CLASH OF CONTINENTS. . . Can France end Messi’s fairy tale?
ON the Doha Corniche, just before the turning for the Souq Waqif, two tall buildings have for the past four weeks been adorned with giant images of Lionel Messi and Hugo Lloris.

Maybe the hosts of this World Cup knew something all along.

After a month of football and 62 games, we have a final that many would have wanted.

A clash of continents and a contrast of styles.

France’s steady pragmatism versus an Argentina team fuelled by emotion and deep desire to see Messi anointed as among the greatest ever to play the game.

Didier Deschamps and France are capable of ruining that fairy tale, for sure. They have already ruined two in beating England and then Morocco in knockout games that could easily have gone the other way.

And this is the thing about France.

The defending champions have emerged as the kind of team that make opponents feel good about themselves, only to then turn around and realise they have been beaten. England went home with smiles and pats on the back, so did Morocco.

But France stayed and that is the point.

Theirs has been a World Cup campaign that began badly. Already, without the injured N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, Deschamps then lost Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema to a thigh injury before a ball had been kicked. In game one, meanwhile, Lucas Hernandez damaged his knee in failing to stop a move that led to Australia taking the lead.

A run of ill-fortune that would have blown a fatal hole in the ambitions of lesser nations, France have instead moved through this tournament with relative grace. This is maybe one of the reasons the flu virus that has unnerved so many French supporters is being greeted with a shrug by those closer to team affairs.

Asked about an illness that has now struck down five French players — Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate being the latest — in the last few days, young midfielder Randal Kolo Muani told a press conference here last night that he expected his team-mates to be “fine” for the final.

Argentina have been driven on by a mix of solid performances and high-octane energy.

Quickly reminded by the official from the France Football Federation seated next to him that “Randal is not a doctor”, this nevertheless does not feel like a World Cup camp beset with worry ahead of the showdown at the Lusail Stadium.

Varane and Konate — the French centre back pairing in Wednesday’s semi-final — did not train with their team-mates on Friday. At least not for the 15 minutes that the media were allowed to watch.

Will they be ready this evening?

Let us just say this is a storyline that may well turn out to carry rather more froth than substance.

“It does not worry us,” said Ousmane Dembele. “Everyone will be ready for Sunday’s game but for us, the staff and the players, we are taking precautions.”

Dembele is part of a French attacking line-up that will present Argentina with challenges not yet encountered in this World Cup. The Barcelona player was asked here about his time playing with Messi in Spain and revealed he was advised to dribble less.

Kylian Mbappe is the undisputed superstar in a team that is willing to play pragmatically to win.

“He told me to play for the team,” said Dembele with a smile. Dembele’s speed down the right will be matched by Kylian Mbappe’s down the left. In between and behind, Antoine Griezmann will look for angles and the right passes. Olivier Giroud, enjoying a good tournament, will hope to find the form he showed against England rather than Morocco, against whom he missed two good early chances.

This is a talented and mobile French team. Crucially, none of their key players have the same naked desperation that Messi and Argentina carry into this game.

Lloris, Varane, Griezmann, Mbappe and Giroud all have winners’ medals from four years ago and have played with the calmness in Qatar which only that kind of knowledge and history can bring.

Deschamps, meanwhile, stands on the brink of unique success. No nation has retained a World Cup since Brazil in 1962 and that was following a change of coach.

If Deschamps triumphs again here, he will have done so twice as a manager and once as a player.

He will be alone in that.

His time in charge has not always been smooth but Deschamps has endured during a reign stretching back more than a decade.

He sets his side up not to lose – that they appear to have dangled the carrot in each of their World Cup knockout ties before eventually advancing says a lot.

Deschmaps does not have a natural candidate for the task of shadowing Messi. He asked Kante to do it four years ago in Russia and it worked, just.

France won the teams’ last-16 clash 4-3.

This time, he will perhaps rely more on the collective and will also be aware, as heretic as it sounds, that Messi, at 35, is not as mobile or monotonously dangerous as he once was.

For just about everybody outside of France — and maybe Brazil — this is a World Cup heading towards its perfect finish.

On the field, at least, it has been a good tournament and Messi holding the trophy aloft would look good on the brochures for USA 2026.

France will not be obsessed with that on the eve of the game and this makes for a fascinating denouement.

Under the shadow of those huge murals on Friday, workers were starting to tidy away the World Cup paraphernalia. This month in the desert is almost over. At the same time, we hope the best is yet to come. —

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