep him as wide you can. The worst thing that can happen is that you tuck in too narrow and he starts drifting closer to the box - try and push him as wide as possible to keep him away from goal. That means, depending on formation, either Rodrigo De Paul or Cristian Romero have to be prepared to help Nahuel Molina deal with Mbappe by doubling up.
The other key factor with Mbappe is Antoine Griezmann. There can be no doubt that the Atletico Madrid man has been the defending champions’ best player in this tournament. This hybrid No. 8/No. 10 role that Didier Deschamps has been using him in has been absolutely super for him. You can bet Griezmann doesn’t like it too much but with his eye for a pass and exceptional work-rate it’s a role absolutely made for him.
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At a certain point we would debate just telling Enzo Fernandez to follow Griezmann wherever he goes and effectively mark him out of the game. It's doubtful Leandro Paredes has that in him and Griezmann has shown in this tournament that he is very happy to come very deep (deeper than Tchouameni and Rabiot at times) and orchestrate play from there. That means he might end up with too much space at times. It might be better to have Fernandez track him and leave Paredes as the deep destroyer.
What then, of the future? Messi’s contract with PSG runs until 2023, while Mbappe is reportedly actually only there until 2024, with an option for a further year that only he can trigger. Messi’s future appears to be in sunny Miami, before a potential emotional homecoming in Rosario. A return to Barcelona seems unlikely at this stage. For Mbappe? We have absolutely no idea.
But win or lose the next six months will be absolutely critical for Mbappe. Can PSG put together a package around him and manager Christophe Galtier that persuades him to stay committed long term? Will Real Madrid come calling again after being spurned? Will Manchester City or Liverpool launch audacious moves to bring him to England? No one seems to know and it is really surprising how little it is being talked about at the moment.
But he only has to ask Messi how crucial it is to have the right supporting cast if he wants to cement his legacy. Haaland seems to have found that at City, now Mbappe has to try and find his before it’s too late. Win another World Cup and he’ll have his pick. Lose? Heck he’s probably going to have his pick as well. That, more than anything, should tell you how close he is to becoming like Messi.
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