IIt was such a complete work, so carefully executed to the letter, that French musicians converted it into song. “N’Golo Kanté, he’s short, he’s nice, he shut down Leo Messi but we all know he’s a cheater,” said the text after their midfielder, tasked with stifling the Argentina number 10 in Kazan four years ago, told him he had just allowed a sniff.
Messi had just over an assist for Sergio Agüero’s late consolation; he ended the afternoon looking at his feet and suspecting that a dream had gone up in smoke, while France sailed to the quarterfinals and well beyond.
The reference to deception? Kanté’s teammates had a running gag, not entirely based on fiction as he later admitted, that he cheated at cards. But they’ll need a wildcard of their own at the World Cup Final, because their proven recipe for success isn’t available. This time France went all the way without an injured Kanté and were not always convincing. When Messi, whose latest venture at this level was arguably his best, awaits in Lusail on Sunday, they must come up with an equally effective solution.
This is not lost on France players, especially those like Olivier Giroud, who saw it all up close in that last encounter. Their celebrations on Wednesday after overcoming Morocco against Morocco were, at least publicly, low-key because they knew what awaited them. Like Argentina, they are a team of moments rather than sustained spells of consistency and control. Someone other than Kanté must ensure that Messi is denied the chance to start his own team.
“I remember in 2018, N’Golo was on his back, behind him, the whole game,” Giroud said, showing a spontaneous recall when the topic came his way. “But this time I don’t know what the plan will be. We’ll see with the coach.”
Didier Deschamps has three days to find one. “He had a very specific role,” said Kanté’s coach after the ruined job in Tatarstan. “It’s true that we didn’t see much of Lionel Messi when he played against us.”
Messi moves even more freely, lighter, on the pitch nowadays; he has a habit of standing in a seemingly dead space before drawing game. The ball will find it, that’s for sure. The key is limiting those moments and denying him oxygen when he happens to. If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it.
Sometimes you can put your best defender, and possibly the one in the tournament, in his way and still be blown to shreds. Croatia and Josko Gvardiol found out on Tuesday. However, a functioning midfield will give France their best hopes and Aurélien Tchouaméni has bridged the Kanté-Paul Pogba gap admirably over the past month. A first-half raid between the lines for Morocco, which came close to scoring from Giroud or Kylian Mbappé, was one of the most emotional moments, but life wasn’t always easy against skilled and mobile opponents.
“It’s both,” said Tchouaméni when asked which of the absentee roles he fills. “Sometimes it’s to recover some balls and sometimes I have the opportunity to score a goal like the last game [against England], or today with almost assists. It’s a mix of those. We try to do our best to help the team in midfield. I think we did a great job.”
If Adrien Rabiot is ready for the final, perhaps Tchouaméni will attempt more devoted screening work. However, Deschamps may prefer to shift responsibility for Messi around this time rather than assign a kidnapper. It helps that Antoine Griezmann, much more than a number 10, was France’s man everywhere. In the 31-year-old they have an advanced, remodeled midfielder who has shown he can cut in to strengthen the pair behind as he organizes space up front. Messi may not be able to go as deep as he would like Argentina to move if Griezmann is pulling away.
“We won’t let him have the best night he can have,” Giroud said. “We want to win another World Cup. We will do everything to stop it”. It will take know-how.
Giroud stressed that France’s younger players, such as Tchouaméni and Tchouaméni’s former Monaco team-mate Youssouf Fofana, have the advantage of a senior core who know exactly what a winning season requires. The older generation set an example from the front. During the first half against Morocco, veteran centre-forward Giroud so diligently followed influential midfielder Sofyan Amrabat that his opponent said: “Enough!” The feeling is that a collective effort presents the best hope of undoing Messi.
But sometimes, as Kanté knows all too well, you can play your cheat card. The 2018 4-3 thriller was equally notable as a turning point for Mbappé, who was unplayable by scoring twice and grabbing a penalty. It was logical to think that the baton of greatness had passed to the young man. Apparently, the Paris Saint-Germain teammates more or less share it now. For all the talk, the best response to Messi may be a similar display from France’s greatest hope.
Mbappé was asked, as he walked through the underbelly of Al Bayt Stadium, what he thought about playing in another final. “Really excited,” was his succinct offer. France must ensure that the creeps arise in his realm and not in that of the legend he is about to usurp.