There is perhaps no sporting debate that captures the imagination like that concerning the identity of football's greatest ever player.

The incredible goalscoring feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo put them at the centre of the discussion, but what about the greats of yesteryear? 

Does the cunning of Diego Maradona or the ingenuity of Johan Cruyff make one of them the best to have played the world's most popular sport?

The ultimate reference for all those iconic players, however, is Pele. The only player to have won three World Cups, the ultimate personification of "o jogo bonito".

With tributes flooding in after the Brazil icon passed away at the age of 82, Stats Perform delves into the Selecao star's incredible career, asking how it compares to those of the game's other greats.

Pele: The World Cup's finest

While any debate over the greatest player of all time will always be subjective, nobody can deny Pele his status as the ultimate World Cup legend.

His introduction to the global stage came at the 1958 tournament in Sweden, where Brazil exercised the demons of 1950 – when they lost the final on home soil to Uruguay in what became known as the "Maracanazo" – to clinch their first title.

A 17-year-old Pele missed Brazil's first two games at the tournament, but the Santos youngster quickly made the Selecao's number 10 shirt his own after coming in for a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union.

From there, he went from strength to strength, scoring his first World Cup goal against Wales before helping himself to a hat-trick against France in the semi-finals.

As Brazil overcame the hosts 5-2 in a thrilling final, Pele – at the age of 17 years and 249 days – scored twice. Only one other teenager has ever netted in a World Cup final – Kylian Mbappe in 2018.

 

As if one outstanding World Cup campaign was not enough, Pele was key to further Selecao triumphs in 1962 and 1970 – assuming a talismanic role in what many consider to be the greatest international team in history at the latter tournament.

Pele's tally of six assists in Mexico remains the highest tally recorded at a single World Cup since records began four years earlier, and his nonchalant lay-off for Carlos Alberto to finish off a flowing team move in Brazil's final win over Italy remains one of the most iconic moments in the tournament's history.

While modern-day detractors may point to Pele's failure to test himself in Europe, his incredible record on the grandest stage of all dictates that he is remembered among the very best, and there can be no doubt as to his unmatched World Cup legacy.

Johan Cruyff: The innovator

If Pele's legacy can be measured in World Cup accomplishments, Cruyff's must be examined in a very different way.

Cruyff's unbelievable tally of 36 chances created at the 1974 World Cup may be a single-tournament record, but it was not enough for the Netherlands to avoid the first of their three final defeats at the competition.

Eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one LaLiga triumph as a player does not exactly do justice to the career of football's great innovator, the man considered responsible for "total football" and by extension, every free-flowing Barcelona or Ajax team that has followed.

If Pele's is best remembered as the World Cup's greatest player, perhaps Cruyff deserves the title of football's finest pioneer.

Diego Maradona: The individualist 

No conversation about football's greatest could be complete without a mention of Maradona, the man who almost single-handedly carried Argentina to football's greatest prize with a perfect blend of skill and cunning.

Astonishingly, Maradona claimed five goals and five assists as Argentina won the 1986 World Cup – a feat no other player has accomplished since detailed data collection began in 1966.

Maradona's quarter-final brace against England, perhaps the most iconic double in history, encapsulated his on-pitch personality perfectly – a mischievous first goal being followed by a truly remarkable second.

Maradona's tendency to carry unfancied sides to success was replicated on the club stage, with his two Serie A triumphs with Napoli earning him a level of adulation that will perhaps never be matched.

A beaten finalist in 1990, not even El Diego could match Pele's World Cup exploits, but the Argentine carved out a reputation as football's finest individualist. 

 

Cristiano Ronaldo: The big-game player

Like Cruyff, neither of the final two players on our list have made their greatest impact at the World Cup, but the incredible goalscoring feats of Ronaldo ensure his place among the game's legends.

In the Champions League – arguably the true pinnacle of the modern game – no player can match Ronaldo's total of 140 goals.

Ronaldo – who scored his 700th goal in club football earlier this season – has also lifted the Champions League trophy on five occasions – a tally no other player has bettered.

The 37-year-old started off the 2022 World Cup by becoming the first male player to net in five different editions of the tournament, though he ultimately ended it in disappointment, making just 10 touches after coming on as a substitute in Portugal's quarter-final defeat to Morocco.

He has been the ultimate big-game player. Whether he is anymore is clearly up for debate. 

Lionel Messi: The Magician 

While some may prefer the efficiency and athleticism of Ronaldo, there is no sight in modern football as joyous as that of Messi slaloming through panicked defences.

Seven Ballon d'Or wins tells you all you need to know, Messi's army of fans may say, while Pep Guardiola's revolutionary Barcelona side – considered by many as the best team to ever take to the field – was built to accommodate the Argentine's incredible mix of elite finishing, dribbling and passing skills. 

 

Until the last two years, the only major blot on Messi's career was a perceived failure to replicate the feats of Maradona, with the expectations of the Argentinian public often seeming to weigh heavily upon the shoulders of the diminutive attacker.

However, having helped the Albiceleste end a 28-year wait to win the Copa America in 2021, Messi then contributed seven goals and three assists to mirror Maradona's achievement of leading Argentina to World Cup glory, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward's campaign in Qatar already regarded as one of the greatest in the tournament's rich history.

While the sight of Messi lifting the World Cup trophy at the Lusail Stadium caused some to declare any debate regarding football's greatest player to be over, the forward's age dictates he will not get the chance to equal Pele's feats on the game's grandest stage.

Everyone has a different opinion on what makes a player the greatest in history, be it their style, their goal record, or their impact on subsequent generations.

The role of football's greatest tournament will always be pivotal, however, and on that basis, Pele will always have a place among the legends of the game.

It may sound bizarre in practically every way, but the Premier League resumes on Boxing Day following its mid-season World Cup break.

Barely eight days on from the World Cup final in Qatar, England's top flight returns with no one able to afford a sluggish resumption.

Of course, much has changed since Premier League teams were last in action in early November, and in one respect nowhere is that truer than at Arsenal.

Although top of the table, the Gunners are now without the man that many felt was key in transforming their fortunes this season, with Gabriel Jesus facing a significant spell on the sidelines due to injury.

Their season resumes at home to West Ham on Monday, with all eyes on how well they adapt without the Brazilian.

Boxing Day omens

The festive period is usually fairly unpredictable due to the sheer number of games teams have to play in December. The circumstances are obviously a little different this year.

With that in mind, most players should be fairly fresh, even considering those midweek EFL Cup exploits.

Perhaps then Arsenal will be even more confident of continuing their excellent record on Boxing Day, having last lost at home on December 26 in 1987. That is a run of 13 games without defeat – the last 10 of those were victories.

West Ham's recent record couldn't be much more different, having won just one of their past eight Boxing Day games – home or away – with a defeat of Swansea City in Wales six years ago the exception.

Does form matter?

If we rewind to early November, Arsenal were flying.

They won each of their previous nine Premier League home games before the season's break, with six of those wins coming this season.

Victory on Monday would equal their longest winning home run from the start of a top-flight campaign after also winning their first seven in 1934-35, 2005-06 and 2017-18.

Arsenal won their last three league matches, including at Chelsea and at Wolves, by an aggregate score of 8-0; they have not won four in a row without conceding since May 2014.

And to top it all off, West Ham lost each of their three most recent games to leave them with 11 away losses for the calendar year, last losing as many as 12 back in 2013.

But those respective runs and streaks were last added to roughly six weeks ago, so how much will they really count for? Certainly, for West Ham, the only way is up.

Gunned down

Hammers boss David Moyes has a generally dreadful record against the so-called top six.

It's become a bit of a feature in the Premier League, and Monday's trip to Arsenal puts his record back in the spotlight.

He has lost more away games against Arsenal in all competitions than he has any other opponent (17).

Further to that, he has only faced Chelsea (23 matches) on the road more often without ever winning than he has the Gunners (21).

Can Moyes finally end his Arsenal hoodoo?

Nketiah looks to answer the call

Jesus' absence for Arsenal is more than just about a goals output.

The Brazilian's haul of five in 14 Premier League games this term is hardly the stuff of legend, but he has offered so much to Arsenal's general play, bringing an ability to conjure something out of nothing and giving them a feisty edge in attack.

Eddie Nketiah will likely be the one to profit from Jesus' absence in terms of first-team minutes. The two players are significantly different, but the young Englishman might argue he will bring more of a goal threat.

