Kylian Mbappe forced to wait as Qatar World Cup remains in thrall to Lionel Messi

Messi is back in top form after leading Argentina to the 2021 Copa America

This is their player of the season so far. It’s all the more symbolic, and conspicuous, since this was supposed to be the campaign – and World Cup – when Kylian Mbappe took over.

Everything that happened up to the summer pointed to it. Messi and Neymar had looked so lax. Mbappe had been electric. PSG felt they had no choice but to reform the entire club around their local global megastar.

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But it hasn’t worked out. Mbappe has been disgruntled, most of all with how the restored form of Messi and Neymar means the team hasn’t been built around him in the way he wanted.

Messi has really reshaped all plans, just as he is now doing to most games.

It makes Tuesday a particularly alluring day in the World Cup. It is when the biggest stars start to take the stage, the edge only added to it all since they are also the stars of Qatar’s other sportswashing project. The hosts know neither of Messi nor Mbappe will exactly espouse on greater issues, and that they’re all in on the football. They do not directly face off on the pitch, of course, but they frame the entire day, and this day could frame the entire World Cup.

Messi plays in the morning against Saudi Arabia, the timing fittingly representing the last era and a setting of the standard to reach. Mbappe plays the late game against Australia, representing the next era and whether he can go even further. Given the small size of Qatar, the talk within Doha among media and fans has been whether it will be possible to see both.

A further question is what Mbappe we will see.

Mbappe and Messi will shape the third day of the World Cup

One of the images of the season so far, beyond admittedly supreme moments like that goal against Juventus, was the 23-year-old refusing to run for one PSG attack. While it’s not like Mbappe has a bad relationship with Messi, and does look up to him for certain things, it has been stand-offish. It’s also spiked by Neymar. Messi gets on well with the Brazilian. Neymar barely gets on with Mbappe now.

An increasing number of people say that is more down to Mbappe’s developing personality than Neymar. The summer contract has more than emboldened him.

Well-placed figures talk of a “genius but one who is more difficult to be around than he used to be”. His entourage have lost staff members in the last few months.

There is a hint of such criticism in Patrice Evra’s comments to The Independent on his compatriot.

“It’s difficult for him. He’s got a lot of expectation. He already won the World Cup. And you know, his new stature at PSG, his new contract, it’s a lot of pressure, a lot of talk. He’s in a difficult position and people forget he’s young, and going to make mistakes. You need to accept that, and now he’s playing with the best player in the world.

“And of course, if France football don’t do well, the first person they’re going to kill is Mbappe.

“But I’m not worried for Mbappe. I just want him to play for the team, and forget his ambition, his goals, because I always say the star is the team. The star is not one player.”

Messi, as Evra puts it, “understands that”.

Mbappe and France knocked Messi and Argentina out of the 2018 World Cup

It does feel like the Argentine now feels it on a much deeper level with the national team. Messi used to be renowned as a “mute” around the squad, someone who euphemistically “led by the example of his play”. That has changed too. Messi has become an extraordinarily vocal figure, often roaring his motivation in the dressing room. It has even got him into disciplinary trouble for some of his media comments.

Many within the Argentine camp believe that is something that has come out more with the manager, Lionel Scaloni. The former international has formed an emotional bond with the team, that has only been amplified by how he has worked out exactly the right formation for what he has.

It certainly fits Messi. He is now much closer to goal, with support from midfield, and so many attackers running off him. It means Argentina football are so difficult to defend against. If you focus on Messi, the way is open for Lautaro Martinez. If you try and cover that, Messi just destroys you through the middle.

This could especially be seen in the Finalissima against Italy. It got to the point where Argentina were creating chances so easily they were just trying to set up Messi.

This is why Tuesday morning could be arduous for Saudi Arabia, especially if Argentina make the fast start they usually do.

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Little is going so well for France. It is not just that Didier Deschamps has lost his midfield spine through injury, but that he doesn’t really know his best team. He has already gone back to three at the back. He now has to make a new decision on his attack without Karim Benzema.

And yet there is a feeling that could work out for him. While Mbappe gets on with Benzema, they have never fully fitted tactically. It is well known the French star prefers to play with Olivier Giroud, and that the Milan striker links the entire team together

This is what worked in 2018 for Mbappe. And what works for Mbappe is what many are geared towards. For all the reservations about the difficult figure he’s become, just as many people see it as the drive that differentiates the top stars. They talk of a “mentality shift”. If Mbappe is content, he’s concentrated, and gives you a much better chance at winning.

That is what shouldn’t be forgotten in all of this. Mbappe may want to make this World Cup his own as a tournament, but he has at least lifted the actual trophy.

That, by contrast, remains Messi’s great ambition. It’s all he wants, to both round off his career and truly fulfil that talent to the maximum possible level. The player who had everything will have won everything, as well as the trophy that means it all.

It is possible, after such a long and emotional quest, it might all be coming together at the end. Messi is on his best form going into a World Cup since 2010, but that with an Argentina who are in their best shape since 2006.

That is what 2022 may come down to, as it represents a change between what has come before, and what comes next.

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