Will Messi equal the feat of Argentina icon Diego Maradona while cementing his status as the GOAT? Or will Mbappe and Co. become the first back-to-back champs since Pele and Brazil did it 60 years ago? However it goes down, we cannot wait for Sunday’s showdown at the Lusail Iconic Stadium outside of Doha.
Be sure to check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from Qatar. Here’s what you might have missed from Wednesday’s World Cup happenings, and a look ahead as we count down to Sunday’s final.
World Cup final: Messi, Argentina vs. Mbappe, France
Can it already be Sunday? Well, we have three full days before the World Cup final (and two before the third-place consolation match between Croatia and Morocco), and we’ll have plenty to break down and preview before then. But let’s look a couple key points before France and Argentina take center stage:
FiveThirtyEight’s SPI has Argentina as a slight favorite to win the title over France, at 53% vs. 47%.
The hunt for star No. 3: Both France (1998, 2018) and Argentina (1978, 1986) will be vying for their third World Cup title. Only Germany, Italy (four apiece), and Brazil (five) have more these two sides. Les Bleus and La Albiceleste will also be aiming for their second title outside as non-hosts, with both of Sunday’s finalists each having won their first on home soil.
This will be the fourth time the two sides have played in a World Cup match. Argentina beat France in the group stage in 1930 and 1978, while France came out the victors in a round of 16 game four years ago. Overall, Argentina leads the head-to-head series 6W-3L-3D.
Taylor Twellman joins SportsCenter and makes quite the grand comparison between Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe.
Plenty of starpower on both squads but all eyes will be on Messi and Mbappe. Not only are they teammates at Paris Saint-Germain, but they lead the Golden Boot race as the tournament’s top scorer with five goals apiece.
Never before have club teammates finish 1-2 in the World Cup’s Golden Boot race. If both finish tied after Sunday’s match, then the tiebreaker will be the player with the most assists. If that is also tied, then it’s the player with the least amount of minutes played.
Once on the field on Sunday, the 35-year-old Messi will pass Germany great Lothar Matthaus for the most World Cup appearances (26) by a male player. In scoring against Croatia on Tuesay, Messi passed Gabriel Batistuta for the most goals (11) in Argentina men’s history, with Maradona having scored eight.
Mbappe is aiming to become the second youngest player with two World Cup titles to his name. It would be an impressive accomplishment for the 23-year-old, with only Pele (two-times winner by age 22) ahead of him.
Rob Dawson praises Morocco’s performance at the World Cup after their 2-0 loss to France in the semifinals.
Despite loss to France, Morocco still finish on high note
No matter what the outcome, this Morocco squad had already added their names into World Cup lore by becoming the first team from Africa to reach the tournament’s semifinals. The Atlas Lions were also the first team from an Arab nation to reach the final four, and supported the world over for their remarkable campaign.
After beating favored sides Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along the way, Morocco showed that teams outside from the traditional spheres of Europe and South America can compete on the game’s biggest stage. It ended in defeat against France on Wednesday, undone by injuries and some uncharacteristic mistakes in defense, but history was made.
Morocco manager Walid Regragui’s team arrived in Qatar with prominent players (Chelsea‘s Hakim Zyech, PSG’s Achraf Hakimi) but others such as Fiorentina midfielder Sofyan Amrabat and Angers playmaker Azzedine Ounahi become breakout stars, and likely earned future moves to bigger clubs.
After conceding an early goal to Theo Hernandez, Morocco gave France several scares prior to Kolo Muani’s late goal sealed the match to send Les Bleus to final. Despite the loss, they’ll return from Qatar as heroes — although that won’t be for a couple more days. Up next is Saturday’s third-place consolation match against Croatia, which on paper may not mean much. But considering it’s a chance leave the World Cup on a high note, we can all hope for one last shining moment.
Today’s top reads
Argentina’s win was a team performance. Messi’s magic was the cherry on top
Argentina had sputtered throughout this World Cup. Not in the semifinals, though. They trounced Croatia. They didn’t even need Lionel Messi’s magic.
Bayern, Inter continue incredible 40-year streak of World Cup finalists
It is a gobsmacking fact: For the 11th time in a row, over a 40-year span, both Bayern and Inter Milan will be represented in the World Cup final.
Croatia needed Modric, but his final World Cup game was one of his worst
Croatia needed Luka Modric to be at his best, but he failed to deliver vs. Argentina. The World Cup will miss his talent as he bows out for good.
News and notes
After a disappointing World Cup and getting knocked out in the quarterfinals by Morocco, free agent Cristiano Ronaldo was seen training alone at Real Madrid‘s Valdebebas training ground on Wednesday, sources told ESPN. Is this a hint at his return? Or is he simply maintaining his fitness while he looks for a new club? The former Real Madrid star is currently without a club after his second stint with Manchester United came to an end last month. With the January transfer window upon us, the football world will wait to see where Ronaldo will go to next.
A final report from the NWSL/NWSLPA investigation shows that misconduct continues in the National Women’s Soccer League, a year on from reports of sexual coercion and harassment by coaches. “Inattentiveness, neglect, and concealment allow misconduct to fester,” the investigators wrote in the report, which was released on Wednesday. “During this investigation, the Joint Investigative Team received reports of ongoing misconduct at more than half the League’s clubs,” they added. These reports add to the sense that the NWSL and the USSF are unable to protect players, from abuse or from retaliation for reporting misconduct.
The late Grant Wahl’s wife confirmed that the soccer journalist died of an aneurysm while covering a World Cup match. “Grant died from the rupture of a slowly growing, undetected ascending aortic aneurysm with hemopericardium,” she wrote on her husband’s Substack. “There was nothing nefarious about his death,” she added. Wahl worked for Sports Illustrated and then launched his own newsletter, “Fútbol with Grant Wahl,” and a podcast with Meadowlark Media.
What’s on next
Croatia vs. Morocco (10 a.m. ET): Both teams will face off for the bronze medal at the 2022 World Cup.
Argentina vs. France (10 a.m. ET): A classic match on paper. Will France defend their title or can Messi finally add a World Cup trophy to his cabinet?