CHENNAI: The capital clash. Old vs new. Two of Qatar's most famous employees facing each other for football's ultimate prize with the winner likely to win the next Ballon d'Or. PSG vs PSG. Millennial vs Centennial. Generation Y vs Generation Z. King vs first in the line of succession. Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe.
You can dress up the World Cup final between Argentina and France as an encounter between two of the great football superpowers but it is, first and foremost, a meeting between one of the greatest players the world has ever seen against the one next in line to assume that position. It just so happens that Messi and Mbappe have been two of the best players over the last month in Qatar. And they have been the best by doing what they do best.
Mbappe has terrorised defences down France's left wing by being a one-man battering ram, using his pace, acceleration, dribbling skills and his wand of a right foot to devastating effect.
Messi, who usually occupies the right half-space of the attacking third, has accelerated away from defenders and still possesses one of the game's best known finishes — like the goal he scored against Australia — but he has been more withdrawn. He was always a playmaker but these days, he's almost made a new role for himself; a cross between an advanced playmaker and an enganche, a hook that links midfield and attack.
While both teams are stylistically very different in the way they play — Argentina press more while France are more standoffish, and Argentina like to have the ball more and it almost seems like they quickly lose control if they don't while France are more than happy for the opponents to have the ball — both teams like it that way as it helps Messi and Mbappe do their thing.
Both players are greater than the sum of the goals they score. If you include all of their contributions (including pre assists as well as passes in the build-up before goals), Mbappe has had a hand in 11 of the 13 goals France have scored. Outside of the pass to Ousmane Dembele who supplied the pre-assist for Aurelien Tchouameni against England, his back-heel set up Adrien Rabiot's assist for Olivier Giroud's opener against Australia.
Messi's contributions is slightly skewed (nine out of 12 goals) because of the penalties. But he's been front and centre in every match. Penalty against Saudi Arabia, goal and assist against Mexico, winning (and missing) a penalty against Poland, assist against Australia, assisting and scoring against Netherlands, pre-assist, pass that led to the penalty and scoring against Croatia. It goes without saying that any goal these two nations score on Sunday will likely see the involvement of these two individuals.
Both players are hardly involved in the defensive third, they are also excused from pressing duties. Mbappe, incredibly, has a total number of zero defensive actions (blocks, interceptions, tackles and clearances) across the World Cup. Messi is marginally better, three tackles and as many clearances.
This may change on Sunday, not least because Mbappe (left) and Messi (right) operate on the same areas of the pitch. If one of them brings a laissez-faire attitude to tracking back, it runs the risk of the other isolating the opposition full-back. But you suspect the midfielders will have to help out more.
This is even before you come to the narrative arcs at stake, even within the subplot of these two players. It's no secret that most young players have grown up idolising one of Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. For Mbappe, it's been Ronaldo (he even had posters of the Portuguese stuck on his bedroom wall). There's also been Mbappe's relationship with Messi at PSG (to be fair, Mbappe has acknowledged Messi as one of the best a few times). It's been okay at the best of times. But the presence of the Argentine (and Neymar) in PSG has meant that Mbappe hasn't had the freedom he gets with France.
"I play differently here," he had famously said after a game for France in September. "I am asked to do different things than with my club. I have much more freedom. The coach knows we have a number nine in 'Olive' (Olivier Giroud) who keeps the defences occupied. I can run about, find space and look for the ball. With Paris (PSG), it's different. I can't do that. I am asked to be more of a pivot for the others." One of those others of course if for Messi.
But Mbappe knows he's in position A1 to assume that throne. "I always say I dream about everything," he had told The New York Times in September. "I have no limits. So, of course, like you say, it’s a new generation. And Ronaldo, Messi — you’re gonna stop. We have to find someone else, someone new.” Someone like Mbappe, who knows that if he can lead France to back-to-back World Cups, he will put himself in pole position to win a first Ballon d'Or as well as a second world title before the age of 24. The last person to win two World Cups while being younger? Pele. Mbappe's legacy would instantly be somewhere in the stratosphere.
Conversely, if Messi wins, it will be Maradona-esque in its achievement. He's already had the kind of impact that other Argentine had in 1986. The last remaining doubters will fall and Messi will deliver what has long been a poisoned chalice — the chance to be a figurehead for a country so obsessed with football that a leading politician has prioritised watching the World Cup over coming up with a scheme to fight inflation — at some level. Strictly speaking, the 35-year-old doesn't need to win a World Cup to further his standing in the game. What he has already done will stand the test of time. The music he has generated will continue to live on irrespective of what he does on Sunday. But considering that famous sky blue jersey has given him the lowest of lows — four defeats in five finals, blow-outs at multiple World Cups, not coming off the bench in 2006, an on-the-spot resignation and a red card on debut to name a few — the title would be a fitting way to leave. It would also be a fitting reply to the people who have refused to acknowledge his GOAT credentials without winning the Cup.
The stage, then, is set. The world awaits.