Argentina and France will go head-to-head in Qatar on Sunday for international football's ultimate prize. Both are looking to win the World Cup for a third time.
During the past four weeks, the 22nd edition of the men's FIFA World Cup has been taking place in Qatar. 32 nations qualified for the tournament. Now only two remain in contention to lift the trophy on Sunday.
Defending champions France have overcome a pre-tournament injury crisis to take their place in Sunday's showpiece.
Argentina, the current champions of South America, began their Qatar campaign with a stumble against Saudi Arabia but recovered to make their way to Lusail Iconic Stadium for the decisive match.
With the controversy over FIFA's decision to host the World Cup in Qatar being largely overshadowed by the captivating action that has unfolded on the field, there is an argument to be made that this November/December staging of the tournament has been the best yet.
For the first time ever three teams from the Asian Football Confederation made it past the group stages while Morocco became the first African nation to contest a World Cup semi-final. Japan, South Korea and Australia (part of the Asian Confederation in soccer) all deserved their place in the last 16, along with the USA who were the sole team from North and Central America to make it past the group stage. Senegal made sure Africa had two representatives playing knockout football.
This meant that some teams with high expectations fell at the first hurdle. Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Uruguay were the most notable group stage casualties.
The first ever World Cup held in the Middle East provided viewers with a true global representation of how international football currently stands.
After all the upsets and new faces advancing further than ever before though, we are left with two soccer heavyweights aiming to further enhance their standing within the global game.
FRANCE: ROUTE TO THE FINAL AND OBSERVATIONS
With a horrendous catalogue of injuries to deal with, France manager Didier Deschamps didn't have his troubles to seek in the weeks prior to Qatar 2022. N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Presnel Kimpembe,Christopher Nkunku and Mike Maignon didn't even make it to Qatar, while Karim Benzema and Lucas Hernandez were injured pretty much as soon as they set foot on Qatari grass. According to reports, Benzema is fit enough to be considered to play on Sunday.
The injury crisis seems to have galvanised France. Their slightly make-shift team shows the strength in depth French football currently possesses. They have been professional and careful in their approach – the arrogance that French teams of the past have displayed is missing from this group of players. That's a good thing.
Group D was won with matchday one and two victories over Australia and Denmark respectively. This allowed Deschamps to rotate his squad for the final group fixture against Tunisia. That match was lost 1-0, but France still advanced as group winners.
Poland, England and Morocco were all beaten in the knockout matches that followed, with the French not being pushed to the limit by any of their opponents. All three of their knockout round foes may have regrets as France played within themselves to make sure they did just enough in each fixture. The Poles were beaten 3-1; England 2-1 and Morocco 2-0. France have not needed to play any extra time sessions in Qatar.
Throughout their journey to the final France have used a 4-2-3-1 formation. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has played well behind a defence that has looked far from convincing. Youngster Aurelien Tchouameni has made a name for himself at this World Cup, usually playing alongside Adrien Rabiot in the midfield holding role.
Further forward has been where France have really grabbed the headlines. Attackers Kylian Mbappe, Ousman Dembele, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, playing in a slightly more withdrawn role, have all made excellent contributions at the business end of the pitch. Mbappe was the man in the group stage and against Poland – his pace lighting up that portion of the tournament – while Griezmann has taken over latterly, being credited with three assists.
France like to play on the counter-attack, often looking second best for long spells before sparking into life with a decisive goal. Proven winner Didier Deschamps has his winning DNA all over this French team. If France are to triumph on Sunday, Deschamps would join legendary Italian manager Vittorio Pozzo as the only coach to guide his country to World Cup glory twice. Pozzo achieved the feat in 1934 and 1938.
A France win on Sunday would also see Les Blues become the first nation since Brazil in 1954 and 1958 to win the trophy in back-to-back tournaments. This is a title that isn't easy to defend.
ARGENTINA: ROUTE TO THE FINAL AND OBSERVATIONS
Manager Lionel Scaloni and Argentina arrived in Qatar riding a 36-game unbeaten run. This all came crashing down in their opening group game against Saudi Arabia. Leading 1-0, Argentina suffered a collapse of sorts in the second half as Saudi Arabia recorded one of the biggest World Cup shocks of all time in winning 2-1.
That made the following group match against Mexico treacherous for Argentina. A defeat would have seen many people's choice to win the trophy, including mine, eliminated embarrasingly early. Mexico were beaten 2-0 on a night where football played second fiddle to physicality and intimidation tactics – this Argentina team have a bit of a nasty streak in them when needed. The South Americans defeated Poland by the same score line to end up topping Group C.
Argentina's knockout fixtures saw them beat Australia 2-1 before the Netherlands were vanquished via penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw. Argentina comfortably saw off Croatia 3-0 in the semi-final. The Netherlands match was uncomfortable for Argentina – they surrendered a 2-0 lead in the final ten minutes. Something to bear in mind ahead of Sunday.
With a full squad to select from, Scaloni has chopped and changed his formation depending on opponent in this tournament. Moving from four at the back to three on occasion, we have seen Argentina's versatility in Qatar. Of course, the main thing for them is getting captain and talisman Lionel Messi on the ball as often as possible.
While he doesn't dominate games as he once did, the now 35-year-old has been paired up front with Julian Alvarez, who has been a revelation. Messi has been granted the freedom to roam and really is Argentina's wildcard. The number 10 has scored five goals and assisted a further three in Qatar.
Playing on the counter-attack also seems to be Argentina's preferred method of approaching matches. Their defending has been adequate, with the exception of a few minutes against the Netherlands, while midfield trio Rodrigo De Paul, Alexis MacAllister and Enzo Fernandez are capable of doing the delightful and the dirty.
Beating Brazil at Maracana in Rio in the Copa America final last summer gave this Argentina team belief that they could be tournament winners. Attempting to dethrone the defending world champions on Sunday will hold no fears for this tactically excellent Argentina team.
THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Just a quick note on the exciting conclusion to the Golden Boot competition. For the first time in World Cup history, the four leaders for the highest goal scorer award will be on the pitch in the final.
With five goals apiece, Mbappe and Messi will be looking to settle this contest once and for all. A further twist is those two players are teammates at club level. Another first for a World Cup final.
Hot on the heels of the Paris Saint Germain forwards are Giroud and Alvarez. Both have scored four goals in the tournament so far. Both can be expected to have chances to increase their tally on Sunday.
2022 WORLD CUP FINAL PREDICTION
Sunday's match kicks-off at 10am ET / 3pm GMT. Other time zones are available.
As mentioned, both teams prefer to play on the counter so that means we could be in for a tactical stalemate on Sunday. Don't fear though, there is enough attacking talent on the field to provide the global audience with plenty moments of excitement.
This is a pick 'em final. It's close to impossible to separate the teams. Will it be Messi lighting it up for Argentina or Mbappe and Griezmann running riot for France?
The answer is that 90-minutes may not be long enough. I expect the two teams to be locked at 1-1 at the end of regulation.
Before the tournament began, I selected Argentina as my choice to win the trophy, so I shall stick with that. Backed by their fervent support, Argentina will either get the job done in extra-time or via penalty kicks to ensure it is their jersey that will be getting the third star embroidered on it going forward.