 

In his previous 10 starts across all competitions at Emirates Stadium, Nketiah has scored 10 goals from just 15 shots on target.

Before this run, Nketiah netted only three goals in his first 10 home starts for Arsenal.

No one expects him to fully replace Jesus' influence, but helping the Gunners kick-start the season again with a positive impact against West Ham could be the reassurance some Arsenal fans need while awaiting the Brazil forward's return.

France were above the clouds when the news came from Karim Benzema, and a thought came to mind: had he ever been more distant, figuratively or literally, from Les Bleus?

Retiring from international football at the age of 35 is the sort of thing that would not usually raise many eyebrows.

Yet Benzema's announcement, and its timing, caused a fresh quake, even as the tremors from Sunday's World Cup final were still being felt.

Why had it come the day after that momentous game? Was it coming today, win or lose yesterday? Why had Benzema interrupted his own birthday to release the news? Had he waited for the team flight to depart from Qatar before dropping his bombshell?

And why, almost above all, was the announcement so curt? Just 160 characters (in its original French format) to put the lid on a story of 97 caps and 37 goals for Les Bleus.

"I made the efforts and the mistakes it took to be where I am today and I'm proud of it! I have written my story and ours is ending," Benzema signed off.

He's taking the kids, the car and the dog, and the house is in his name, and he'll be back for his train set, don't you worry about that. Forget counselling, here's your divorce papers.

It felt like an entirely apt ending to what has been often an unhappy marriage between Benzema and the France national team.

There were 15 years and 77 days between his first and last caps, and his goals haul ranks fifth on the team's all-time list. He was man of the match against Spain in a Nations League final triumph last year, but it will be Benzema's near six-year absence from international duty that most likely defines him as a France player.

Because what else are you remembering? Sure, he was a starter at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, but France went out in the quarter-finals each time. And yes, there was certainly that Nations League win, but such a soupcon of success hardly satisfied Benzema's hunger for a proper platter.

He had been starved of the prospect of such a feed at Euro 2016, where France reached the final but lost out to Portugal, and again at the 2018 World Cup, where they beat Croatia in the final.

If it had come down to ability, Benzema would have been a part of those French feasts, but his exclusion from each squad, and his absence from national team service between the 4-0 win over Armenia on October 8, 2015, and the 3-0 victory against Wales on June 2, 2021, was not about Benzema's playing merits.

In November 2021, Benzema was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence and fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of Mathieu Valbuena, a former international team-mate, in a case dating back to June 2015.

He always denied the accusations, having been accused of helping four other men blackmail Valbuena over an intimate video that had been taken from Valbuena's mobile phone. The other four defendants were also found guilty.

France froze Benzema out before any court verdict, excluding him essentially from the point of the allegations coming to light almost until the moment the verdicts were delivered.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet announced in November 2019 that Benzema would never play for France again.

"Karim Benzema is a very good player, I've never cast his qualities into doubt," said Le Graet. "On the contrary, he shows at Real Madrid that he is one of the best players in his position. But the France adventure is over."

This story could have been so different. Benzema captained France during a friendly against Brazil in March 2015, and during his absence from the national team his trophy tally at Madrid stacked up spectacularly.

He was dramatically recalled in time for the delayed Euro 2020 finals, which were held last year, saying he felt "so proud" to be back, with Didier Deschamps noting there had been long discussions that opened that door. France then exited at the last-16 stage, despite Benzema making a positive contribution on the pitch.

And now, barely 18 months later, the door that was pushed ajar has closed, with Benzema this time doing the shutting down of his international career, rather than the FFF.

His final cap came in a 1-0 home defeat to Croatia in the Nations League, back in June. He should have figured in France's World Cup squad, but when he aggravated a thigh injury on the eve of the tournament it was announced he would play no part in the Qatar 2022 campaign.

Then, when rumours swirled that Benzema might make a comeback in time for the final, Deschamps quashed the prospect.

"That doesn't interest me," Benzema subsequently posted on Instagram, a somewhat cryptic message. You took what you wanted from that remark, but it was hardly a good-luck message to the squad ahead of the final against Argentina.

So what happened for it to end this way, with seemingly little love on either side?

Former France defender Eric Di Meco told RMC Sport: "For me, it is a huge mess. A guy who plays so much time at Real, so strong, who is a Ballon d'Or winner, and who has never been able to express himself in the France team.

"There is his responsibility, and it is good that he says that there are mistakes. But for me, it's a mess at the level of the France team."

France will survive this, of course. They should have Kylian Mbappe around for the next decade, rewriting the record books.

But it takes an expert, perhaps, to judge what France have lost with news of Benzema's retirement.

Zinedine Zidane, who might yet be the next France coach, and possibly sooner rather than later, was asked after a Real Madrid game in December 2020 whether he considered Benzema to be the greatest French forward of all time.

"As far as I'm concerned, yes, he is," Zidane said. "He's showing it with all he's achieving. He's been at Real Madrid for a long time, he's played over 500 games, the goals... Really, the trophies he's won speak for themselves.

"For me, he's the best there is, no doubt about it."

After Zidane left Madrid, Benzema's performances went to still greater heights, hitting 44 goals in 46 games for Madrid last season, lifting the Champions League and LaLiga trophies as captain.

High up in the skies on Monday, the retirement news probably reached Deschamps and the returning France squad.

Benzema's tale of 'here's what you could have won' has arrived at a sad denouement, with Deschamps surely guessing he would face press interrogation about the striker on landing in Paris. And in that respect, plus ca change.

Many thought Lionel Messi's World Cup hopes had evaporated in the Kazan sun four and a half years ago when Argentina were beaten 4-3 by France in the quarter-finals of Russia 2018.

Qatar 2022 brought the possibility for revenge, but again those chances looked to be vanishing as a Kylian Mbappe-inspired France simply refused to go away in Sunday's utterly enthralling final, which ended 3-3 after extra time.

But with Emiliano Martinez doing the business in a penalty shoot-out for the Albiceleste, Argentina would not let the most elusive of opportunities slip from Messi's grasp again.

As the story goes, he still has sleepless nights because of the 2014 final defeat to Germany; those nightmares will be overwritten with the 2022 final replaying in his dreams for the rest of his life.

After all, for Messi, everything came down to this.

He reiterated this week that Sunday's showpiece would be his last World Cup game. Everyone assumed that would be the case anyway, but the final confirmation only served to increase the anticipation.

This was essentially France against the world. There has arguably never been a World Cup final more one-sided in terms of support, and it was all because of one player.

For years the debate over the 'greatest of all time', or 'the GOAT', has swirled around Messi. While the majority have not needed any further convincing of his entitlement to such a status, there have always been dissenters.

Messi's detractors pointed to one caveat: a lack of success with Argentina. Technically, that was accounted for last year with Copa America glory, but for him to definitively silence the most stubborn of doubters, he would need to match Diego Maradona and win the World Cup.

Even before Argentina and Les Bleus served up their feast at the massive golden bowl of Lusail, there had been countless signs that something was different about Messi this time.

There has been an anger, a vengeance to his performances and aura in Qatar. From ice-cold goal celebrations to embracing – leading, even – the needle in the quarter-final shoot-out win over the Netherlands, Messi has looked like a man possessed by in the pursuit of one final ambition.

He very much picked up where he left off against Croatia here. The first 20 minutes went almost as well as it could have, Messi at the centre of practically everything.

France looked petrified in the face of Argentina's intensity, their aggression; the Albiceleste seemed to relish the expectation on their shoulders.

Les Bleus routinely conceded possession in their own half, inviting pressure and, ultimately, a goal. Angel Di Maria skinned Ousmane Dembele easily and then lured him into a clumsy foul in the box.

The wait for Messi to take the kick felt like an age, but he dispatched it with the nonchalance of a man who already knew his destiny.

It was a just reward for Argentina's ferocious start, and more was to come in the form of an instant all-time classic World Cup final goal.

Again, Messi was crucial. His improbable flick after receiving a tricky pass was devilishly effective. Releasing Julian Alvarez into the France half on the counter, the striker had the awareness to feed Alexis Mac Allister and his perfectly weighted pass into the box left Di Maria with an easy finish.

It capped off a first-half performance that left Didier Deschamps utterly shellshocked, with the France coach's double withdrawal before half-time a first for a World Cup final.

