World Cup Daily Diary: Argentina takes it all in

Leo Messi

Leo MessiPhoto: Getty Images

How do you throw away the trophy twice and still walk away with it?

Some would surmise that a higher power was involved, that there was a specific plan for Lionel Messi to get his World Cup, to put the last i on his CV, that it had to be quite simple. Others would surmise that Argentina are simply better at penalties and somehow were able to get there by the length of Emi Martinez’s toe. Or you could say it was just a bunch of weird shit that happened.

Because Argentina threw away the trophy. France spent 79 minutes scrutinizing a team that had spent the weekend with the flu. While Didier Deschamps’ tactics never really made France look lively, at least until they got the ball to Kylian Mbappé, this method (combined with everyone running around like they were trying to be extra careful not to pee their pants to make) for a very good impression lethargic and clueless performance. Not only did France hold their own against Argentina, they also finished second. Playing a medium or low block works when you close the room you’re meant for. It’s not much if you just stand still, which is basically what France was.

How badly France felt the virus that swept through their team this week we’ll probably never fully know. But there are some penalties for Antoine Griezmann, essentially a forward, playing in midfield, especially when he meets an opposing midfield as studious and dynamic as Enzo Fernández, Rodrigo De Paul and Alexis Mac Allister. Argentina were outnumbered, running, thinking and fighting against the French midfield and basically had a 3v2 advantage with Griezmann cut off from everything.

While we will all remember that game in the final 40 minutes, France should be forever grateful for that as they were nowhere for the first 80. By the time they got their first penalty, they had one shot wide of the target. Argentina took Griezmann and Mbappé out of the game by simply always having the ball and then cutting off every lane to them on the rare occasions France could revive to string three passes together. The number of times France simply threw the ball wide was staggering. “Staggering” would be a good word to describe how they moved around the field.

Argentina’s most important task was getting Angel Di Maria out of the cold to start the game to attack the weak link in France’s defense, which was Jules Koundé, posing as a full-back when in fact he was a centre-back. The funny thing is Argentina’s first goal came when they got Koundé inside, allowing Ousmane Dembélé to defend Di Maria and give away a penalty.

Another France decision, which we don’t know if it was a tactical decision or a decision due to illness, was the reinstatement of Dayot Upamecano in central defence, ahead of Ibrahima Konaté, who was the star in the semi-final against Morocco. Ibrahima Konaté was reportedly attacked by the flu earlier in the week, so it’s a mystery how fit he was. But it was Upamecano who was caught high up and completely overwhelmed by Messi’s touch and lashed out at Julian Álvarez who unleashed one of the most beautiful counterattacks you’ll ever see.

Again, the ease with which Argentina simply ran through and away from France on that counter could be attributed to France’s missing legs, thanks to the fever and lunch-bending of the past few days, but that doesn’t take away from the artistry.

And from there it should have been a piece of cake. And it was! Argentina continued to control the game and the ball without aggressively pressing for a third that would have crowned it all. But it didn’t feel like they had to either. France provided nothing, did nothing and it felt like they accepted their fate and just hoped to get back to bed.

But this is Argentina, who looked messy in defense and always did just enough to make ends meet. Argentina tried to throw away a two-goal lead against Australia. They threw away a two-goal lead against the Netherlands. Only against Croatia did they look like they had everything under wraps and that’s because they held a three-goal advantage. Which makes their slight lack of urgency to get a third place finish against France quite odd.

It’s not as if France started knocking on the door. The penalty missed by Nicolás Otamendi was little more than a hopeless punt into the field, for which Otamendi was out of position and Muani had to push back.

Once you open the door to Chaos, Chaos will usually saunter through. It was as if the two teams had swapped jerseys at that moment. When Mbappé’s penalty hit the net, it seemed Argentina simply knew a second would follow and there was nothing they could do about it. Adrien Rabiot’s pass to Mbappé, who set up the equaliser, wasn’t even that great of a pass…except France finally rammed the ball into their star and just let him shit. A 1:2 with Marcus Thuram and suddenly France had put Undertaker into overtime.

