One of the most exciting World Cup finals of all time was won on penalties by Argentina after Kylian Mbappe had scored a hat-trick to force the shootout.
Argentina were coasting to victory with an hour gone, the score at 2-0 thanks to goals by Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria. But when Di Maria came off in the 64th minute the game changed, and France and Mbappe’s confidence grew and grew.
The France forward scored twice in the space of two minutes, the first from the spot and the second a superb finish on the volley. That took the game to extra-time.
Argentina went ahead through Messi’s close-range finish but Gonzalo Montiel’s handball gave Mbappe the chance to complete his hat-trick. He went the same way with his second penalty, hard to Emiliano Martinez’s right.
Martinez was Argentina’s hero in the shootout, saving a spot-kick from Kingsley Coman before Aurelien Tchouameni put his effort wide. Montiel, who had given away the penalty in the 117th minute, scored the one that sealed the victory.
Stuart James, Phil Hay, Mark Carey and Liam Tharme analyse the key talking points…
Messi’s medal collection is complete
Ninety-seven seconds of madness and, ultimately, it is hard not to think back to that critical moment when Nicolas Otamendi got in a terrible tangle, needlessly brought down Randal Kolo Muani and the momentum of the match completely changed.
Argentina were 2-0 ahead at that point and in total control. There were only 10 minutes of normal time remaining, and those in blue and white striped shirts – on the pitch as well as in the stands – could have been forgiven for thinking that Argentina were strolling towards a third World Cup.
Within the blink of an eye it was 2-2 – the second time in this tournament Argentina have relinquished a two-goal lead – and at that stage you wondered what was going through the mind of Messi more than anyone else.
It was Messi’s early penalty that got Argentina on their way, and it was also his exquisite flick that contributed to Di Maria scoring arguably the goal of the tournament. In other words, Messi was a joy to watch on an evening when he was making his 26th World Cup appearance, breaking the record that Germany’s Lothar Matthaus has held since 1998.
The problem for Messi and Argentina was that Mbappe hadn’t read the script. Even after Messi scored again in extra-time, somehow bending the game back into Argentina’s favour, his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Mbappe struck again and the narrative took another twist.
Messi’s penalty in the shoot-out was coolness personified and, after 36 years of waiting, the World Cup is finally coming back to Argentina. As for Messi, that rather silly argument about him needing to win a World Cup to be considered a true great has been put to bed. His medal collection is complete, his legacy assured.
How the shootout unfolded
It was only the third World Cup final ever to go to penalties, after Brazil versus Italy in 1994 and Italy against France in 2006.
Messi and Mbappe both followed Alan Shearer’s recommendation of the team’s best player taking their first penalty. The pair had scored from the spot inside 90 minutes, Mbappe twice, with Messi again showing composure to roll it past Lloris and Mbappe going to Martinez’s left for the third time in the game.
The Argentina goalkeeper guessed the right way on three of the four France penalties and made one save, again a shootout hero after his antics in the quarter-finals against the Netherlands.
Argentina have now won six of their seven World Cup penalty shootouts.
ARGENTINA HAVE WON THE WORLD CUP!!
Look at these scenes. They’ve done it. #BBCWorldCup #FifaWorldCup pic.twitter.com/caFYhmWO0a
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 18, 2022
ARGENTINA WINS THE 2022 FIFA WORLD CUP ?? pic.twitter.com/MGXbMdlj2i
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
Mbappe’s extraordinary maturity
The extreme talent in Mbappe’s feet is difficult to harness when he’s as peripheral as he was for 79 minutes against Argentina. To make the best of him, a team have to furnish him with one-on-ones and take-on opportunities — in some respects, do what Argentina do with Lionel Messi by purposely playing to his strengths.
Mbappe’s touchmap at half-time was a sad sight from a French perspective, a smattering of dots in benign positions on the left flank and not a single one inside Argentina’s box. The only time in the first half when he looked like he might weave a bit of magic with a clever spin into the area, Argentina countered and set up Angel Di Maria for the goal of the tournament. It is rare for Mbappe to look like such an ineffective passenger.