But Argentina shrunk after the break and their plan to sit on a 2-0 lead proved ill-conceived. France did not initially threaten, but once they did, Lionel Scaloni's men were suddenly in a sorry state – oh, how the tables turned.

Mbappe slammed home one penalty, and just 97 seconds later found the net again – a clinical finish after a clever one-two with Marcus Thuram. It was Messi who yielded possession in the build-up to what had only five minutes earlier looked an impossible equaliser.

While Mbappe had gone from 0-100 in the blink of an eye, Argentina's captain suddenly looked exhausted, physically and emotionally. It was slipping through his fingers in the most excruciating way. 

And yet, even in the face of the newly inspired Mbappe, Messi stood out as the man most likely to deliver the telling blow.

Indeed, Argentina thought Messi had won it when he tapped in after Hugo Lloris failed to hold Lautaro Martinez's strike in the second half of extra time.

But back came France. Again. Another Mbappe penalty brought despair to the Argentina team, bench and crowd. A shoot-out beckoned, and even then only after Emiliano Martinez had saved brilliantly from Randal Kolo Muani at the death.

And so it was that the most outrageous of World Cup finals was going all the way; Messi's last tango was going to be as agonisingly intense as possible.

Mbappe stepped up first and scored, of course, but Messi matched that with a penalty so cool-headed that his team-mates must surely have drawn inspiration from it.

Emiliano Martinez's save from Kingsley Coman and Aurelien Tchouameni's woeful miss proved decisive. Argentina cried; France stood in shock having come so close to their own seismic moment in history, fighting back twice in defence of their title, only to leave with nothing.

But this was all about Messi. The greatest player of all time finally got his chance to lift the most coveted prize in football, the one trophy his greatness demanded. Argentina flocked to him, barely a dry eye in the stadium.

"Messi! Messi! Messi!" fans sang at full-time as the huge crowd in Lusail revelled in the gravity of what they had just witnessed.

This was what World Cup finals are supposed to be like, but in virtually every way there will probably never be another like this.

It was the football equivalent of man setting foot on the moon for the first time; in future years people will reminisce over where they were when Messi won the World Cup, and the sheer lunacy of the game will only add to what was already a captivating tale.

At long last, Messi took his own giant leap, finally conquering his final frontier.

Gareth Southgate will stay on as England manager following a valiant World Cup exit to holders France, with the Three Lions boss set to lead his side through Euro 2024.

The news will undoubtedly please many and frustrate a few others, as the most successful man to lead the men's national team since Alf Ramsey sets his sights on a fourth major tournament.

Despite lacking tangible silverware for his efforts, no manager has come closer to success with them than Southgate for generations, with his side serving up plenty of highs and a handful of lows.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look over some of the defining moments of his tenure in charge – from breaking long-standing national hoodoos, to falling just short of all-time greatness.

Breaking the penalty curse

Heading into their first major tournament under Southgate, expectations were low for England. Dismal campaigns at Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016 were not forgotten, after a placid loss to Belgium wiped out a rout against Panama.

When Colombia stuck late in regular time to force a penalty shoot-out in the last 16, fans were braced for the worst. But Southgate bucked the trend – and put his own demons to rest – as his side held their nerve with a cathartic win on penalties.

Missing the mark in Moscow

Reaching the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time since 1990, England had transformed the goodwill of a nation back home, and Kieran Trippier's early free-kick gave them the perfect start.

But with an early lead on the board, Southgate's side slipped into defensive inertia rather than chase a second goal – and Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic subsequently struck to deliver the first heartbreak of his tenure.

Nailing the Nations League 

Grouped again with Croatia and a highly fancied Spain side for the inaugural Nations League campaign, England made a rough start, with defeat to La Roja and a draw against their former semi-final foes in 2018.

But a Raheem Sterling double in Seville saw them stun their hosts, before Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane struck late to deliver bedlam at Wembley against Croatia and take the Three Lions to the Finals.

A Dutch downer

But once at the Finals in Portugal, England failed to heed the lessons of Russia, and surrendered an early lead once more against the Netherlands as they lost in the semi-finals.

Though they beat Switzerland on penalties to finish third – and claim their first medal result of Southgate's time in charge – it marked a bittersweet end to what could have been a serious silverware shot.

Euro fever hits

In a pan-continental edition of the delayed 2020 European Championship, England were blessed with home advantage for the majority of their games – and with each successive result, they delivered a shot to Southgate's tenure.

The defensively minded approach of the manager, with a double-pivot in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, proved the perfect counter, and helped them reach the final, with a major win over old enemies Germany on the way.

Heartbreak against Italy

Forever the great "what-if" of the Southgate era, England headed into the final of Euro 2020 as marginal favourites, boosted by home advantage at Wembley and a Luke Shaw goal two minutes only strengthened their belief.

But across an ill-tempered encounter, Leonardo Bonucci's squeaky equaliser forced a shoot-out where the old ghosts reared their heads, as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed to hand Italy the crown.

Hungary like the wolf

On the back of a brilliant 2021, expectations were high as England entered a World Cup year, and they were favoured to do well in the latest Nations League iteration.

But a double loss to Hungary sunk their chances, and they were ultimately relegated from the top tier of the competition after struggles with Italy and Germany too – possibly the most humiliating moment of Southgate's tenure. 

An early bath in Qatar

With his reputation having been savaged in some quarters over 2022, it may seem weird to consider Qatar 2022 a high-water mark for Southgate – but the fact is it ranks among his most impressive tournament performances.

Incisive, attacking displays against Iran and Wales showcased his side's offensive nous, either side of a stalemate with the United States, as did a win over Senegal in the last 16.

While defeat to France in the quarter-finals was another great "what-if" moment, it marked the first England loss in a major tournament where they went down guns blazing. That points to a bright future – and Southgate may still be the man to harness it best.

Sunday's World Cup final will not be the first time Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi have met on this stage.

If the encounter at Lusail Stadium is half as good as the instant classic witnessed in Kazan four years ago, then we'll be in for a treat.

France won 4-3 in their last-16 duel, a game that was defined by Argentina's fragility and Les Bleus' ruthlessness.

Didier Deschamps' men of course went on to win the tournament; Argentina soon sacked Jorge Sampaoli and Lionel Messi went into a self-imposed international exile.

It was a seismic contest in a variety of ways.

Mbappe elevated to superstardom

The final of Qatar 2022 is of course being billed as Mbappe versus Messi. Ahead of their meeting in Kazan, this wasn't really the case, with the latter undoubtedly the focus for many.

But at full-time, there was almost a sense of this game being Mbappe's 'arrival' as a global superstar.

 

While his talent was already well known having joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, Mbappe's performance against Argentina brought his prodigious ability to a worldwide audience.

He was devastating.

Argentina couldn't handle his speed and ability on the ball, with Mbappe tearing the Albiceleste's slow – and high – back-line to shreds.

First, he darted through them, drawing a foul from Javier Mascherano that resulted in Antoine Griezmann striking the crossbar.

Then he just ran away from them, leaving Mascherano and company in his tracks before surging past Marcos Rojo and winning a penalty that Griezmann coolly slotted home.

It wasn't just about his speed, though. Twice he delivered the decisive touch.

 

Somehow making space for himself in the box, he slammed a left-footed strike through Franco Armani to open his account.

Then he rounded off one of the most memorable goals of the tournament. An intricate counter-attack led to Mbappe steaming up the right flank and latching on to Olivier Giroud's prodded pass before emphatically finding the bottom-left corner with a first-time effort.

It made him the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since Pele in 1958.

"When you are to meet a player like Kylian or Leo, of course you make a plan to control them," Sampaoli said. "But if they have a day like Mbappe did, it's very difficult to make the plan work."

Mbappe had truly arrived.

Messi engulfed by the gloom

Just as Mbappe provided an utterly terrifying glimpse of what he'd go on to become, it seemed Messi was on his way out.

Having recently turned 31, there was a perception this was Messi's last tango at the World Cup; after all, he had already retired from international football once before.

And, to be fair, his performance offered little in the way of a response to the idea that he was done.

He did get a couple of assists. The first wasn't exactly one for the highlights reel – it was a tame shot that hit Gabriel Mercado on its way in. Then, his deep cross found Sergio Aguero to head home late on, but Messi was missing the inner fire he's so clearly embraced in Qatar.

