Football fans were a bit dubious about the competition being held midway through the season. It couldn’t possibly be as entertaining, could it? Well, I think we’re all glad to be wrong, because it’s been incredible!
The group stages wasted no time in bringing us surprise results. Argentina lost their opening game to Saudi Arabia 2-1, Japan topped a group that included Spain and Germany – with the latter failing to advance from the group.
Morocco found themselves in a group that had Belgium and Croatia. It looked to be a tall order for the African side. Despite the pedigree of the European nations, Morocco topped their group and didn’t lose a single group game.
Home nations, England and Wales were joined by Iran and the USA in Group B. Unfortunately, Wales couldn’t find enough to progress from the group phase. England topped the group and reached the quarter-final stage after knocking out Senegal.
Drama seemed to be synonymous with this tournament. Gareth Southgate’s men met current champions France in their quarter-final. Sadly, England lost 2-1 with Harry Kane spurning a late chance to equalise from the penalty spot.
Would Portugal mean the end of Morocco’s journey? Continuing to astonish the world, Morocco put in yet another flawless performance. It took penalties to do so, but Morocco knocked out and Spain and then beat the former champions of Europe 1-0. This was no fluke, Morocco oozed quality.
Achraf Hakimi, the bullish fullback who’s a familiar name, had a fantastic campaign. Perhaps lesser known, Sofyan Ambrat was equally as impressive. Fiorentina’s midfield man was dominant throughout.
If you hadn’t heard of Azzedine Ounahi, you will have now. Unflappable on the biggest stage, he’ll be on the January transfer wish list of a host of clubs. Could his and Morocco’s form be enough to trouble France?
Argentina’s quarter-final against the Netherlands had it all. Up until the 83rd minute, Argentina were sailing smoothly into the semi-final, Wout Weghorst made the waters a lot choppier by snatching a goal.
Tensions were clearly high and the occasion got the better of a handful of players late on in the match. Following being fouled, Parades blasted the ball at the Dutch bench, prompting a feisty reaction from the Oranje.
In the final moments of the game, the imposing forward got a second goal, finishing an ingenious freekick routine at the death. A goal couldn’t be found in extra time; it was apt a match of this calibre would be decided by penalties. Thanks to Aston Villa’s shot stopper’s heroics, Argentina emerged victorious.
Going into the competition, Brazil were the pick of pundits and fans alike. A quarter-final with Croatia looked to set up a classic semi-final between them and rivals, Argentina.
Neymar needed extra time to put the ball past Dominik Livaković, and it looked like their semi-final spot was confirmed. Croatia are former finalists for a reason, they’ve a blend of quality, experience, and an unwavering resilience.
A late goal from Bruno Petković forced the tie to penalties. That quality, experience and resilience shone through. Croatia sent one of the tournament’s favourites home and two greats in Lionel Messi and Luka Modric would now cross paths.
Current holders, France, were up against the surprise package, Morocco. Their normally solid defence was breached early on through a Theo Hernández goal.
To make matters worse, Romain Saïss, an integral part of their defence was substituted off due to injury. An already tough task was becoming an uphill battle.
A valiant display wasn’t enough to prevent Randal Kolo Muani doubling France’s lead. Didier Deschamps’ side would be going to a consecutive final.
Who’d be facing France in the final, Argentina or Croatia? Messi and Julián Álvarez made sure it’d be the South American side. Their captain bagged from the penalty spot and Manchester City’s starlet got their second minutes later.
To put it beyond doubt, the number nine got his second goal of the game, Argentina won 3-0 and were heading to the Lusail Stadium.
A thrilling tournament was coming to an end. Would this be the honour that haunts Lionel Messi or the elusive trophy that’d complete his collection and cement him as the greatest ever?
Or would Kylian Mbappé be the force behind France winning back-to-back finals for the first time since Brazil in 1958 and 1962?
Finals of this magnitude tend to be cagey affairs, but this was anything but. It was a match that captured the attention of those who mightn’t be interested in football. The nerves of neutrals somehow shredded, it could be the greatest final of all time.
Messi – who else? – confidently dispatched an early penalty to give Argentina a 1-0 lead. Ángel Di María slotted past Hugo Lloris after a lovely move that was set up by Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister.
At half-time, Argentina were 2-0 up and looked reasonably comfortable. The talk of a virus in the French camp looked evident on the pitch, the champions were sluggish, and a way back didn’t appear likely.
In the 80th minute, clumsy defending from Nicolás Otamendi lead to a penalty being awarded to France. Mbappé made no mistake. They were back in this game.
A minute later, there was another twist in the tale. Marcus Thuram teed up Mbappé who expertly volleyed home the equaliser. France’s talisman made it look easy, but with that pressure, that angle, it was majestic to see.
With the full-time whistle blown and things all square, what theatre could extra time bring? Plenty, as it happens. In the 108th minute, Messi put his side ahead. But VAR threatened to rule it out, thankfully for Lionel Scaloni’s side, the goal would stand.
A moment of madness gifted France a late lifeline. A handball from Gonzalo Montiel gave Mbappé the chance to etch himself into history with a hattrick in the final – and he did so with assurance.
Each side had two more chances to win the game. A superb save from Emiliano Martínez denied Muani the chance to win the trophy for France. Almost immediately, Lautaro Martínez headed wide at the other end of the pitch.
An Epic Encounter
It would have taken something special to top the quarter-final fixture between Argentina and the Netherlands. This final exceeded that. A penalty shootout would decide the victor.
Kingsley Coman and Aurélien Tchouaméni missed their spot kicks. After conceding a penalty, Montiel had the opportunity to redeem himself in the best possible way, by scoring the winning penalty. He obliged. Argentina are champions of the world!
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JD Football | November 21, 2023