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Ligue 1

Re-ranking the World Cup field entering the knockout stage

With an epic World Cup group stage in the rearview, it’s time to take stock heading into the knockout rounds. After sizing up the field ahead of the tournament, here’s how we think the 16 remaining title hopefuls stack up going into the next phase of the competition.

1. France ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 4

Don’t allow the 1-0 loss to Tunisia to cloud your judgment. Didier Deschamps made nine changes to his preferred starting lineup for that game, rested his biggest stars, and made Eduardo Camavinga play an unfamiliar left-back role. We won’t see any of that again. Of the teams remaining, France compiled the best expected goal difference in the group stage. Led by the irrepressible Kylian Mbappe, the reigning champion can run over anyone.

2. Brazil ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 1

The uncertainty over Neymar’s status is a big concern here. It remains unclear if he’ll play again in the tournament. Brazil is talented enough to weather his absence to a point. But against elite opposition, it creates problems when you don’t have the player around which your entire system is built. For all the attacking riches Tite has, nobody can replicate what Neymar provides. It’s too late in the game to alter the entire approach. To win the World Cup, Brazil needs Neymar.

3. Argentina ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 2

Argentina recovered nicely after a shock to the system in its opener against Saudi Arabia. The team hasn’t quite replicated the fluidity in Qatar that we saw during its 36-match unbeaten run. However, Argentina seemed to really find its groove against Poland in the group finale, which offers plenty of encouragement for the Albiceleste’s prospects going forward. Lionel Messi’s dream of capturing the elusive golden trophy remains very much alive.

4. Spain ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 3

Spain is the most difficult team in the tournament to evaluate. No side can look totally dominant one minute and then crumble when its possession game gets disrupted the next. The tiki-taka approach that has been so fruitful for La Roja sometimes backfires. Luis Enrique still isn’t completely decided on his best lineup. And Alvaro Morata, despite his group stage goals, doesn’t always convince up front. Despite all that, Spain hits highs few others can reach.

5. England ?gbeng

Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Pre-tournament Rank: 8

A rip-roaring win to open the tournament gave way to a turgid display in England’s second match. That’s all it took for the familiar questions about Gareth Southgate’s managerial skills to come flooding back. He quieted the critics, to some extent, by making changes that the country was clamoring for – namely by introducing Phil Foden – in the group finale. Southgate now has to ensure he gets his lineup selections correct the rest of the way.

6. Japan ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 25

No team exceeded expectations in the group stage like Japan. Pitted against Spain and Germany, most tipped the Samurai Blue – us included! – to put forth a good effort but ultimately fall short against the European heavyweights. Instead, they beat them both. In comeback fashion, no less. Hajime Moriyasu’s substitutions have been masterful in this tournament, helping turn the tide in the two upset wins. Japan is never out of any match.

7. Morocco ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 20

Speaking of shocking the world. With its solid foundation at the back, spirited midfield, and unpredictable wide attackers, Morocco was the deserved winner of Group F after shutting down Croatia and outplaying – and beating – Belgium. The Atlas Lions are arguably the most organized outfit in Qatar. That’s quite the accomplishment considering Morocco appointed manager Walid Regragui in the summer, just months before the World Cup.

8. Portugal ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 7

Portugal has been wholly unconvincing thus far. Its expected goal difference of plus-0.7 is decidedly average, which is probably the best way to describe a team that, at the moment, is less than the sum of its parts. Cristiano Ronaldo has looked slightly off the pace, and that’s having a knock-on effect. Despite Bruno Fernandes’ best efforts to lift his squad, Portugal hasn’t hit its stride and failed to convince in wins over Ghana and Uruguay.

9. Netherlands ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 10

If it weren’t for Cody Gakpo, the Netherlands might not have even made it out of Group A, never mind topping the quartet. But Louis van Gaal, in a feisty mood since arriving in Qatar, appeared to discover a solution to the Oranje’s malaise in the final group match; Introducing Marten de Roon at the base of midfield liberated Frenkie de Jong. For the Dutch to succeed, De Jong needs that same freedom to push forward in the knockout round.

10. United States ??

GLYN KIRK / AFP / Getty

Pre-tournament Rank: 18

There’s a sense that something special could be brewing with this zestful group of American players. The United States, which dodged a bullet when Christian Pulisic avoided serious injury while scoring the winning goal against Iran, is riding a wave of positivity heading into the knockout stage. Gregg Berhalter’s youthful team plays with gusto, and that enthusiasm is infectious. Is it enough to unsettle and upset more seasoned opponents?

11. Croatia ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 13

Croatia created nothing of note in its opener against Morocco. It overwhelmed an overmatched Canadian squad in the following game. And then the team had Romelu Lukaku’s woeful finishing to thank for a fortuitous goalless draw against Belgium that extended the stay in Qatar for Zlatko Dalic’s squad. It’s all been a bit uneven and inconsistent. But it’s hard to overlook that majestic midfield trio who can take over a match at any moment.

12. Switzerland ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 14

Solid but unspectacular for so long, Switzerland showed more pizzazz in its group finale against Serbia. Remo Freuler’s match-winning goal in the contest was a sumptuous move that wouldn’t have looked out of place were it produced by Brazil or France. Breel Embolo has come into his own during the tournament, leading the Swiss attack in a way he hasn’t done before. The Swiss, as always, are capable of pulling off an upset in the knockout stage.

13. Senegal ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 11

When the chips were down and Senegal needed a result to march on, the Lions of Teranga delivered their best performance of the group stage to beat Ecuador. In the absence of star forward Sadio Mane, Aliou Cisse’s team has adopted an egalitarian approach to offense. Five different players have scored Senegal’s five goals in the tournament. The most important of those came from captain Kalidou Koulibaly, who has been immense thus far.

14. South Korea ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 23

With his country on the verge of a narrow World Cup exit, Son Heung-Min stepped up to help author an indelible moment for South Korea. With time running down and several Portuguese defenders in his way, he slipped a perfect ball through to Hwang Hee-chan, who did the rest. Euphoria. As stakes get higher, tournament games tend to get scrappier and tighter. Having a star like Son who can conjure up something special is vital in that setting.

15. Poland ??

Lars Baron / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Pre-tournament Rank: 16

That showing against Argentina left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Despite boasting one of the most prolific scorers in history, Poland was unwilling to support Robert Lewandowski and take any risks in attack. The Poles are indebted to Wojciech Szczesny, whose monumental performances between the sticks are the only reason the team escaped the group stage. Poland’s run won’t last very long using the same unadventurous approach.

16. Australia ??

Pre-tournament Rank: 27

“How far can vibes carry a World Cup team?” That was the question we asked of Australia ahead of the tournament. Turns out, vibes can get you to at least the last 16! The Socceroos delivered an excellent performance against Denmark to get out of Group D, and Graham Arnold’s industrious outfit is now playing with house money. The pressure is off for Australia. How much further can the good vibes take Arnold and his men?

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Ligue 1

Team of the tournament: Best XI at 2022 World Cup

With the 2022 World Cup coming to an end, theScore assembles the competition’s best lineup with the tournament’s top-performing stars.

Emiliano Martinez ??

Whenever Argentina needed him, he was there. That statement is true of Lionel Messi, of course, but it also applies to Martinez, who rescued his team on multiple occasions en route to winning the World Cup. When Australia had a chance to equalize in the last 16, Martinez stood tall. When the Netherlands threatened to complete an improbable comeback in a shootout, Martinez stepped up. And when France had a golden opportunity to rip the title away in the final with almost the last kick of extra time, Martinez was there, making one of the biggest saves in tournament history.

Honorable mention: Dominik Livakovic (Croatia)

Theo Hernandez ??

Hernandez made his World Cup debut when Lucas, his older brother, tore his ACL. Lucas suffered the injury on the play that led to Australia’s shocking opener against France, leaving Theo as the obvious replacement at the left-back position. Theo wasted no time, needing just 14 minutes to set up the equalizer, and spent the rest of that 4-1 win commanding that left flank. Theo consolidated his place in the starting lineup, and after conceding a cheap penalty in the quarterfinals, the AC Milan full-back recovered to score early in the semifinal against Morocco.

Honorable mention: Aziz Behich (Australia)

Josko Gvardiol ??

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

Gvardiol already reads the game like a grizzled veteran at the age of 20, and his intimidating physicality – he’s broad-shouldered, 6-foot-1, and a fierce competitor – is paired with supreme ability with the ball at his feet. Only France’s Aurelien Tchouameni produced more interceptions at the World Cup than Gvardiol, and the defender ranked third for total passes by a Croatian behind Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric. RB Leipzig were already demanding a huge transfer fee for Gvardiol, but his price tag has skyrocketed courtesy of his authoritative showings in Zlatko Dalic’s backline.

Honorable mention: Nathan Ake (Netherlands)

Nicolas Otamendi ??

Only two outfield players featured in every single minute of Argentina’s victorious World Cup campaign. You can probably guess the first one, but Otamendi likely wouldn’t immediately come to mind as the other. The veteran defender, 34, was ever-present for Lionel Scaloni’s team, anchoring a rugged backline in what was likely his final World Cup. Once a rash and undisciplined player susceptible to glaring mistakes, Otamendi was the most tranquil of Argentina’s defenders in Qatar, trading in wild tackles for well-timed interceptions that helped the Albiceleste get on the front foot.

Honorable mention: Harry Maguire (England)

Achraf Hakimi ??

Hakimi’s lung-busting runs down the right usually draw the most attention, but he was a defensive rock in Qatar. He led the tournament with 26 completed tackles and produced the third-most interceptions by a defender (nine). That’s not to write off his work as unadventurous: He attempted 15 dribbles and was Morocco’s second-most creative player with six key passes. The 24-year-old’s confidence was overflowing as one of Morocco’s main men, and he cheekily downed Spain – where he was born and raised – with a Panenka penalty to conclude the shootout in the round of 16.

Honorable mention: Josip Juranovic (Croatia)

Sofyan Amrabat ??

Martin Rickett – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Morocco asked Amrabat to do a bit of everything, and every time, he delivered. The 26-year-old breathed down the necks of his opponents and negotiated ways out of danger without breaking a sweat. His stock rose further as Morocco beat Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, displaying to a wider audience what many in Italy had already gathered. Rarely putting a foot wrong, the Fiorentina midfielder ended the tournament with just one yellow card to his name, a worthwhile achievement for a player who found himself in the trenches for seven matches.

Honorable mention: Enzo Fernandez (Argentina)

Luka Modric ??

Modric seemed human in the round of 16. With 99 minutes gone in Croatia’s meeting with Japan, the fleet-footed midfielder was clearly fatigued when he was substituted. At 37, that’s to be expected. But from nowhere, Modric found extra energy reserves for the knockout matches against Brazil and Argentina, seeming omnipresent while he swept up defensively and created chances at the other end. In what was likely his last World Cup appearance, the Real Madrid star reminded everybody why he’s one of the greatest midfielders of all time while playing 656 out of a possible 690 minutes.

Honorable mention: Jude Bellingham (England)

Antoine Griezmann ??

When France lost N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba to injury, head coach Didier Deschamps turned to Griezmann. He knew the star center-forward could handle the workload in midfield. Few players have ever been as reliable to a single cause: Griezmann’s played in each of France’s last 73 matches, and he’s filled various roles in the five-and-a-half years since his streak began. France wouldn’t have made as deep of a run in Qatar without Griezmann’s work rate, off-the-ball movement, and defensive awareness.

Honorable mention: Bruno Fernandes (Portugal)

Kylian Mbappe ??

Catherine Ivill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Nobody was more electrifying during the World Cup than Mbappe. France had no business pushing the final against Argentina to extra time, let alone a shootout, but the insatiable forward took it upon himself to will Les Bleus to within a whisker of successive titles. His 97-second brace, even in a losing cause, will live long in the memory. The Golden Boot winner with eight goals, including his remarkable hat-trick in the final, Mbappe has now found the net 12 times in just two tournaments. He turns 24 tomorrow. The men’s all-time World Cup scoring record is in serious jeopardy.

Honorable mention: Richarlison (Brazil)

Julian Alvarez ??

Prior to the World Cup, Alvarez was tipped to blossom into a superstar for Argentina. It just wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly at this tournament. With Lautaro Martinez struggling, the 22-year-old was thrust into the spotlight. He excelled in the role, scoring four goals in five starts and, crucially, doing huge amounts of work off the ball to both win possession back and free up space for his teammates. His youthful zest was vital to Argentina’s success. Messi himself said Alvarez’s impact on the team was “absolutely spectacular.” Looking back now, it’s impossible to picture Argentina without him.

Honorable mention: Olivier Giroud (France)

Lionel Messi ??

Save the best – of the tournament and of all time – for last. Messi dazzled all month long in Qatar, but as the matches grew in significance, his performances followed suit. The Golden Ball winner always rose to the occasion. He got Argentina back on track in the group stage, scored in every knockout round – including twice in the final – and, in the tensest possible moment, his nonchalant penalty helped kick off the shootout against France and calm his team’s jangling nerves. His seven goals were second only to Mbappe, and nobody had more assists. A brilliant artist’s finest work.

Honorable mention: Cody Gakpo (Netherlands)

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Ligue 1

Even in a World Cup of twists and turns, it came down to Messi and Mbappe

As Sunday’s World Cup final entered the final half hour of regular time, the partisan crowd at Lusail Stadium began to sing ballads. Argentina moved the ball with alarming ease, and 40,000 or so of its compatriots in the stands coronated each pass. “Ole,” they chanted as their heroes completed attempt after attempt. “Ole, ole, ole.”

Up until that final half hour, France had failed to record a single shot on target. It had barely made a foray into Argentina’s penalty area. The flu virus that had afflicted the French in the days before the final seemed to have sapped all of their energy. Argentina’s 2-0 lead seemed as secure as anything ever recorded in history.

Except it wasn’t. The essence of this tournament was about to be revealed.

All it took was a turnover, a hopeful pass forward, and a run-in behind defender Nicolas Otamendi for Randal Kolo Muani, one of France’s speculative substitutes, to win a penalty in the 79th minute. That set into motion the most spectacular game of football ever played in a World Cup final.

Everything changed the moment Kylian Mbappe converted that penalty. Momentum swung violently the other way, and suddenly France seemed like the clear favorite to win. Mbappe equalized 97 seconds later, leaving Argentina wobbling on the canvas. A routine affair became a dog fight.

The World Cup had to end the way it started: amidst absolute chaos. The only thing that stayed on script Sunday was the fact that it went off it. These 28 days in Qatar proved that the best don’t always win, and that moments make champions, not necessarily talent alone. If something could happen, it did.

Saudi Arabia scored twice against Argentina to win a match in which it was expected to score 0.1 goals. Japan overcame 1-0 deficits to defeat both Germany and Spain. Morocco ousted Belgium, Spain, and Portugal with a ragtag ensemble and a coach who’d only taken the reins three months prior. No amount of backroom scheming and tactical planning could legislate for any of that. It just kind of happened.

FADEL SENNA / AFP / Getty

Didier Deschamps’ team was a case study in improvisation. It started the tournament without six of its starters, including Karim Benzema, who won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s greatest player weeks before kickoff. France needed Harry Kane to miss the second of two penalties to have a chance of advancing from the quarterfinals, and it needed several players, including starters Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano, to recover from a flu bug in time to log significant minutes in the final.

The French also needed Olivier Giroud, for so long considered a liability by his own people, to convert the few chances that fell his way, and they needed Antoine Griezmann, a center-forward by trade, to sacrifice himself in midfield.

But two constants emerged amidst the wreckage. Argentina had Lionel Messi, and France had Mbappe. As the tournament cycled through the rounds, as the teams trudged toward the promised land, these two became more and more integral to this twisting tale. A certain air of invincibility followed them.

Messi and Mbappe were the heavyweights of the competition but also anomalies, putting all the tournament’s unsung heroes back in their place. No matter how close Argentina cut it, Messi always seemed the likeliest to determine its fate. No matter how desperate France had become, Mbappe always seemed to have a solution.

Messi didn’t just score, he created, and he took on defenders like it was 2017, turning Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol – the World Cup’s standout center-back – inside out with the same craftiness that turned Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng into a meme years ago. Mbappe ran like a gazelle, probed for openings, and found space even as multiple defenders descended on him with growling menace. Then, as one does, Mbappe went and scored a hat-trick in the World Cup final. Not even Pele could manage such a feat.

Messi and Mbappe remained fixtures as the World Cup became more and more of a wild card. The most important game of a tournament of seemingly unyielding vagary came down to the sport’s two main characters: the greatest of all time, and the potentially soon-to-be greatest.

Even when things that should’ve happened didn’t actually happen, Messi and Mbappe delivered as expected. Little else went according to plan. No one expected Morocco to fly the flag for Africa or Brazil to lose to Croatia in the quarterfinals. No one suspected a thing when the “oles” broke out Sunday, when Argentina’s traveling contingent swayed in the stands with a 2-0 lead and chanted with absolute glee.

Just as nothing made sense, Messi and Mbappe did. They scored five of the six goals in the final and converted the first of their penalty kicks. They did everything they were supposed to do. And the World Cup of twists and turns had the only ending anyone had ever expected.

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Ligue 1

3 thoughts from Argentina's win over France in legendary World Cup final

How do we make sense of such bedlam?

Lionel Messi almost led Argentina to World Cup glory in normal time – and then in extra time – but Sunday’s gripping final ended 3-3 after 120 minutes before the South Americans finally edged France on penalties.

Kylian Mbappe notched a hat-trick and struck a successful spot-kick in the shootout, but his clinical and mature display wasn’t enough to earn the superstar his second World Cup winners’ medal.

Here are three takeaways from an unforgettable final to conclude the 2022 World Cup:

Di Maria wreaks havoc

Discussions around Jules Kounde during the tournament indicated the right-back slot was completely alien to him. It seemed an awkward fix – something akin to solving an antique dining table’s wobble with a few soggy beer mats under a leg.

But that wasn’t strictly true given the minutes Kounde spent in that position for Julen Lopetegui at Sevilla and now Xavi at Barcelona. He’s not a novice at full-back. But it is reasonable to suggest he’s significantly better at center-back. In hindsight, perhaps Benjamin Pavard – a more dependable player on the right of a back-four – would have been the better choice in that role.

Angel Di Maria taunted Kounde in the first half. The Frenchman distractedly glanced over at midfield runners while Di Maria jinked his way down the flank and, at one point, desperately dragged the winger down after being beaten. Kounde was overwhelmed – his head muddled by the decisions he faced and his body knotted by the 34-year-old wideman’s footwork. And no one stepped up to help their bewildered teammate.

Kounde was caught in a narrow position for the move that led to Argentina’s penalty. His preoccupation with Argentina’s forward-thinking midfielders and Julian Alvarez meant Di Maria only had Ousmane Dembele to beat, and his chop created the space to carve out a route into the box before Dembele clipped his heels.

Messi made no mistake from 12 yards.

Kounde wasn’t part of France’s attack before Argentina’s second goal, so he should have been well-placed to deal with the Albiceleste’s speedy transition. But Dayot Upamecano was caught high up the pitch while Raphael Varane tried to engage with Messi, forcing Kounde to leave his position and close down goal-bound Alexis Mac Allister. Mac Allister then rolled an inviting pass to an unoccupied Di Maria for one of the finest goals of the 2022 World Cup.