At the point of Mercado's fortunate goal, everything was looking quite positive for Argentina as it put them 2-1 up, but they simply weren't defensively sound enough to keep Les Bleus at bay.

 

Similarly, Messi was unable to shoulder the burden of individually inspiring a team that was essentially in crisis, with prominent reports of rifts and a player mutiny against the coaching staff.

Exile followed for Messi.

Lionel Scaloni was appointed – initially as caretaker head coach – in August 2018, with Messi's future unclear. He was left out of Scaloni's early squads, but after a nine-month absence he did eventually return.

He's not looked back. Messi led Argentina to their first major title in 28 years in 2021 as they won the Copa America, and he's been the key figure in the Albiceleste's route to the final of Qatar 2022.

But can he finally win the biggest title that's eluded him?

Eat my goal

There was more to the Kazan classic than just Mbappe and Messi, however.

A topsy-turvy encounter that encapsulated Argentina's roller-coaster campaign had almost everything: drama, engrossing wider narratives, incredible players and some outrageous goals.

Griezmann's penalty opened the scoring, but the match truly came alive with Angel Di Maria's equaliser.

Given space about 30 yards out, he unleashed an unstoppable piledriver out of Hugo Lloris' reach up to his left, sparking maniacal celebrations from Argentina.

 

Those celebrations were matched – and the goal arguably trumped – when France brought the game back to 2-2.

Lucas Hernandez's cross fell kindly to Benjamin Pavard just outside the box and the defender met it with one of the most satisfying half-volleys you're ever likely to see, slicing across the ball to send it spinning with venom into the top-left corner.

Mbappe's exceptional second had Argentina 4-2 up, and even Aguero's ultimate consolation was a goal of real quality, particularly Messi's pass.

But the legacy of this game was Mbappe's elevation to a new plain, and it's from there that he's plotting to deny Messi's bid for immortality this time.

Most World Cups have one truly iconic player who is intrinsically linked to that tournament for eternity, a standout star head and shoulders above the rest.

Pele had 1958 and 1970, Diego Maradona had 1986. There was Paolo Rossi in 1982, while Ronaldo was arguably that man in both 1998 and 2002.

But there aren't many instances of a World Cup final having two players vying for a victory that would have seismic consequences on their respective legacies. Or at least not to this degree.

Qatar 2022's final is France against Argentina, but it's more than that. It's also Kylian Mbappe v Lionel Messi.

Both are teetering on the precipice of achievements that'll long outlive them, and it all rides on one match.

Messi's last chance

For many, there is no debate.

"Sometimes as Argentinians it of course looks like we say it just because we are Argentinian. Maybe it's selfish [but] I don't have any doubt saying that: Messi is the best in history," Lionel Scaloni said after the 3-0 semi-final win over Croatia.

But it's not just Argentinians.

His goals and assists record should be enough to settle the discussion on its own, but beyond that, when you think about what defines a good footballer in the simplest sense, for most it comes down to technical ability; literally being a good footballer.

Of course, being a professional player is a bit more nuanced than that and perhaps such simplicity is biased in favour of forwards, but the majority of football spectators don't pay their money to see great defenders.

In addition to his goals and assists, Messi's natural ability should swing any debate in his favour, yet there remains a popular suggestion he will not be regarded as the greatest of all time until he's won the World Cup.

To some, the fact he's been the key player behind almost countless successes in all the biggest club competitions he's played in – some of which are arguably a higher level than the World Cup – isn't enough.

No, until he's done what Maradona did in inspiring Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, this defiance to accept Messi as the greatest will linger – and that's not up for debate.

Messi confirmed – or rather reiterated – after the semi-final that Qatar 2022 will be his last World Cup, and he seems to be playing with a vengeance.

Let's not forget, before this tournament, he'd never scored a World Cup goal beyond the group stage; on Tuesday he became the first Argentina player to net in three different knockout rounds of the tournament.

And if you look at the quality he's producing, there's an insistence to leave no stone unturned. Just take his defence-splitting assist against the Netherlands, for instance, or the brilliant run that left Josko Gvardiol – one of the finest young defenders in world football – in knots before teeing up Julian Alvarez against Croatia.

World Cup success would finally render Messi's detractors defenceless.

The King?

Will Mbappe ever be considered the greatest of all time ahead of Messi? As incredible as he is, it seems unlikely at this point.

Obviously, that shouldn't be seen as criticism of Mbappe, rather an indicator of Messi's remarkable ability and longevity.

But as the debate around Messi proves, historically we view football success – and the sport's all-time greats – through the prism of World Cup success.

Maybe that'll change over the coming years because club football has only become more advanced, but perhaps it won't.

After all, the World Cup will likely always be the greatest and most-watched sporting spectacle on Earth.

Success for Mbappe on Sunday will give him two World Cup triumphs before the age of 24, the age he turns on Tuesday. Pele won his second at 21, so he is little behind the Brazil great, who went on to win a record three.

However, context is key. Pele played only two matches at the 1962 World Cup due to injury and did not feature in the final; if France win, Mbappe will have had an inspirational impact on two triumphs.

Again, this isn't about saying whether Mbappe is better than Pele or not, instead how the young Frenchman will be perceived historically in the future.

Playing a central part in two World Cup successes before the age of 24 is something no one has done before.

For many, Pele is regarded as the greatest World Cup player ever, perhaps the player most synonymous with the tournament.

His is a legacy that will stand the test of time, but victory on Sunday would have Mbappe on course to rival – potentially even overthrow – him as 'The King' of the World Cup.

Lionel Messi has had a career most could barely even dream about, let alone achieve.

And yet, the greatest prize of all has continued to elude him – the closest he has come to being a World Cup champion was in 2014 when Argentina were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the final in Brazil.

The magician has one last chance to right that wrong when Argentina face off against France in Sunday's showpiece in Qatar, the perfect stage to put the cherry on top of the cake.

But standing in his way is another Paris Saint-Germain megastar in the form of Kylian Mbappe, whose Les Bleus side know how to get the job done having been crowned winners four years ago in Russia.

So, will it be Messi walking off into the World Cup sunset finally a champion on international football's biggest stage? Or is it the younger pretender's time to further enshrine himself as a legend of the tournament?

Two Stats Perform writers, John Skilbeck and Pete Hanson, argue the toss prior to Sunday's final.


Messi's time has finally arrived – John Skilbeck

No pressure, Leo, but it's now or never. You'll take now, you say?

Sunday will be an extraordinary day in an extraordinary life as Messi chases the crowning glory that has eluded him until now.

The great Messi will at last be a World Cup winner if he and Argentina can get the better of a France team who will not relinquish the trophy easily.

He's been on this very brink before, of course, with Argentina beaten by Germany in the 2014 final. So what's changed? And why will it be a different story this time?

Put simply, Messi needs this more than anyone who will be on the pitch on Sunday. He needs it, and he not only knows what it takes now, but he is performing at a level to take this into his own hands.

You can look at those 672 goals and 35 trophies for Barcelona, the silverware he has added at PSG, and even the Copa America he won with Argentina last year, and you can marvel.

But ending his career without a World Cup triumph would be treachery to his talent, and collectively Argentina know they must rise for their captain, do the spade work to help him over the line this time.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic says it is "already written" that Messi will lift the trophy, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic often talks bunkum. On a more evidence-based level, Messi is in great shape. He has five goals and three assists at this World Cup, with that combined total of eight goal involvements higher than anyone else's tally.

Three of those strikes were penalties, of course, and he should really be on six goals, given the spot-kick he failed to convert against Poland. But Messi is making things happen. He has created 18 chances so far (only Antoine Griezmann, with 21, has created more) and played 88 forward passes and 39 passes into the final third, in both cases the most of all players classed as forwards by Opta.

Sunday is his last World Cup match. The greatest player of his generation knows what he must do. He's ready for this, and so is all of Argentina. Messi is finally ready to move alongside Maradona in the Albiceleste pantheon.


Football has no time for sentiment, Mbappe will deny Messi's moment – Pete Hanson

The greatest of all time debate throws up some strange oddities, particularly on social media. 

I can completely accept that it is subjective, yet to suggest Messi finally getting his hands on the World Cup would not enhance his own claims is, frankly, absurd.

For what it's worth, I think, regardless of the outcome at the Lusail Stadium, Messi has done enough to prove he sits atop the mountain.

And yet, I fear, Sunday will not provide Messi the World Cup swansong he and football romantics the world over so desperately desire, and it is a man he knows well from Paris Saint-Germain who will instead further entrench his legacy with football's greatest tournament.

Kylian Mbappe has some way to go to matching Messi's genius in the domestic game and at some point you feel he will have to leave the home comforts of Paris, but in the here and now he is the leading light in a well-oiled Les Bleus machine that simply wins the big moments.

Julian Alvarez aside, Messi's supporting cast has not been the best in Qatar. An opening-game loss to Saudi Arabia has long been forgotten but had it not been for their diminutive superstar dragging them through the tournament it feels unlikely Argentina would have made the knockout stages, let alone the final.

Mbappe, conversely, can rely on a much more rounded threat. Antoine Griezmann has legitimate claims for the Golden Ball himself, Olivier Giroud – now his country's leading goalscorer – provides the perfect foil for more technical players, and the industry of Aurelien Tchouameni can keep Didier Deschamps' men ticking.

France were not always convincing against England nor much more – if at all – against Morocco, but crucially they have a canny knack of getting the job done at the most crucial times in a match.

In Mbappe, whose five goals are matched only by Messi, they have the ideal man to deny football's best ever his greatest moment.

On a visit to Qatar in January, Kylian Mbappe predicted France would play Achraf Hakimi's Morocco at the World Cup.

The Paris Saint-Germain star was examining the surroundings in Qatar with club team-mate Hakimi when Mbappe jokingly put forward to possibility they would face one another, adding "I have to destroy my friend," to which Hakimi replied, quick as a flash, "I am going to kick him."

Fast-forward 11 months and that semi-serious guess came true, with the very serious prize of a World Cup final place on the line.

Separated in age by just six weeks, Mbappe and Hakimi have built a strong bond in Paris since the latter moved to PSG in July 2021, with a clear respect on the pitch as well as off it.

Mbappe called Hakimi the best right-back in the world after the former Inter man's free-kick for Morocco against Malawi at the Africa Cup of Nations sent the Atlas Lions into the quarter-finals of that tournament in late January.

Hakimi returned the compliment in April when asked about Mbappe's club future, saying: "Mbappe is one of the best players in the world, and my friend."

When Morocco's surprise run to the final four in Qatar lined them up against the defending world champions, Hakimi v Mbappe promised to be more than merely a contest between good pals, because they also happen to be among the best footballers on the planet.

In 2021-22, Mbappe became the first player to finish as both the top scorer (28 goals) and top assister (17 assists) in a Ligue 1 season since those two awards have been handed out (2007-08), and was directly involved in more goals in all competitions (60 – 39 goals, 21 assists) than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.

During that same season, Hakimi was the defender involved in the most sequences in open play that ended in a goal in Ligue 1 (22).

Their brilliance extended to the World Cup, where, prior to the semi-finals, as well as being the tournament's top scorer at the time (five), no player had attempted more than Mbappe's 32 dribbles, with only Germany's Jamal Musiala (19) completing more than his 15, while no defender had won as many duels as Hakimi's 35, made as many tackles as his 19 or won as many tackles as his 13.

Coach Walid Regragui said before the semi-final that there would be no "anti-Mbappe plan" from his team, adding: "To focus on Mbappe would be a mistake. Hakimi is one of the best in the world in his position, too, so it will be a great duel between two champions, both going at it hell for leather."

In the fifth minute at Al Bayt Stadium, Mbappe had a chance to get the upper hand as he received the ball in the Morocco penalty area, and though his effort was blocked, the ball fell kindly to Theo Hernandez to fire France into an early lead; in fact, the earliest scored by any side in a World Cup semi-final since 1958.

It took until the 35th minute for Mbappe to show off his electric pace, racing in behind after Aurelien Tchouameni had won the ball and played him in, only for his scuffed attempt to be cleared.

Hakimi was largely having the better of their duel, tackling Mbappe well on one occasion while he also made more passes in the final third than anyone else on the pitch in the first-half as Morocco looked for an equaliser.

Early in the second half the two were in a race again as Antoine Griezmann played in Mbappe, but Hakimi was able to ease his friend away from the ball after anticipating the sort of run he is so familiar with.

Even when Mbappe finally got away from Hakimi, he found himself getting absolutely clattered by the impressive Sofyan Amrabat as France struggled to stay on top.

The personal battle looked effectively over when Marcus Thuram replaced Olivier Giroud in the 65th minute, with Mbappe moving centrally.

However, with 11 minutes remaining, Mbappe drifted slightly back out left and turned beautifully away from Hakimi as he dribbled through the Moroccan defence before his deflected shot fell kindly to substitute Randal Kolo Muani to put the game beyond doubt.

 

When Mbappe said in January with a wry smile that he was going to "destroy" Hakimi, he followed up with: "That will break my heart a little bit, but you know football, it is what it is. I have to kill him."

The 79th minute was the first real moment where Mbappe had got the better of his friend, and it proved to be the final dagger that would kill Morocco's World Cup dreams.

Hakimi did have one final moment where he was able to stop Mbappe from adding to the score with a determined tackle, but ultimately the last laugh belonged to the French forward as Les Bleus secured a 2-0 victory, with Mbappe likely having the full support of his friend when he lines up to potentially win his second World Cup against Argentina on Sunday.

They shook hands and swapped shirts after the final whistle having enjoyed a battle. While Mbappe may not have destroyed his friend, he ensured bragging rights for the next few years at least.

There should be little argument where Lionel Messi stands among the pantheon of greats.

Whether he is the greatest of all time (GOAT, as the cool kids say) or just one of the very best to ever play the beautiful game, as if that wasn't enough – well, that debate will probably go on forever.

Winning the World Cup, or so far failing to do so in Messi's case, is what has been widely used by some to insist the Barcelona great cannot be considered as the best ever.

So, at what the 35-year-old has said will be his final World Cup, what more of a fitting way to bow out than to lead Argentina's charge to success.

Messi is certainly leading the charge, too. He seems a man possessed, single-handedly dragging Lionel Scaloni's side through against Australia in the last 16 before showing his aggressive side in the penalty shoot-out victory over the Netherlands, having set up one and scored the other of Argentina's two goals in regulation time.

While the world waits for Messi to finally clinch the trophy, another evergreen star in the supposed twilight of his career is still shining bright.

Luka Modric's Croatia team were not fancied to repeat their efforts of four years ago, when they made the final in Russia only to lose to France.

Yet after overcoming favourites Brazil on penalties, it is Croatia and Modric, 37 years young, who will vie to deny Messi his fairy-tale ending.

Tuesday's semi-final at Lusail Stadium might just boil down to two of the game's very best.

 

Messi magic Argentina's saving grace

After winning the Copa America last year, Argentina were always going to be among the favourites in Qatar. News of Messi confirming this would be his final shot at becoming a world champion only seemed to strengthen La Albiceleste's claim.

They went into the tournament on the back of a 36-game unbeaten run and they were facing Saudi Arabia in their Group C opener - surely, that streak would be extended to 37? Well, it wasn't. Messi scored, from the penalty spot, but Argentina slumped to a 2-1 defeat.

It left them needing to beat Mexico and Poland to ensure progress, and they did just that, if far from convincingly, at least against Mexico when Messi, again, was the difference-maker, this time with a low shot from the edge of the box, placed with delicate precision into the bottom corner, and then an assist for Enzo Fernandez's superb effort.

Messi scored Argentina's opener against Australia and then managed the match in the closing stages as Scaloni's team saw out a nervy 2-1 win after Fernandez's own goal gave the Socceroos hope.

Against the Dutch, Messi assisted Nahuel Molina's opener with the pass of the tournament – a defence-splitting, eye-of-the-needle throughball – before scoring a 73rd-minute penalty. It should have seen Argentina through comfortably, but they capitulated in the closing stages before rediscovering their composure in the shoot-out (Messi scored in that, too).

As they always do with Messi, the statistics speak for themselves. 

Messi's six goal contributions (four goals, two assists) in this tournament trail only his Paris Saint-Germain club-mate Kylian Mbappe (seven). To further prove his importance to Argentina, he has been involved in 39 shot-ending sequences in open play at this World Cup, 15 more than any of his team-mates.

 

He will equal Lothar Matthaus as the player with the most appearances in World Cup history (25) when he takes to the field on Tuesday, while his goal against the Netherlands saw him match Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina's record scorer in the tournament, with 10 goals.

Messi has both scored and assisted a goal in three World Cup games, including two at this tournament. Since 1966, no other player has ever done so in four separate matches, while one more assist would see Messi equal the late, great Diego Maradona's record of eight at World Cup finals.

There is more than the hint of Maradona-ness to Messi's performances, too. Often reasonably compared to Maradona in terms of playing style, Messi has never quite had the same penchant for chaos as Argentina's first iconic number 10, but it is hard to avoid the similarities of 1986, when Maradona dragged a rather average Argentina side to glory in Mexico.

Maybe Lionel is finally letting his inner Diego loose, and maybe the outcome will be the same – although VAR will ensure there's no 'Hand of God' repeat.

 

Modric a master at work

Messi will play his 171st game for Argentina on Tuesday. Modric, on the other hand, will make his 161st Croatia appearance. 

"It's such a pleasure to see him play, a role model for so many of us, not because of his talents as a player but also his behaviour," said Argentina coach Scaloni of Modric in his pre-match press conference.

"We should enjoy him, just like all the top players. If you love football, you want to see these players on the pitch."

It is, indeed, a pleasure to watch Modric do his thing. It is over a decade since the mercurial midfielder swapped Tottenham for Real Madrid, and the understated nature of his performances have, naturally, seen him go under the radar.

That changed in 2018 when, at 32, Modric won the Golden Ball at the Russia World Cup for his efforts in taking Croatia to their first final.

Croatia might have fallen short against France but Modric was incredible, and he went on to win the Ballon d'Or later that year, becoming the only player other than Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to scoop that prize since Kaka in 2007.

Arguably, though, his performances in Qatar have been just as good.

 

Yes, Croatia's approach under Zlatko Dalic is not the prettiest, but in Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic they have a midfield with a bit of everything; bite, skill and composure.

Captain Modric, who scored a stunning goal in Croatia's 3-0 defeat of Argentina at the last World Cup, is still the standout.

He has made the most World Cup appearances (17) of any Croatian player and has started all five of their games in Qatar. He will become only the fourth player aged 37 or older to start six matches at World Cup on Tuesday, barring any surprises. 

Even if his energy levels aren't quite what they used to be (he was subbed off in extra time against Japan in the last 16), Modric has, if anything, got even smarter with when and where he expends that energy.

Twice against Brazil, he skipped through midfield to relieve the pressure on Croatia's defence. His carry distance of 1,455 metres ranks second out of midfielders at the tournament, only behind Spain's Rodri. However, Rodri was playing in defence, naturally meaning he would carry the ball further, given Spain's possession-based approach.

Modric has won seven of his 12 attempted tackles, and 26 of his 58 duels, completing 330 of 373 passes (88.5 per cent). Against Brazil, he completed the most passes and had the most touches of anyone on the pitch.

Like Messi, this is surely Modric's World Cup swansong, but his excellence cannot be overlooked either.

Team-mate Borna Sosa claimed Modric must rank within the best five midfielders of all time, and should he drive Croatia on to their second straight World Cup final, there should be little debate over that.

Real Madrid are widely reported to have won the race for Endrick, with the teenage sensation expected to join in 2024.

A host of clubs from across Europe were attributed with an interest in the 16-year-old, though Los Blancos have seemingly won the hunt – reportedly paying a whopping €72million for the privilege.

Such a mouth-watering sum will undoubtedly garner attention, particularly for a player who still has to wait at least another two years before moving to the Spanish capital and is yet to hit double figures in senior league appearances for Palmeiras.

Despite that, he has already made quite the impression. On October 7, Endrick became the first player born in 2006 to play a Brasileirao game, then, just 20 days later, a brace against Atletico Paranaense saw him become the youngest ever scorer for Palmeiras, aged just 16 years and 96 days.

That display earned him a first start on November 7 against Fortaleza, where he scored again, with his record standing at three goals from seven appearances in the Brasileirao.

In total, Endrick has played 307 minutes of Serie A football, creating five chances, having 14 shots (10 on target) and a passing accuracy of 73 per cent.

Although such a small sample size cannot paint a full picture of Endrick's talents, his numbers are impressive and Real Madrid know what they are looking for – having signed Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo in similar deals from South America at age 16 and 17 respectively.

Like Endrick, both players were unable to move to Europe until they had turned 18 and continued to develop in Brazil until then – with Endrick's record being even more eye catching when compared to his potential future team-mates.

Rodrygo had the better record in front of goal, scoring nine times in Serie A, but had to wait a few months before his first goal for Santos after making his debut, which came in the Campeonato Paulista against Ponte Preta – though he scored in only his third Serie A appearance, whereas Endrick's first goal came in his fourth game.

Vinicius, scorer of seven Serie A goals, faced a similar wait to open his account for Flamengo, which came in the CONMEBOL Sudamericana against Palestino, and he had to wait until his 17th Serie A appearance for his first goal in the competition.

As a more central player, a quicker return could have been expected for Endrick but, given his age, the ability to quickly settle into the first-team paints an encouraging picture for the years ahead at Santiago Bernabeu.

Given the difference in appearances between the three players, a minutes-per-goal ratio in Brazil's Serie A is the fairest comparison between the trio, and it is Endrick (102 minutes) who fairs the best, with Vinicius averaging a goal every 239 minutes and Rodrygo finding the net every 341 minutes on average.

 

Though yet to register his first Serie A assist, Endrick averages a chance created every 61.4 minutes of football, ahead of Rodrygo at 68.2 minutes during his time in Brazil and Vinicius at 83.8 minutes.

Most encouraging for Real Madrid, however, is the relationship the trio of compatriots can have, with a front-three potentially becoming established on the international stage as well as at club level.

Endrick certainly has big boots to fill in Karim Benzema at Madrid and Neymar with the national side, but the early signs are extremely positive and Madrid have capitalised on this approach in the past with the deals to sign Endrick's aforementioned compatriots.

The signs are also good for Brazil, with former Selecao international Junior telling Stats Perform he believes such a transfer will reap rewards for the national side, whose wait for a sixth World Cup title lingers on.

"Endrick will certainly be a great player unless something very serious happens in his career," he said.

"It's a loss for Brazilian football, but on the other hand, I think we can win as Vinicius Jr did. He matured at the club, and today he is serving the national team."

Cristiano Ronaldo has played his last World Cup match after Portugal's defeat by Morocco in the Qatar 2022 quarter-finals.

The 37-year-old put a full stop to his career on that global stage on Sunday, saying his "dream ended" with the previous day's loss, while leaving it open as to whether he will play on for his country in the short term.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner has achieved record tallies of 196 caps and 118 goals, and he may have his eye on becoming the first male player to earn 200 caps.

His club future is uncertain following an acrimonious departure from Manchester United, but his place in history is undoubtedly secure.

A record breaker, a history maker, here Stats Perform takes a closer look at the highs and lows of Ronaldo's Portugal career to date.

 

Euros bow ends in tears

Ronaldo is the European Championship's all-time leading scorer (14) and appearance maker (25), while he is the only player to feature at five separate editions.

He made his debut at the tournament when Portugal were the 2004 hosts. The then 18-year-old was named in the team of the tournament, but it ended in tears for him as Portugal suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat to Greece in the final.

Bittersweet Euro 2016 triumph

Despite reaching the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012, Portugal boasted a generally underwhelming record at major tournaments ahead of the expanded Euro 2016 tournament.

Fernando Santos' side scraped through the group as one of the best third-placed nations, then required extra time to see off Croatia and Poland – beating the latter on penalties – before overcoming Wales 2-0 in the semi-finals.

Ronaldo scored three goals during the run, but the tears flowed in a final once more as he was forced off injured after 25 minutes following a heavy challenge from France's Dimitri Payet.

Nevertheless, the animated captain barked out instructions alongside Santos from the touchline as Eder's extra-time strike gave Portugal their first major tournament victory, before lifting the trophy at the Stade de France.

 

All-time leading international scorer

Portugal were eliminated from the 2018 World Cup at the last-16 stage by Uruguay, with Ronaldo having hit a brilliant hat-trick in a group-stage draw against Spain. However, the captain was lifting more silverware the following year as his nation landed the inaugural Nations League crown.

