Messi, Mbappé lead selections for AP’s team of the World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé head the selections for the team of the tournament as chosen by writers covering the World Cup for The Associated Press.

The team was picked using the 4-3-3 formation preferred by most nations at this World Cup.

Ten of the 11 players reached the semifinals, with in-demand England midfielder Jude Bellingham the exception.

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GOALKEEPER: Dominik Livakovic (Croatia)

Livakovic was Croatia’s penalty-shootout savior against Japan in the quarterfinals, when he saved three spot kicks, and Brazil in the quarterfinals, when he denied Rodrygo. His performance against Brazil stood out as he thwarted the tournament favorite time and again before Neymar’s goal in extra time, and likely put him on the radar of some big clubs in Europe. Livakovic currently plays for Croatian team Dinamo Zagreb. His only mistake was bringing down Julián Álvarez for a penalty converted by Lionel Messi in the 3-0 loss to Argentina in the semifinals.

RIGHT BACK: Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)

Hakimi might have established himself as the best right back in the world with his performances in Qatar, where he mixed solidity in defense with surging runs in Morocco’s counterattacks to help with its attack. Despite carrying an injury throughout the tournament, he transferred his club form with Paris Saint-Germain to the World Cup and played every game, even helping to largely neutralize his club teammate and friend Kylian Mbappé in the semifinals. Their embrace at the end of the match was a touching moment, while his “Panenka” penalty to win the shootout against Spain in the round of 16 was audacious.

LEFT BACK: Theo Hernandez (France)

Hernandez started the World Cup as backup at left back to his older brother, Lucas, who sustained a tournament-ending ruptured ACL in his right knee just eight minutes into France’s opening game against Australia. Naturally more attacking than his sibling, Theo has filled in impressively and linked up well down the left with Kylian Mbappé, setting up a goal for France’s superstar striker against Denmark and also for Adrien Rabiot against Australia. Hernandez also scored the opening goal in the 2-0 win over Morocco and produced solid defensive performances except for a tough night against England winger Bukayo Saka in the quarterfinals.

CENTER BACK: Josko Gvardiol (Croatia)

Gvardiol might be best remembered at the World Cup for being turned inside out by Lionel Messi for Argentina’s third goal in the semifinals. Otherwise, he did little wrong, bolstering his reputation as one of the most sought-after center backs in the European game at just age 20. Known as “Little Pep” because of the similarities of his last name with that of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, Gvardiol — who wore a face mask at the World Cup after breaking his nose last month — marshalled a Croatia defense that conceded just three goals in five games before coming up against Messi and Co. He also scored in the third-place playoff.

CENTER BACK: Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina)

Otamendi is one of two Argentina players — along with Lionel Messi — to play every minute on the road to the final and one of three outfield players to start every game. The leader of Argentina’s rugged defense that has improved throughout the tournament, Otamendi will make his 100th appearance for his country if he plays in the final of what will probably be his last World Cup. A memorable sight was Otamendi collapsing on top of Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez after his last-minute save against Australia in the round of 16.

MIDFIELDER: Sofyan Amrabat (Morocco)

Amrabat has been the outstanding defensive midfielder in the tournament, the shield for a Moroccan defense that didn’t concede a goal by an opposition player until the semifinals. Not only does he read the game expertly — note his perfectly timed tackle on Kylian Mbappé in the semifinals after chasing back alongside the France striker — but he has sparked his teammates’ lethal counterattacks with some timely and precision passing. Fiorentina will do well to hold onto the 26-year-old Amrabat, whose specific skillset is always in demand.

MIDFIELDER: Jude Bellingham (England)

The 19-year-old Bellingham probably has his pick of any club in Europe after his standout performances in England’s run to the quarterfinals. The question now is when, rather than if, Borussia Dortmund sells the midfielder, who can do pretty much anything and has an old head on young shoulders. He scored against Iran, was England’s best player against Senegal in the round of 16 and drove his team on in its second-half recovery against France in the last eight.

MIDFIELDER: Antoine Griezmann (France)

Griezmann, who has been a forward throughout his career, has been reinvented as a midfield playmaker at this World Cup and has been a revelation, likely rivalling Messi and Mbappé as the player of the tournament. He created 11 chances during the group stage, more than any other player, then ran the first half of the quarterfinal match against England before being awarded the player of the match in the win over Morocco in the semifinals. Not only has he demonstrated his creativity with short and long passes, he has also relished the defensive part of the game, which was needed against Morocco in particular.

STRIKER: Kylian Mbappé (France)

Mbappé has been France’s most important forward for the second straight World Cup, leading the team to the brink of back-to-back titles at the age of 23. He scored four goals in France’s run to the trophy in 2018 and has added five in the lead-up to the final four years later, with his two excellent finishes against Poland in the round of 16 being the highlights. On that trajectory, Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 career World Cup goals will surely be threatened by Mbappé if he stays healthy.

STRIKER: Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Messi has been a man on a mission since arriving in Qatar, determined to mark likely his final World Cup with the trophy to complete his resume. He has scored five goals, including in every round in the knockout stage up to the final, and added three assists. Messi has also provided some of the most thrilling moments of individual quality, like his dribbles to set up goals for Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and for Julián Álvarez against Croatia in the semifinals. Messi has become Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup with 11 goals and will make his 26th World Cup appearance — a record — in the final.

STRIKER: Julián Álvarez (Argentina)

Álvarez has come from nowhere to become one of Argentina’s most important players, having replaced Lautaro Martinez after his teammate’s poor performances in the opening two games. The 22-year-old Manchester City striker has scored four goals in four starts and they have all been different — a curler into the top corner against Poland, a poacher’s finish after closing down the goalkeeper against Australia, a run from halfway for his first goal against Croatia and then a close-range tap-in for his second.

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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