CHENNAI: Rosario's rose-tinted boy finally has the World Cup trophy, Two years after losing Diego Maradona, a football-obsessed, trophy-starved nation will look up to the heavens not thinking about the past but about the present. Thirty-six years after one of Argentina's greatest sporting heroes delivered them the sport's holy grail, they have once again reached the promised land.
Holders France, who had the opportunity to become the first team to go back-to-back since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, were expected to seriously challenge for the title. And they did. After taking time to enter into the encounter — Argentina were winning 2-0 with 10 minutes left on the clock when the defending champions belatedly woke up — they threatened to spoil Lionel Messi's dream farewell.
From 2-0 and one hand on the trophy, France scored twice inside 100 seconds to equalise. The identity of both those goals was Kylian Mbappe, whose hat trick illuminated a packed Lusail Stadium.
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Messi had scored one and contributed to a thrilling counter-attacking goal to make it 2-0 before Mbappe showed why he's ideally placed to replace Messi as the best player in world football. In the second half of extra time, Messi added a third, his second of the evening that just dribbled over the line before it was cleared (it was clearly over), before Mbappe added a third from the penalty spot.
Both teams had at least one very presentable chance to win it in 120 minutes after it became 3-3 — Emiliano Martinez made himself big to deny Kolo Muani from close range when it seemed difficult to miss — before Lautaro Martinez headed wide with seconds remaining on the clock.
In the shoot-out, Argentina, as they had shown against the Netherlands, kept their nerve. Both Mbappe and Messi took responsibility to open and succeeded. Kingsley Coman, who shone throughout the match after coming in as a substitute, saw his penalty saved before Paulo Dybala gave his country daylight. When Aurelien Tchouameni shanked his penalty wide, the grins on the Argentines became wider. The roars became louder. And they were confirmed as world champions after both Leandro Paredes and Gonzalo Montiel, who conceded a penalty for handball in extra time atoned for his error.
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Di Maria magic
The match itself was largely pedestrian in terms of quality before France's late onslaught. It's possible they took time to get going because of a flu that had been going on in their camp.
While that may have been a factor in Les Bleus' poor start, what changed the momentum from the very off was the inclusion of Angel di Maria. Even before the opening goal, Argentina were playing the kind of football they like to play. Front-foot, energetic and full of freedom. That kind of ethos was why coach Lionel Scaloni opted to bring Di Maria, an attacking player, in place of Leandro Paredes, a defensive midfielder.
It made wonders as Di Maria, before being substituted just past the hour mark, had scored, assisted and given the French right-back, Jules Kounde, a horrible evening.
Perhaps, it's not a surprise. Di Maria is one of the biggest big-game players in modern Argentine history. That is especially true for his country. Coming into the match, he had scored winners at the 2008 Olympics as well as at the Copa America final in 2021.
In Doha, the 34-year-old ran with a childish vigour. It left France with multiple migraines. His goal at the time seemed like sticking the knife into an already limp France performance. It was a move that was started by Julian Alvarez, and involved Messi before Alexis Mac Allister squared for Di Maria to score. It was coast to coast in the blink of an eye.
In that same blink of an eye, the match turned as France came back. Mbappe, who will surely go on to break all World Cup goalscoring records, scored two in the time it takes to wash a hand properly these days. Then Messi and Mbappe traded a goal each before Martinez, one of the best keepers from 12 yards, stood out to give his country a third World Cup title.
As Montiel found the back of the net to lift 36 years of hurt, Messi, standing in the centre circle, slumped to his knees. The man who had famously been slagged off for not feeling Argentine enough, a man who had been attacked by a few of his compatriots for not singing the national anthem with passion had had a big hand in winning the title they crave.
Rosario's golden boy had dreamt the wildest of dreams. He delivered on it.
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