DOHA – Lionel Messi stands on the brink of a long-awaited World Cup winner's medal as Argentina faces defending champions France in Sunday's final.
One of soccer's greatest players of all time is within touching distance of the one major trophy that has eluded him in his storied career.
But having experienced defeat in the final of 2014 in Brazil, when Argentina lost 1-0 to Germany through extra time, Messi knows all too well the pain of having his World Cup dreams shattered.
If Argentina is to win the tournament for the first time since 1986, here is how it might do it:
LEAVE IT TO MESSI
There is no escaping the sense that it is Messi's destiny to emulate soccer great Diego Maradona and lead Argentina to the World Cup title. The 35-year-old Paris Saint-Germain forward has been in inspired form in Qatar, scoring five goals on the way to the final and producing some magical assists for his teammates. Maradona, who died in 2020, also scored five times in '86 and was an iconic figure for his team and country. Messi does not dominate games over 90 minutes in the way he did during his peak years. Instead he decides them with moments of brilliance that showcase the talents that have led many to describe him as the finest soccer player in history. He has carried the expectations of his nation throughout his career, but never truly delivered at a World Cup. While he may be past his best, he has been more influential in this tournament than in any of his previous four World Cups. Argentina's fans seem convinced they will win the trophy for a third time and that there is more than just Messi guiding them on. “Maradona,” they sing, “is cheering Lionel on” from heaven.
CONCENTRATION IS KEY
Assessing his team's semifinal loss to France, Morocco coach Walid Regragui provided a fascinating observation. “I believe any country that plays France believe they are close to winning,” he said. “But when you're close to winning, actually you are quite far from winning.” After putting France under pressure for long periods, Morocco eventually lost 2-0. It was a similar story for England in the quarterfinals. France won 2-1 in that game, despite England's players believing they had been the better team. The warning is there for Argentina. Both teams have been comfortable giving up possession of the ball and attacking on the break. Perhaps the winner will be the team that manages to stick to those tactics, rather than being sucked in and pushing too far forward. Maintaining that concentration and discipline will be vital for Argentina — especially with the threat of Kylian Mbappe's speed when France breaks.
FEED OFF THE FANS
It has been emotional for Argentina and its supporters, who have lit up the tournament in Qatar. The mass outpouring of feelings has been a feature after every win. That can take a lot out of players — but in this instance, it has felt like the opposite has been true. Messi and Co. look like they are being driven on by the weight of expectation, rather than burdened by it. There is a sense that the players and the fans are in this together, and if, as expected, Argentina's supporters outnumber France's at Lusail Stadium on Sunday, that could give the edge to Messi and his teammates. That being said, Morocco's fans totally dominated the atmosphere in their country's semifinals match against France and still ended up on the losing side.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports