It was a job so comprehensive, so thoroughly performed to the letter, that France’s players converted it to song. “N’Golo Kanté, he’s short, he’s nice, he shut down Leo Messi but we all know he’s a cheater,” went the lyrics after their midfielder, detailed to smother Argentina’s No 10 in Kazan four years ago, barely allowed him a sniff.
Messi was given little more than an assist for Sergio Agüero’s late consolation; he would finish the afternoon gazing at his feet and suspecting a dream had gone up in smoke, while France sailed through to the quarter-finals and far 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 will need a joker of their own at the World Cup final, because their tried and tested recipe for success is unavailable. This time France have gone all the way without an injured Kanté and it has not always been convincing. When Messi, whose last fling at this level has comfortably been his best, awaits at Lusail on Sunday they must find a similarly effective solution.
That is not lost on France’s players, especially those such as Olivier Giroud, who saw everything close up at that last meeting. Their celebrations upon pulling through against Morocco on Wednesday were, publicly at least, low-key because they knew what lay ahead. Like Argentina, they are a team of moments rather than sustained spells of coherence and control. Someone other than Kanté needs to make sure Messi is denied scope to spring his side into life.
“I remember in 2018, N’Golo was on his back, behind him, all of the game,” said Giroud, showing unprompted recall when the topic came his way. “But this time I don’t know what the plan will be. We will see with the manager.”
Didier Deschamps has three days to find one. “He had a very precise role,” the manager said of Kanté after the spoiling job in Tatarstan. “It is true that we didn’t really see much of Lionel Messi when he played against us.”
Messi drifts even more freely, more lightly, around the pitch nowadays; he has a habit of standing in seemingly dead space before attracting the play. The ball will find him, that much is certain. The key lies in limiting those moments and denying him oxygen when it comes his way. If it was so easy, everyone would do it.
Sometimes you can put your best defender, and perhaps the tournament’s, in his path and still be pulled apart. Croatia and Josko Gvardiol discovered that on Tuesday. A functioning midfield will give France their best hope, though, and Aurélien Tchouaméni has admirably bridged the Kanté-Paul Pogba gap over the past month. A first-half burst through Morocco’s lines, almost resulting in a goal for Giroud or Kylian Mbappé, was among their most pulse-raising moments but life was not always easy against slick and mobile opposition.
“It’s both,” Tchouaméni said when asked which of the absentees’ roles he occupies. “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 between those. We try to do our best to help the team in the middle of the pitch. I think we’ve done a great job.”
If Adrien Rabiot is fit for the final then perhaps Tchouaméni will attempt more of a devoted screening job. All the same, Deschamps may prefer to pass the responsibility for Messi around this time rather than allocate one captor. It helps that Antoine Griezmann, much more than a No 10, has been France’s everywhere man. In the 31-year-old they have an advanced, remodelled midfielder who has shown he can slot in to bolster the pair behind while marshalling the space in front. Messi may not be able to drop as deep as he would like to get Argentina moving if Griezmann is snapping away.
“We are not going to let him enjoy the best night he can have,” Giroud said. “We want to win another World Cup. We will try everything to stop him.” It will take knowhow.
Giroud pointed out that France’s younger players, such as Tchouaméni and Tchouaméni’s former Monaco teammate Youssouf Fofana, have the benefit of a senior core who know exactly what a winning campaign takes. The older generation set an example from the front. During the first half against Morocco, the veteran centre-forward Giroud trailed the influential holding midfielder Sofyan Amrabat so diligently that his opponent said: “Just stop!” The sense is that a collective effort presents the best hope of nullifying Messi.
But sometimes, as Kanté knows all too well, you can play your cheat card. The 4-3 thriller in 2018 was equally notable as a watershed moment for Mbappé, who was unplayable in scoring twice and winning a penalty. It was logical to think the baton of greatness had been handed to the younger man. As it turns out, the Paris Saint-Germain teammates more or less share it now. For all the talk, the best answer to Messi might be a similar exhibition from France’s biggest hope.
Mbappé was asked, as he paced through Al Bayt Stadium’s underbelly, for his thoughts about playing in another final. “Really excited,” was his succinct offering. France must ensure the thrills arise in his realm and not that of the legend he stands to usurp.