To France’s relief, Di Maria only lasted a little over an hour before being substituted for Marcos Acuna. Di Maria – now a scorer in the finals of the 2008 Olympics, 2021 Copa America, 2022 Finalissima, and the 2022 World Cup – could have helped put the match out of reach if he was fully fit – or just younger.

Messi, Mbappe put on a show

It was unavoidable in the buildup to the final. This was a battle between the master – perhaps the greatest player of all time – and a potential heir to his throne.

And how Messi and Mbappe delivered.

Here are some standout numbers following the superstars’ enthralling performances in a staggering final:

1 – At just 23, Mbappe is the top scorer in World Cup finals history with four goals.

2 – Messi is the second-oldest player to score in a World Cup final at 35 years and 177 days. Sweden’s Nils Liedholm converted against Brazil in the 1958 showpiece at 35 years and 264 days.

FRANCK FIFE / AFP / Getty

3 – Mbappe’s treble made him the second male player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Geoff Hurst previously stood alone with that record thanks to his legendary display in England’s 1966 triumph.

4 – Argentina’s No. 10 scored four penalties in Qatar (excluding the shootout against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals). Only Dutch winger Rob Rensenbrink in 1978 and Portuguese icon Eusebio in 1966 have tucked away that many spot-kicks in a single tournament.

7 – Messi had never scored a World Cup knockout goal until this month. He spread his seven goals at the 2022 edition across the group stage, last-16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final, meaning he’s the first player to score in each round of a single World Cup campaign.

8 – The last time a male player scored eight goals at a single World Cup was in 2002; Mbappe matched Ronaldo’s mark from Brazil’s success two decades ago.

10 – Messi and Mbappe both registered 10 goal involvements at the World Cup: Messi totaled seven goals and three assists, while Mbappe claimed eight strikes and two assists. The last player to reach that mark was Diego Maradona, who scored five and set up five during Argentina’s victorious 1986 campaign.

26 – Messi set a record with his 26th goal across his appearances on football’s biggest stage and his country’s continental competition. Brazil’s Ronaldo previously held the record with 25 goals scored at World Cup and Copa America outings.

100 – Messi’s second strike – and Argentina’s third – was his 100th career goal with his right foot.

A fitting end

Argentina was cruising, tapping the ball around the middle of the park to the soundtrack of “oles” from the crowd. The French players, chasing shadows around Lusail, appeared more tired than the annual debates over whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie or not.

It seemed to be a procession toward the trophy for the Albiceleste. So – naturally, for this tournament – the scene descended into blissful chaos.

From nowhere, Mbappe scored twice in 97 seconds – a penalty and a stunning lashed volley – to wipe out Argentina’s two-goal advantage by the 81st minute.

It’s impossible to ignore the atrocities that Qatar and FIFA tried to gloss over at this World Cup, including migrant worker deaths and abuses and the abhorrent treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in the Gulf state. But it’s also impossible to deny this was a marvelous tournament: There were surprise results -including, of course, Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina – several miraculous tournament runs highlighted by Morocco’s, and many other timeless individual and team performances.

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

The final kept up appearances. Mbappe’s quick-paced double salvo wasn’t even close to the peak of Sunday’s shock and suspense. Messi thought he’d won it when he scored in the 109th minute, but tears of happiness on the Argentine bench became tears of despair when Mbappe scored from the penalty spot following Gonzalo Montiel’s handball.

Even then, there was more drama to unfold. Randal Kolo Muani was inches from scoring the winner with his head, but that wasn’t his best late chance. The Eintracht Frankfurt forward was one-on-one with Emiliano Martinez in the 123rd minute, but his shot was spectacularly saved by Martinez’s foot; Lautaro Martinez then wastefully headed wide after one last sprint upfield from the Argentines.

It was breathless action to conclude a memorable World Cup, and Montiel’s game-winning penalty in the shootout tied a bow on one of the greatest matches in the old sport’s history.

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