The World Cup that became Mbappe vs Messi: how France's star man set up a PSG showdown

Kylian Mbappe
(Image credit: Getty)

"Mor-occ-o! Mor-occ-o!" came the chant from the Argentines.

FFT were on a bus packed full of Albiceleste fans, singing at the top of their voices, celebrating reaching the World Cup final with victory over Croatia - such was their joy, so strong was their sense of destiny, that it felt like we were in some sort of immersive experience, transported in real life into a documentary of "How Argentina won the 2022 World Cup", the sort of film we'd once watched as a wide-eyed kid, from 1986. 'Hero', it was called - we recommend it.

Last night, it was hard to look past this tournament ending with Lionel Messi lifting the trophy, so compelling has his narrative been in Qatar. But France and Morocco still had something to say about that, determined to write their own history.

The Argentina fans made it clear which of the two they'd rather face, chanting in friendship with a couple of Moroccan supporters, who'd joined us on the party bus back to Al Janoub's apartment village. Little wonder, given the nightmares that the South Americans probably still have about their 4-3 defeat to France in 2018, in one of the great World Cup matches.

Then, the man that destroyed them was Kylian Mbappe, who has grown even stronger since then. He and Messi have ascended above everyone else at this tournament, and made it into what has seemed almost a personal duel between PSG team-mates, young and old, the past and the future, competing for supremacy in the present.

The golden boot race, the quest to win the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player, the hunt for the trophy itself - the longer this tournament went on, the more every single one of those battles looked to be between Mbappe and Messi. Maybe even the tussle for the 2023 Ballon d'Or, too, which so frequently goes to the star player of the team that win the World Cup. Startlingly, just a few months ago, Mbappe only finished sixth in the 2022 Ballon d'Or, and Messi didn't even make the 30-man shortlist.

World Cup

(Image credit: Future)

Right now, it's hard to suggest that Mbappe and Messi are not the best two players in the world. Injury to Karim Benzema looked like a blow to France before this World Cup, but it quickly began to seem like it may have even acted as a blessing in disguise - establishing Mbappe as Les Bleus' main man, with the freedom to unleash hell on defences, in a way he did at the 2018 World Cup, but didn't when Benzema returned to the squad for Euro 2020. Mbappe didn't score a single goal at that tournament, missing his spot kick in the shock penalty shoot-out defeat to Switzerland.

Just like Messi, he's scored five goals at this World Cup, even if his two assists put him one behind the Argentine in the golden boot racing going into this semi final. Mbappe will probably point out that, unlike Messi, none of his goals have been penalties.

From the very start of this tournament, even when Les Bleus went behind against Australia, Mbappe was brilliant, providing the tricks and flicks, as well as the goals. He just looked quicker than everyone else, in both the feet and the mind.

While he was just one of several stars of the side that won the World Cup four years ago, this time he has often appeared head and shoulders France's best player. Could they be too reliant on one man? The quarter final against England seemed to suggest not - Mbappe had his quietest game of the tournament, but Les Bleus still won, as Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Aurelien Tchouameni came to the fore.

They haven't looked sensational in every moment at this World Cup, far from it, but Didier Deschamps long since instilled a belief, a methodology to get the job done, even at the toughest of times. France had only 43 per cent possession against England, but knew how to deliver in the key moments. In the 2018 World Cup final against Croatia, they won 4-2 with only 34 per cent possession.

"What are important in these types of matches are the little details," was the summary after the England game from matchwinner Giroud, back in the side for this tournament following Benzema's injury, and again instrumental.

In this semi final, it was always going to be intriguing how each side coped, facing another team who almost prefer to cede possession. Morocco have taken it to far greater extremes than France during their incredible run to the last four, having just 27 per cent of the play against Portugal, and a ludicrous 23 per cent against Spain.

It brought back memories of how Greece virtually rope-a-doped their way to glory at Euro 2004 - they had to find their way past Portugal and Spain at that tournament, too. Just like Greece, Morocco had been defensively incredible, thanks to the likes of Romain Saiss, Nayef Aguerd, goalkeeper Yassine Bono and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat.

Since Paris-born Walid Regragui took charge of the national team in August, they'd conceded just one goal in eight matches - an own goal, in their group stage victory over Canada.

World Cup

(Image credit: Future)

North African fans had been well represented at this tournament from the start - Tunisians were here in numbers for the group stage, and more and more Moroccans have flooded into Qatar the longer this World Cup has gone on, the longer their improbable journey continued. Many arrived from London, in search of tickets, after incredible scenes of celebration on Edgware Road after shoot-out victory over Spain a week ago.

Unsurprisingly, thousands of them pitched up at the giant tent that is the Al Bayt Stadium for this semi final, for a fixture that had political history, too - as a country, Morocco gained independence from France in 1956.