More personal success was to follow in September 2021, when a pair of late Ronaldo headers snatched a dramatic 2-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland in World Cup qualifying, taking his international tally to 110 goals – surpassing the long-standing record of Iran's Ali Daei (109).

A scorer in five World Cups

Ronaldo's messy departure from Manchester United dominated Portugal's preparations for this year's World Cup in Qatar.

However, he made headlines for all the right reasons in his country's opening match against Ghana, with a successful penalty making him the first player to score in five different editions of the tournament.

Dropped to the bench against Switzerland

Controversy was just around the corner as coach Santos dropped Ronaldo to the bench for Portugal's last-16 win over Switzerland, having criticised his reaction to being substituted in the previous match against South Korea.

That ended Ronaldo's run of 31 successive starts at major tournaments for his nation – stretching back to their Euro 2008 clash with the Swiss – while they were subsequently moved to deny reports their captain had threatened to leave Qatar in the aftermath of the decision.

World Cup exit marks end of his dream of global glory

Ronaldo was again on substitute duty for the 2022 quarter-final against Morocco, with Santos sticking by Goncalo Ramos after the Benfica striker hit a hat-trick against Switzerland.

Sent into action early in the second half, with Portugal surprisingly trailing, Ronaldo's presence in attack could not spur Portugal to find an equaliser.

He had just 10 touches of the ball and only one shot, cutting a frustrated figure and departing the pitch in tears at full time, with Portugal beaten 1-0, ending Ronaldo's last hopes of lifting the World Cup.

It also meant he again failed to score in a knockout game at the finals. Across his career, Ronaldo drew a blank in all eight of his knockout stage appearances at the World Cup, including the 2006 third place play-off, going 570 minutes without scoring and taking 27 shots in the process.

Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at the World Cup in Qatar looking to cap his remarkable international career by lifting football's greatest prize.

But the forward ended his campaign distraught, being led to the dressing room in tears after Morocco stunned Portugal with a 1-0 quarter-final victory at Al Thumama Stadium.

Ronaldo's tournament was one to forget, with the 37-year-old unceremoniously dropped for his nation's best performance against Switzerland in the last 16 and again being reduced to a role off the bench against Morocco.

It was an underwhelming campaign, but one that will not detract from his previous achievements on the international stage, regardless of whether he continues to represent his country.

As well as becoming the all-time leading goalscorer in men's international football, Ronaldo led Portugal to their first major trophy at Euro 2016 before repeating the trick in the Nations League, and his Selecao records look unlikely to be matched any time soon.

With one of the all-time greats facing an uncertain future after seeing his "biggest and most ambitious dream" dashed, Stats Perform assesses the remarkable numbers behind Ronaldo's Portugal career.

 

Ronaldo has attracted plenty of plaudits for his longevity, deciding games at the highest level from his teenage years until his late thirties. The forward's incredible tally of 196 Portugal caps puts him 50 clear of his nearest contender – Wolves midfielder Joao Moutinho with 146. 

If his appearance record looks set to stand for a long time, his goalscoring numbers look even less likely to be challenged – Ronaldo's tally of 118 international goals is more than double that of Portugal's second-highest goalscorer (Pauleta with 47), and is unmatched in the history of men's football.

Indeed, Iran's Ali Daei is the only other player to have reached a century of goals in international football, hitting the net 109 times.

While Ronaldo's ability to reinvent himself as the ultimate goal poacher allowed him to prosper on the club stage, his international goalscoring prowess was by no means a later development.

Ronaldo failed to score on his first two Portugal appearances as an 18-year-old in 2003, but he has netted at least one international goal in each of the 19 subsequent years.

In 2004, a teenage Ronaldo hit the net seven times in 16 international appearances, helping his side to the Euro 2004 final on home soil and scoring at a rate of a goal every 145 minutes.

Ronaldo's most prolific year for Portugal came in 2019, when he scored 14 times in just 10 appearances at an incredible rate of 59 minutes per goal.

 

On the club stage, Ronaldo has carved out a reputation as the ultimate big-game player – netting in Champions League finals for both Manchester United and Real Madrid while outscoring every other player on Europe's grandest stage (140 goals).

Ronaldo has also appeared to prefer playing within his own continent in a Portugal shirt; his tally of 14 goals at the European Championships is an all-time record, putting him five clear of France great Michel Platini.

Ronaldo has also hit the net seven times in just 11 Nations League games, perhaps making it fitting that his greatest achievements have come when leading his side to continental glory at Euro 2016 and in 2018-19's Nations League campaign.

At the World Cup, it has been a slightly different story for Ronaldo. His tally of eight finals goals is certainly not to be taken lightly, but all of those efforts came in the group stages – no player has scored more often at the tournament without netting in a knockout tie.

Ronaldo did become the first player to score in five different editions of the World Cup when he struck a penalty in their group-stage win over Ghana last month, but that record will mean little in the context of his failure to carry his continental achievements into the world's most important competition.

 

Ronaldo may have failed to get his hands on international football's most prestigious trophy, but that has not stopped the likes of Johan Cruyff or Ferenc Puskas from being considered contenders to be the greatest player to have played the sport.

Proponents of Ronaldo's suitability for that title have often highlighted his raw numbers, and they certainly speak to an historic legacy.

Twenty-four of Ronaldo's 118 Portugal goals have been scored at the World Cup, European Championships or Confederations Cup, with just 20 coming in friendlies, demonstrating his status as a player who has thrived under the brightest of lights.

Age catches up with us all eventually, however, and Ronaldo's displays in Qatar attracted plenty of detractors. 

Where Ronaldo ranks among the greatest players to feature on the international stage will continue to be discussed, but his incredible statistics ensure he will always have a place in that debate.

Fernando Santos' decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal's team might have come too late in the eyes of some.

Ronaldo started each of Portugal's World Cup group games in Qatar, though only managed one goal, converting a penalty he won in the opening win over Ghana.

That goal made history, as Ronaldo has often done. He is the only male player to have scored at five World Cups.

Yet after frustrating Santos with his reaction to a South Korea player's taunts in Portugal's final Group H game, Ronaldo found himself on the bench for Tuesday's 6-1 rout of Switzerland.

His replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick, surely ensuring the bench is where Ronaldo will stay for Saturday's quarter-final against Morocco, the fourth African team to make the last eight of a World Cup.

Yet Ronaldo's omission might have afforded another Portuguese youngster (and like Ramos, one who made his name with Benfica) a chance to finally prove his worth.

Struggling to live up to the hype

Joao Felix seemed set to be a superstar when he broke into the Benfica side in the 2018-19 season.

He directly contributed to 22 goals in 26 league appearances, netting 15 and assisting seven, creating 29 chances. Joao Felix was awarded the Primeira Liga's Best Young Player of the Year and the Golden Boy award, and a huge move was on the cards.

Atletico Madrid, cash-rich with the imminent sale of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, pipped the rest of Europe's elite to the 19-year-old boy wonder, paying a club-record €126million to take him to the Spanish capital.

Yet, for whatever reason, whether that be Diego Simeone's pragmatic approach or Joao Felix suffering the inconsistencies that many young players do, it hasn't quite clicked at Atleti.

He has started only 53 games across three and a half years, and in only one season has he created over 20 chances. Joao Felix's best return for goals and assists combined has been 12, coming in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns.

 

Sure, at times it has looked as though it has started to fall into place, but a player of Joao Felix's talents needs the space and time and tactical flexibility to show what he can do. Too often under Simeone, that has not been the case.

During his time at Atleti, Joao Felix – whose best role falls somewhere between a striker and an attacking midfielder – has played second fiddle to or had to complement Luis Suarez, Alvaro Morata, Griezmann (the man he was brought in to replace, of course) and even Marcos Llorente, before Simeone moved the Spain international to a wide berth.

It has been a similar story on the international stage. Ronaldo has been the player Santos has worked his system around, the entire team geared to getting the best out of international football's record goalscorer.

That has seen Joao Felix often fall to the wayside, what with Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Andre Silva and Diogo Jota, who has missed out in Qatar through injury, among the other attackers he has to compete with.

Time to shine

Yet he has been entrusted in Qatar, starting all three of Portugal's truly meaningful matches, scoring in the 3-2 opening win over Ghana. The first two of those starts came alongside Ronaldo, but against Switzerland Joao Felix was placed on the left of a narrow front three that included Ramos and Bruno Fernandes.