The tactical switch made by Deschamps on 41 minutes, dispensing with Olivier Giroud and pushing Mbappe into the middle, was doubtless designed to bring the latter into the game more but if truth be told, it was desperate and it did not immediately address France’s fundamental failure to compete in midfield and build sustained pressure.
Argentina wanted inspiration from Messi and used graft and full-blooded commitment to tease it from him. France were asking Mbappe for a miracle and until the last 10 minutes, seemed to be asking far too much of him.
His equaliser, however, was a classic example of what separates supreme footballers from very good players — the ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Somehow, a final in which he had hardly featured became his in a flash. And like that, Messi was in Mbappe’s shade, behind him in the race for the Golden Boot too.
Both players had another finish in them and as Mbappe completed his hat-trick, becoming the leading scorer in World Cup finals at the age of just 23, it felt as if he would find a way to respond to almost anything Argentina threw at him, throwing in a nerveless conversion in the shoot-out for good measure.
From the slowest of starts, his was a performance of extraordinary maturity.
The 2018 champions fall just short
France were in deep trouble from the first kick of the ball. Was the virus in their camp a factor, taking a toll on energy and spirit? You hate to get dragged along this line of analysis but did the enormity of the moment inspire Argentina more — because it certainly looked like they were the team possessed.
From minute one, the French were in disarray on their right, prone to Di Maria popping up in space, taking angled passes and running at them. Tactically, Lionel Scaloni’s choice of starting line-up worked brilliantly for him and the threat on that side of the pitch put a big weight on Ousmane Dembele when it came to tracking back and helping a drowning Jules Kounde.
Dembele is no defender and when Argentina’s penalty came, his positioning and his decision to poke a toe in was all wrong, exactly what Di Maria was hoping for from him. When Di Maria scored a second goal, France’s shape was obliterated. That looked a little like game over.
To everyone’s surprise, Deschamps almost got out of jail. Even if the contest had been tilting towards France in the second half, they were going nowhere until Nicolas Otamendi threw in a piece of dull defending. Between that and a flash of genius from Mbappe, Deschamps’ side instantly gained control of a match they looked destined to lose hands down.
But Argentina dragged themselves through the depths of purgatory and saw to it that while Messi got his crowning moment, there would be no back-to-back World Cups for France. The Deschamps era has been an excellent one but you find yourself thinking that of all the French teams who have made the World Cup final, the 1998 and 2006 versions were the best of them. The class of 2022 is not of the same vintage.
A blistering counter-attack
Five different players, seven touches and 10 seconds — that is all it took for Argentina to carve open France and score the second goal of the World Cup final.
One of their major strengths is scoring early in games and then managing the lead by mixing a possession game, high pressing and blistering counter-attacks like this one.
Nahuel Molina’s clearance goes straight to the feet of Alexis Mac Allister (white arrow), but it is notable that Argentina had three players ahead of the ball when defending, specifically for these situations.
Messi is one of the three, flanked by Julian Alvarez (right) and eventual scorer Di Maria (left), giving them an overload against France’s two centre-backs.
Mac Allister’s first-time pass (golden arrow) breaks through the midfield…
…and in two touches, Messi has controlled the ball and baited Raphael Varane before playing an around-the-corner pass into the on-running Alvarez. There is space on both flanks as Di Maria makes a blindside run beyond right-back Kounde…
…which means Mac Allister can make the third-man run for Alvarez’s through ball…
… to square it, with a perfect weight of pass, for Di Maria to double the lead.
Di Maria’s dominant hour
Di Maria became the first Argentine to score in a World Cup final (2022) and a Copa America final (2021). He also won man of the match in the 2014 Champions League final for Real Madrid and opened the scoring in the Copa Del Rey final that year too. Angel Di Maria is a big game player.
Scaloni used him on the right of a 4-4-2 in the 2021 Copa America final and he scored after running in-behind the left-back.
DI MARIA SHOWS UP FOR FINALS OF MAJOR TOURNAMENTS ?