"Maghreb! Maghreb!" they chanted on the bus to the stadium - a bus packed with those from Rabat and Casablanca, with no sign of a single French fan. Bleus supporters were at least present at the stadium, one even carrying a giant Mbappe cardboard cut-out, but they were seriously outnumbered, and barely heard. That was illustrated during the warm-ups - the France squad emerged to huge jeers from a hugely partisan crowd.

A variety of other flags were also represented from countries who fell short of reaching this stage - Brazil, Canada, Italy, Scotland, and a curious number of Uzbekistan flags.

Regragui recalled Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui after injury - it remained to be seen how fit they actually were, as well as fellow centre back Saiss, who'd limped off against Portugal. In Aguerd's case, the answer arrived just before the match had even started - he wasn't fit at all, forced to withdraw after the warm-up.

A bad start to the evening got even worse within five minutes, as Mbappe's shot was heavily deflected into the path of left back Theo Hernandez, who hooked the ball into the net, in front of watching French president Emmanuel Macron. Sadly for Mbappe, no, Kylian, you don't get an assist for that.

It was the first time Morocco had been behind in a match since Regragui was appointed in August, and presented a new dilemma - whether to push forward for an equaliser, or continue to keep it tight until later in the game. There was a danger of this going like England vs Iran, a gameplan not to concede in tatters once they, er, conceded.

That's not how it turned out - quickly, they did move forward and fashion two opportunities, Azzedine Ounahi seeing a shot saved by Hugo Lloris, before Ziyech fired wide. They left themselves open at the other end though, as Giroud raced clear and smashed against the post.

By the 21st minute, Morocco had lost their other key centre back too, Saiss forced off injured. It wasn't exactly the opening to the match that Regragui had hoped for, but he surely knew the risk he was taking with the line-up he initially selected.

Not that Morocco's bad start quietened their fans - soon they were doing their own version of the Icelandic thunderclap. Their team were actually having the better of possession, too - 59 per cent in the first half hour, as France forever seem comfortable to sit back and hit their opponents on the counter attack. When you've got speedsters like Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, perhaps little wonder.

The plan almost worked to perfection when Tchouameni put Mbappe clear but the forward could only slide the ball across goal, with Giroud firing wide seconds later when he should have scored.

Ultimately, if it's a game between two counter attacking sides, with Mbappe in their line-up, France are always likely to be better at it - whether to make himself available for a through ball, because he doesn't fancy tracking back, or both, the forward stays higher than Dembele or even Giroud at times when France are out of possession, ready to pounce.

Morocco continued to press forward, though - perennially a set-piece threat, they almost grabbed an astonishing equaliser when Jawad El Yamiq's overhead kick hit the post.

After the half-time treat of Reel 2 Real singing 90s classic I Like To Move It during Argentina vs Croatia last night, FIFA had another bonus in store for us at the interval for this month - Reel 2 Real singing I Like To Move It, yet again. He seemed to be getting increasingly hoarse - he's had a busy schedule, after all.

At the start of the second half, a third inevitable injury blow for Morocco - Mazraoui forced off, replaced by fellow left back Yahia Attiyat Allah. Still it didn't deter them, the new boy making an instant impact, forcing Ibrahima Konate into a vital clearance to stop Youssef En-Nesyri tapping in, as the Moroccans fans were up on their feet in anticipation, proudly roaring their team on. France hadn't kept a clean sheet in this tournament up to this point, but they were just about keeping their opponents at bay.

For periods, Mbappe wasn't as influential in this game as Messi was last night - there were times when it seemed like he was playing too wide to make the full impact everyone knows he's capable of.

Moved up front for the final half hour, when Marcus Thuram replaced Giroud, quickly he delivered the quality that decided the match - jinking past two inside the area, before his shot deflected into the path of substitute Randal Kolo Muani, ready to tap in with his first touch after coming on. Game very much over - although annoyingly for Mbappe, you don't get an assist for that, either. Messi still just about leads the golden boot race.

Did France perform as well as Argentina did last night? No. Are Les Bleus good as they were four years ago? Probably not, but they're one match from glory once more, with enough quality to win it if they master the key moments, just as they've done during this tournament so far. With Mbappe, they have a chance.

Ultimately, both semi finals went the way it always looked like they would go. It felt like the world was waiting for Argentina vs France in the final, and now they have got it.

It's the perfect ending for the host country: two stars of Qatari-owned PSG, battling to win it all. France's biggest star emulating Pele by winning back-to-back World Cups by the age of 23, or arguably the greatest player of all time finally bagging his first, at the age of 35.

Whoever wins on Sunday, history will be made inside the Lusail Stadium. Mbappe again, or Messi at last.

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Chris Flanagan
Staff Writer

Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.