Lionel Messi is hoping to crown his stellar career by leading Argentina to World Cup glory on Sunday but Kylian Mbappe’s history-chasing France are standing in his way.
Qatar’s World Cup has been tarnished by controversy off the pitch but it concludes with the electrifying prospect of a final between two of global football’s powerhouses.
France may need every hour available as kick-off looms after their camp was struck by illness, forcing a number of players to sit out training and giving coach Didier Deschamps an unwanted headache.
Argentina and France are both aiming to win the trophy for the third time, with Les Bleus returning to the final four years after their triumph in Moscow.
Back-to-back titles would be a monumental achievement for the side coached by Deschamps — the only teams to have done it previously are Italy in the 1930s and Pele’s Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
Yet that potential achievement is trumped by Messi’s quest to win the ultimate prize in the game in what is almost certainly his final World Cup match.
The former Barcelona star has won everything going at the club level, also claiming the Ballon d’Or seven times, and last year led Argentina to victory in the Copa America.
Messi has been brilliant in his fifth World Cup as the team bounced back from a shock opening loss to Saudi Arabia, while his new sidekick, Julian Alvarez, has scored four times.
“It is exciting to be in the final, but there is still one step to go,” said coach Lionel Scaloni.
Chase for third title
Aged 35 and driven by his desire to make up for the defeat by Germany in the 2014 final, Messi has scored five goals and produced some sublime assists.
Sunday’s match is likely to be his last chance to match the achievement of Diego Maradona, who inspired Argentina to victory in Mexico in 1986.
“I am really enjoying myself. I have felt happy throughout this World Cup,” Messi said after Argentina’s 3-0 semi-final win against Croatia.
But will this World Cup be remembered as Messi’s tournament, or will France be the top dogs once again?
Les Bleus have returned to the final without ever really hitting top form and they now have to contend with illness in their camp.
Central defenders Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate, as well as Kingsley Coman, sat out training on Friday with cold-like symptoms.
Konate replaced Dayot Upamecano in defence for the semi-final against Morocco after he was ruled out by illness, while Adrien Rabiot was also unwell for that game.
The one player they cannot afford to lose is Mbappe, who scored five goals in the team’s first four games but was largely kept quiet in the wins against England and Morocco.
Four years ago Mbappe became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele when, aged 19, he helped France beat Croatia 4-2.
Yet the iconic image of that tournament was Mbappe consoling Messi after starring as France beat Argentina in the last 16.
These days they are club colleagues, jostling for the limelight at Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain and now jousting with each other on the greatest stage of all.
France are wary of reducing the match at the 89,000-capacity Lusail Stadium to just a showdown with Messi.
“Yes, they have Leo Messi but there will also be 10 other players next to him who have lots of quality,” said midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni.
“So we will need to be ready, aware of the opportunity we have to make history.”
Deschamps, who can become the first coach in the post-war era to win two World Cups, said: “We will try to limit his influence as much as possible, just as the Argentines will try to limit the influence of some of my players.”
Antoine Griezmann has been outstanding for France in a new midfield role and might well pip Messi to the Golden Ball if his side emerge victorious.
Argentina welcome back defensive pair Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna after bans, and forward Angel Di Maria is expected to be fit.