Relive his goals in the Copa América final, Finalissima and FIFA World Cup final for Argentina ? ?? pic.twitter.com/Z3jXbx02un
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
On this day last year, in 2021, Ángel Di María scored for Argentina vs. Brazil as Argentina won the Copa America. Lionel Messi captained Argentina as they conquered Brazil at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. ?? pic.twitter.com/iCR50dLkpO
— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) July 10, 2022
This time he was playing as a left winger. The roles of France’s full-back pairing have been contrasting all tournament, with Kounde (or Benjamin Pavard) the more defensive right-back and Theo Hernandez an attacking, aggressive left-back.
Argentina built up cleverly, at times going over the press into what became a 4-3-3 out of a 4-4-2 on paper, with Di Maria and Alvarez stretching play wide and Messi finding pockets of space to receive.
A theme of the first half was Argentina building up centrally or down the right before switching play out to the left and getting Di Maria one-versus-one against Dembele or Kounde.
Dembele fouled him for the penalty after Di Maria cut inside and tricked his way past the Barcelona winger.
The 34-year-old is unlikely to appear at another World Cup and capped an incisive Argentina counter-attack to double the lead in the first half. So much of their good play in that 45 minutes came through Di Maria, with 42.9 per cent of Argentina’s touches in the first half down the left, way up from their tournament average of 31.3 per cent.
When Di Maria was replaced by Marcos Acuna after 64 minutes with the score at 2-0, Scaloni — and Di Maria — must have thought the game was done.
Mbappe had other ideas, until Argentina triumphed on penalties.
France’s bold substitutions
Talk about bold.
Didier Deschamps was left with a big decision to make after seeing his side go 2-0 down after 36 minutes. It may have been the rumoured sickness bug, it may have been injuries niggles in the build-up, but far too many questions were being asked of Deschamps’ side.
His response? A double substitution on 41 minutes that saw Olivier Giroud and the tormented Dembele replaced by Marcus Thuram (left wing) and Randal Kolo Muani (right wing), forcing Mbappe into a central striker role.
Did the changes work? Well, not immediately. The fact that France didn’t register a shot until the 68th minute tells you a story in itself.
A further double substitution on the 71st minute — with Coman and Eduardo Camavinga replacing Antoine Griezmann and Theo Hernandez — was Deschamps’ second roll of the dice.
Then everything changed in the final 15 minutes of normal time.
Kolo Muani offered instant energy after coming on, making powerful, penetrative runs and forcing Argentina players to run towards their own goal. His persistence was key in unlocking Argentina’s defence to win his country a penalty after being brought down on 80 minutes.
Just 97 seconds later, fellow substitute Coman robbed Messi on the halfway line to drive forward, with Mbappe playing a neat one-two to finishing emphatically past Emiliano Martinez. The assister? Marcus Thuram.
At the first whistle, the French demeanour was subdued. By the final whistle, France were good value for the 3-3 scoreline as Deschamps’ bold early changes ultimately turned the whole game on its head.
Penalties are simply a lottery – “Je ne regrette rien”, I suppose.
Argentina awarded most penalties in a World Cup
When you slow down a penalty decision within an inch of its life via VAR, there will often be a debate — was it or wasn’t it?
It’s fair to say that Ousmane Dembele’s challenge on Angel Di Maria was a penalty, as have their previous four been. Yes, Argentina’s total of five penalties awarded this tournament has been the most of any World Cup edition since 1966 — ahead of Portugal (1966) and the Netherlands (1978).
They have all been warranted, although there was debate surrounding their second one of the tournament, when Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny caught Messi with a glove to the head.
“We spoke before the penalty,” said Szczesny. “I told him I can bet him a €100 that he (the referee) wasn’t going to give it. So I’ve lost a bet against Messi.”
It’s rather simple. When you have the attacking talent and close control of Messi, Di Maria and Julian Alvarez — with the likes of full-back Marcos Acuna bombing on from deep — you are going to have to be better than perfect in your defensive actions within the penalty area.
Anyone who suggests this was a covert mission to present Messi with one final swan song is respectfully mistaken.
Additional contributors: Mark Carey and Liam Tharme
(Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images)