Shropshire Star

Emi Martinez's mind games help win the greatest of games

When arguably the greatest World Cup final of all-time went to penalties, it was Villa’s goalkeeper who took control.

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Just as he had in Argentina’s quarter-final win over the Netherlands, Emi Martinez proved the master of the shootout, saving from Kingsley Coman and then contributing to Aurelian Tchouameni putting his effort wide through sheer mind games.

That set up Gonzalo Montiel to stroke home the winning penalty with a coolness removed from the madness which had come before.

For the thick end of 80 minutes this had been a procession for Argentina, who led 2-0 inside 35 minutes. Then suddenly, it was an all-time classic, Kylian Mbappe scoring twice inside the space of 97 seconds to bring France level.

From then on the scripts kept getting ripped up as quickly as they were written. Lionel Messi looked to have scored the winner and cemented his legacy with a poacher’s goal 10 minutes from the end of extra-time, only for Mbappe to level again from the spot and become the first player since Geoff Hurst to score a World Cup final hat-trick.

It could have ended before a shootout but Martinez brilliantly denied Randal Kolo Muani when the French forward went through, before with seconds remaining Lautaro Martinez planted a free header wide.

Messi and Mbappe will take the majority of the headlines and understandably so. The greatest player of his era – perhaps ever – and the man who may be the finest of the next generation both delivered on the grandest stage. To four Champions League titles and the Copa America, Messi can now add the most precious crown of all. He has finally emulated his idol, Diego Maradona. There were some echoes of 1986 here too, with Argentina once more triumphing after letting slip a two-goal advantage.

But it was not done alone and this brilliant spectacle owed everything to the supporting cast on both sides.

Not least Angel Di Maria, finally fit enough to start after a tournament where he has been hampered by a hamstring injury, who won the penalty from which Messi opened the scoring and then put the finishing touches on a goal for the ages to double the lead. Substituted just past the hour mark, Di Maria then came to symbolise every Argentinian around the world, watching on helplessly from the bench as what looked like a comfortable victory became the ultimate exercise in torment.

Mbappe was France’s clear talisman, his second goal rivalling Di Maria’s for the best of the tournament. But the fightback was actually sparked by Kolo Muani getting behind Nicolas Otamendi before being pulled down to win his team’s first penalty. Fellow substitute Kingsley Coman then robbed Messi, no less, to start the move for the equaliser. Coman was excellent and it was cruel he missed in the shootout. Sometimes when matches are this good it seems a shame there must be a loser.

Though Messi had dominated so much of the build-up, the opportunity to make history actually rested most with France, who had the chance to become only the second World Cup winners – and the first since Brazil in 1962 – to successfully defend their title.

Both Kylian Mbappe and Didier Deschamps had the chance to match Pele, the former as the second player to win two World Cups by the age of 23, the latter by claiming a third winners’ medal.

Neither looked likely when Argentina dominated the first 78 minutes and those watching wondered whether the virus which had swept through the French camp in the past week was responsible for their sluggish performance. Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, two of their stars of the tournament, had already been removed from the fray – the latter with just 40 minutes on the clock.

Then Kolo Muani went down, Mbappe scored from the spot and from then on the game was anyone’s. When the dust finally settled it was Martinez, Messi and Argentina who were left standing.