Usually, overtime is just a 30-minute show of 22 exhausted players trying not to screw up royally and cost their team an important game. This is almost always exacerbated at a World Cup when the stakes are at their highest. But again, this is Argentina, which is football’s tin cup and only needs to hit the wood with the three from a bad lie to try and hit the green with two instead of just taking the lay-up. Similar to the extra time against the Dutch, they took control again and created almost every chance. France had emptied their midfield to try to equalize in regulation time, so Argentina came out on top again.

And if Lautaro Martinez hadn’t become the love child of Romelu Lukaku and Gonzalo Higuaín, penalties might not have been necessary. In the first half of overtime he missed an opportunity by taking a touch he didn’t need and giving Upamecano time to block his shot. At the absolute death of overtime, he had a free header that he sent in the completely wrong direction.

However, he will argue that he set up Messi’s obvious winner:

And yet, if you’re out to shoot yourself in the face, and no one is more like Argentina, you’ll manage to open a new opening in your skull. So you slip out to block a shot with your elbow in chicken dance pose and give Mbappé a second penalty which he has to bury.

And Argentina could and should have lost everything.

It’s just another upfield punt that Argentina converted into France’s best chance of the game. And considering Martinez barely got a toe on it, you might conclude that yes, it was all meant to be. The World Cup was always in Messi’s hands. Or Martinez just timed it perfectly anyway.

And so it ended after another penalty shootout, Argentina not missing.

Maybe it’s the best kind of finale and certainly the best to watch as you can read whatever you want into it. The destiny aspect for Argentina. Or perhaps a testament to her determination and willpower in the face of her own self-destructive streak. Rarely does a team have to survive their own overwhelming worst habits and still prevail. Or maybe it’s the exploits of Mbappé, who basically almost single-handedly led France to a second consecutive World Cup. And Mbappé is apparently virus-resistant. It could be all of that.

Never before has a world champion fought against itself like Argentina. They were brilliant forwards as proved by their second goal or third goal against Croatia. And yet her defenses always felt like she could step on a land mine she’d forgotten she put in the ground, and she did. Perhaps the best example of Messi’s brilliance is that he was able to surpass the incompetence of his own defense and his team’s determination to make it so damn difficult.

The final, at least in the last third, was everything at once. Argentina was everything at once throughout the tournament. In this respect, only they could win such a game. When chaos brews on the inside, chaos on the outside must be the norm.

goal of the day

Argentina’s fluid definition of counter-attacking football should be showcased in academies around the world, but Mbappé is just such a big swinging cock that he has to put up with it:

Did VAR mess something up?

It was a little odd that the Argentine penalty was not checked as it seemed quite soft, but otherwise it stayed out of the way.

Did Alexi Lalas say something stupid?

Let’s just enjoy the eight months we’ll have before he’s unnecessarily hustled into the Women’s World Cup coverage lest we have to hear him speak louder and faster to say something more important.

A eulogy for the deceased

It’s strange that a team that was on the verge of achieving what is basically unheard of in this day and age, defending the World Cup, should be a little mourned outside of France. France will say they played as they had to to achieve so much and there is one thing we can all do if we didn’t like it. And it was all a testament to the country’s ridiculous depth. They lost their entire midfield before the tournament started, never mind. They lost their left-back in the first game and were able to bring in a better one, which happened to be his brother. The reigning Ballon D’or winners collapsed before the start of the tournament, as did his backup, and yet France still had the striker who could knit the attack together better than these lads.

And yet it doesn’t feel like a great loss or a missed opportunity considering how old-fashioned they could do things, how conservative they were most of the time. France trimmed almost every game down to a moment or two where, given their talent and experience, they were extremely confident they would go their way. They faced a team in Argentina that creates a lot more of those moments just by accident.

You’ll probably always wonder what would have happened if your prep hadn’t been bumped/ruined by the flu. It’s unlikely they would have been too much livelier in attack because they just weren’t. They didn’t win like that four years ago. And once again it was Emi Martinez’s toe off work.