Joao Felix thrived. With freedom to drift, he set up two of Portugal's goals, becoming the nation's first player to provide two assists in a World Cup knockout game, and his performance even drew comparisons to Kaka.

It was Joao Felix's neat ball through to Ramos from the half-space on the left side of Switzerland's box that led to Portugal's 17th-minute opener. 

 

Having received the ball on the cusp of the opposition area midway through the second half, Joao Felix had the awareness to get his head up rather than shoot, and the poise to find another perfect pass through to Ramos for Ronaldo's replacement to wrap up his hat-trick. 

His 42 touches occurred across the pitch, while he lost possession only seven times, a particularly impressive figure given, of Portugal's players, only Bernardo Silva (15) attempted more passes in the final third than the 23-year-old (11).

Santos must stick to his guns

"I don't think it's mandatory to pass to Cristiano. We try to pass to the player that's available," said Joao Felix when previewing the meeting with Morocco.

"Independent of Cristiano being on the field, we have the same tactics, the ones we've been using for all four games. He has skills that other players have and vice-versa. We, as a team, have our own identity and we focus on that."

Joao Felix might have claimed that the tactics do not change, but it seemed clear against Switzerland that, without Ronaldo in the side, Portugal had found their groove.

The signs had been there even before the World Cup, though. Ronaldo did not feature in a pre-tournament friendly against Nigeria and Portugal won 4-0.

Portugal had 15 shots against the Swiss, and remarkably got nine of those on target and finished with 2.28 expected goals (xG).

 

In the three matches Ronaldo had started, Portugal had only finished with an xG of 2.0 once – in their opening win over Ghana, and a penalty in that game will have accounted for a large chunk of that value.

With Portugal playing so well against Switzerland, Santos must stand by his decision.

Yes, Ronaldo can still provide great moments, but he can do so off the bench. At 37, this will likely be his last World Cup, if not his final major tournament.

Joao Felix, who could well leave Atleti for pastures new in January, is the future, and he has proved capable of taking up the mantle.

Football goes through phases and cycles where certain trends dictate the sport, whether that's specific formations and systems, or particular player styles.

The World Cup quarter-final between France and England will highlight one such feature of the modern game: the evolution of the striker.

What makes this clash so intriguing in that respect is the presence of three forwards who each represent a different era, with Olivier Giroud, Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe likely to attract much of the pre-match focus.

And what's more, there's a strong possibility the game will be decided – or influenced at the very least – by this trio.

Giroud – The throwback

For years the narrative around Giroud has been the suggestion he's "underrated". That discussion has been exhausted to the extent we should all now agree he is simply "rated".

That shouldn't detract from how he's polarised opinion for much of his career, but for the most part this comes down to personal preferences about what a striker should offer or be.

Arsene Wenger, the man who signed Giroud for Arsenal, said it best in 2014 after the striker scored a powerful header in a 4-1 win over Newcastle United: "He is like an English [-style] centre-forward. His first goal he scored was a typical 1970s goal. You saw those headers in the seventies and eighties. You love it because you see it less now."

Fast-forward eight years and Giroud is now France's all-time leading scorer after usurping another former Arsenal star in Thierry Henry.

But as Wenger alluded to, he's almost part of a dying breed.

 

Since the start of Giroud's breakout season in 2011-12 when he led Montpellier to the Ligue 1 title, only five players have scored more headed goals than him (34) across the top five leagues – that accounts for 28.3 per cent of his non-penalty goals.

While 27 players (minimum 40 goals total) in that time have scored a greater proportion of their non-penalty goals with headers, only one of those – Anthony Modeste (61) – has also netted more than 50 non-headers. Giroud has 86.

This speaks to Giroud's quality as not only a seventies throwback who'll get his head on almost anything, but just generally a reliable penalty-box striker, with his exploits in Qatar a rather succinct summary.

All three of his goals have been scored in the area, and one of those – his second against Australia – was a towering header.

 

Let's not forget, he was maligned at Russia 2018 because some deemed him to not be a scoring threat. Granted, he ended the tournament with no goals, yet he was a regular throughout the champions' run because of the physical presence he brought working as a kind of attacking pivot.

Four years on, despite looking a likely exclusion this time around, he's thriving in the absence of Karim Benzema.

'Classic' number nines like Giroud aren't particularly fashionable these days. How many of the best developing forwards under the age of 25 come under this umbrella? Not many.

But Giroud proves this sub-genre of striker retains relevancy even if the production line is drying up.

Kane – The playmaker

Kane does share certain strengths with Giroud – after all, he is one of those five strikers to score more headers (35 to 34) in the top five leagues than Giroud over aforementioned period.

But it's fair to say he's a more rounded, refined striker, which of course tallies with the idea of he and Giroud being of different eras in essence.

Jose Mourinho may not have been hugely popular as Tottenham coach, but to his credit, he clearly played a part in Kane redefining himself somewhat.

 

In November 2020, Kane said: "I think [Mourinho] saw in my game that I like to drop deep so he made it clear to the others that if I do drop deep then they need to be the ones running in behind. I think that's been the real difference. It's allowed me to create space and get the ball but have an option going forward as well. But I think obviously I've still been playing as a nine as well, and I think that's the beauty of what's been working well."

Since Mourinho replaced Mauricio Pochettino 12 months prior to those comments, Kane has averaged 0.24 assists per 90 minutes in the Premier League, double the frequency he had under the Argentinian.

His other creative metrics haven't improved quite as dramatically, with key passes only up from 1.2 to 1.4, for instance. However, his expected assists increase (0.08 per 90, to 0.13 p90) highlights how Kane's general creativity carries greater threat now. Sure, it would seem he's benefiting from good finishing by team-mates, but his playmaking influence has demonstrably grown.

Since the start of the 2019-20 season, only Mohamed Salah (747), Bruno Fernandes (641) and Jack Grealish (588) have been involved in more shot-ending sequences in the Premier League than Kane (585), with 289 of those not ending with him having the shot – no out-and-out striker has been more involved in build-up play than Kane.

 

He's translated that to the World Cup as well. Twelve Opta-defined "strikers" can better his 11 open-play shot-ending sequence involvements, but among them are the likes of Lionel Messi, Memphis Depay and Thomas Muller; players not always picked to lead the line.

No forwards have recorded more involvements in goal-ending sequences than Kane (four), however, with the Spurs star becoming the first England player since David Beckham in 2002 to have three assists at a single World Cup.

 

Another Golden Boot success might not be on the cards, but you could argue Kane is more integral to England than ever before.

Mbappe – The wide forward

While Kane and Giroud might almost be deemed old-fashioned in some regards, Mbappe represents the archetypal modern forward – and he's essentially the perfect embodiment.

While it's not just 'emerging' players who qualify here, there certainly appears to be a greater concentration of them among a particular age group. So many have similar key characteristics in that they're generally quick, good on the ball and often prefer to play off one of the flanks.

The 'wide forward' role is very much in vogue.

 

What makes this particularly interesting in relation to Mbappe is that his playing role was apparently a major contributing factor in his reported unhappiness at PSG earlier this season.

While he didn't explicitly confirm that, he outlined what was different between representing France and PSG, where Christophe Galtier has this season often used him as a central striker.

"I play differently for France. I am asked other things [with the national team] compared to my club," he said in September. "I have a lot more freedom here. The coach knows there is a number nine in the side like Olivier [Giroud] who can occupy defences while I walk around and go into space. In Paris, it's different – you don't have that. I am asked to play as a pivot, which is different."

 

That said, Mbappe's still been able to tally the seventh-most carries (259) across the top five leagues this term, and his total carry progress of 1,562.2 metres is bettered by only Gerard Deulofeu among wingers and forwards, highlighting the fact the France talisman continues to play a vital role in getting PSG up the pitch and on the front foot.

It's a similar story at the World Cup, with his 70 carries fourth behind Lionel Messi (104), Christian Pulisic and Jamal Musiala (both 75) among forwards and wingers.

Clearly, Mbappe's good enough to play either as wide forward or central striker and still thrive. But, as he said in September, it's the freedom offered by the former role that he appears to value, and it certainly doesn't seem to have diminished his effectiveness massively in the box given he's had a hand in seven goals – three more than anyone else – and leads the scoring charts with five.

 

Understandably, he'll be the one to watch on Saturday. But as Giroud and Kane have already shown at this tournament, you don't have to be explosive to be decisive.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.