Lionel Messi’s lifelong dream of guiding Argentina to World Cup glory will remain alive until the final day of Qatar 2022 as There Albicelestial they outclassed a tired-looking Croatia in a 3-0 win in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Two first-half goals, the first from a penalty by Messi and the second solo from Julian Alvarez, put Argentina in a dominant position at half-time, a position from which Croatia never seemed to recover.
Alvarez secured victory with Argentina’s third goal in the second half after a marvelous assist from Messi, giving the South American outfit and their 35-year-old captain a chance to chase away the demons of their 2014 final defeat, as well as ensure the country won first world title since 1986.
Messi spent part of the match feeling his left hamstring, although you wouldn’t have guessed he was uncomfortable from the way his twisting, twisting run tricked Joško Gvardiol, one of this tournament’s best defenders, to set up the third Argentina goal.
Messi’s near-superhuman powers are undoubtedly dwindling as he plays in the twilight of his career, but the little wizard still has the ability to deliver moments of genius just when his country needs him most.
His goal against Mexico in the group stage, assist against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals and his aggregate performance in Tuesday’s semi-final brought even more memorable moments to a nation of 45 million who consider him not far off from being a deity.
As many as 40,000 Argentinean fans are estimated to have traveled to Qatar for this World Cup, according to Argentina’s embassy in Qatar, and it seemed everyone was inside Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night.
As the clock approached injury time and victory was beyond doubt, Argentina’s bench and coaching staff began to join in the rhythmic songs and chants that were being bellowed from the stands.
After the final whistle, the Argentina players stood in front of the huge wall of blue-and-white shirts and took the adulation of their adoring fans.
It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same team that lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia just three weeks ago in their opening group stage match – a performance so bland and uninspired it has left some wondering if Argentina would have made it out of the group.
Now, against France or Morocco, Messi will have one last chance to lift the trophy he craves most.
Asked if Sunday’s match will be his last at the World Cup, Messi replied: “Yes. Surely. There are many years until the next one and I don’t think I have it against me and finishing like this is the best thing.
“[I feel] much happiness to be able to achieve this. Finishing my World Cup career by playing my last match in a final. Everything I have experienced in this World Cup, what people have experienced and how much people in Argentina are having fun is very emotional.
“I’m enjoying everything a lot, I feel strong to be able to face every game. We came by making so many big sacrifices, like playing overtime that wasn’t easy. We were tired but the group gave that something extra, it was a very tough game that went as we had prepared.
“We knew they would have the ball a lot and that we would have our chances. It was a well-prepared match, as we always manage and I’m happy, I’m having a lot of fun.”
Under Messi and Croatia’s Luka Modrić, both captains led their nations to defeat in the World Cup final and this would be both their last chance to get their hands on football’s most coveted prize.
Neither team were tournament favorites heading into Qatar 2022, but Croatia stunned the world four years ago by reaching the final and did so again in the previous round in Qatar, knocking out the pre-tournament favorite on penalties Brazil in a display of pure grit and determination.
Modrić, Croatia’s star player and living legend in the small Balkan nation, is fierce in the biggest games and, alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, has been part of Qatar’s best midfield.
Similarly, Argentina also improved as the tournament went on, although they could hardly get worse after that stunning loss to Saudi Arabia.
The team, which now seem to believe the script is written for Messi’s last dance which will end in glory on Sunday, are almost unrecognizable from the ones that took to the field that day.
Although Croatia started the match slightly better than either side, these players have played as many minutes as possible so far in Qatar, winning against Japan and Brazil on penalties after two energy-draining extra periods.
Their weary legs seemed to show soon at the Lusail Stadium and even a mistake at this level is likely to prove costly.
This proved to be the case in Croatia as, shockingly, Modrić of all men gave away the ball in midfield and Gvardiol failed to follow Alvarez, leaving Dominik Livakovic – twice Croatia’s shooter in Qatar – exposed one-on-one against Manchester City forward.
Alvarez pushed the ball around Livakovic, whose outstretched leg knocked the striker down and Messi made no mistake converting the resulting penalty, sending it high into the top corner.
That was Messi’s 11th World Cup goal, surpassing Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time top scorer in the World Cup finals.
The match immediately looked as if it were going away from Croatia when Alvarez made it 2-0 just five minutes later.
Borna Sosa’s bad cross into the box triggered an Argentine counter-attack, with Alvarez running for three quarters of the pitch and, after two fortuitous rebounds in the box, buried the ball behind Livakovic.
Only a splendid reflex save from Livakovic kept the score from deteriorating for Croatia before the break, but it would take something special, even for a team used to conjuring footballing miracles, to come back from this.
However, Croatia offered little forward in the second half, a combination of tired attacking play and robust Argentine defence, and his stay of execution lasted until the 70th minute.
Messi collected the ball deep and blasted Gvardiol apart, before finding Alvarez inside the box to wow the Argentine fans inside Lusail Stadium.
Argentina, considered by many to be inferior to other World Cup contenders, were not expected to make it to the final match in Qatar, but a determined and resolute Messi helped ensure they did.