Lionel Messi’s lifelong dream of guiding Argentina to World Cup glory will remain alive until the last day of Qatar 2022, as La Albiceleste outclassed a weary-looking Croatia in a 3-0 victory in Tuesday’s semifinal.
Two first-half goals, the first a Messi penalty and the second a solo effort from Julian Alvarez, put Argentina in a commanding position at the interval, a position that Croatia never looked like recovering from.
Alvarez secured the victory with Argentina’s third goal in the second half following a wonderful Messi assist, providing the South American team and its 35-year-old captain with a chance to banish the demons of the 2014 final defeat, as well as securing the country’s first World Cup title since 1986.
Messi spent parts of the game feeling his left hamstring, though you wouldn’t have guessed he was in any discomfort by the way his mazy, twisting run bamboozled Joško Gvardiol, one of this tournament’s best defenders, to create Argentina’s third goal.
Messi’s near superhuman powers are undoubtedly dwindling as he plays into the twilight of his career, but the little magician still has the ability to deliver moments of genius just when his country needs him most.
His goal against Mexico in the group stages, the assist against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and his overall performance in Tuesday’s semfinal have provided yet more memorable moments to a nation of 45 million people that consider him to be not far from a deity.
As many as 40,000 Argentina fans are estimated to have traveled to Qatar for this World Cup, according to the Argentine embassy in Qatar, and it sounded like all of them were inside the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night.
As the clocked ticked deeper into injury time and the victory was beyond doubt, the Argentina bench and coaching staff began to join in with the rhythmic songs and chants that were being bellowed from the stands.
After the final whistle, the Argentina’s players stood in front of the huge wall of blue and white shirts and took in the adulation of their adoring fans.
It is almost impossible to believe that this is the same team that lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia just three weeks ago in its opening group stage match – a performance so insipid and devoid of inspiration that it left some wondering whether Argentina would even make it out of the group.
Now, against either France or Morocco, Messi will have one final chance to lift the trophy he craves the most.
When asked whether Sunday’s game will be his last at a World Cup, Messi replied: “Yes. Surely yes. There’s a lot of years until the next one and I don’t think I have it in me and finishing like this is best.
“[I feel] a lot of happiness to be able to achieve this. To finish my World Cup career playing my last game in a final. Everything I’ve lived in this World Cup, what people experienced and how much the people back in Argentina are enjoying it all is very emotional.
“I’m enjoying everything a lot, I feel strong to be able to face each match. We’ve come along making a lot of big sacrifices, like playing the extra time which wasn’t easy. We were tired but the group gave that little bit more, it was a very tough game which went the way we prepared for.
“We knew they would have the ball a lot and that we would have our chances. It was a well prepared match like we always manage, and I’m happy, I’m enjoying it all a lot.”
A date with destiny
In Messi and Croatia’s Luka Modrić, both captains have led their countries in losing World Cup finals and this would be the last chance for both to get their hands on football’s most coveted prize.
Neither side featured among the tournament favorites ahead of Qatar 2022, but Croatia stunned the world four years ago in reaching the final and did so once again in the previous round in Qatar, eliminating pre-tournament favorite Brazil on penalties in a display of sheer grit and determination.
Modrić, Croatia’s star player and a living legend in the small Balkan nation, is battle-hardened in the biggest matches and, alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, has been part of arguably the best midfield in Qatar.
Argentina, similarly, has also improved as the tournament has gone on – though it was hardly able to get any worse after that stunning defeat to Saudi Arabia.
The team, which now seems to believe the script is written for Messi’s last dance to end in glory on Sunday, is almost unrecognizable from the one that took to the pitch that day.
Though Croatia started the match marginally the better of the two teams, these players had played as many minutes as were possible so far in Qatar, winning against Japan and Brazil on penalties following two energy-sapping spells of extra time.
Their tired legs seemed to show early on in the Lusail Stadium and even one mistake at this level is likely to prove costly.
That proved to be the case for Croatia as, surprisingly, Modrić of all people gave the ball away in midfield and Gvardiol failed to track Alvarez, leaving Dominik Livakovic – twice Croatia’s shootout in Qatar – exposed one-on-one against the Manchester City forward.
Alvarez poked the ball around Livakovic, whose outstretched leg brought the striker down and Messi made no mistake in converting the resulting penalty, smashing it high into the top corner.
That was Messi’s 11th World Cup goal, taking him past Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time leading goalscorer in World Cup finals.
The match quickly looked as though it was getting away from Croatia as Alvarez made it 2-0 just five minutes later.
Borna Sosa’s poor cross into the box sparked an Argentina counterattack, with Alvarez running three-quarters of the length of the pitch and, after two fortuitous ricochets in the box, buried the ball past Livakovic.
Only a stunning reflex save from Livakovic prevented the score getting any worse for Croatia before half time, but it would take something extra special, even for a team that is used to conjuring footballing miracles, to come back from this one.
However, Croatia offered little going forward in the second half, a combination of weary attacking play and stout Argentine defending, and its stay of execution lasted until the 70th minute.
Messi picked up the ball deep and ran Gvardiol ragged, before finding Alvarez inside the box to send the Argentina fans inside the Lusail Stadium into raptures.
Argentina, written off by many as inferior to other World Cup contenders, wasn’t supposed to make it to the final match in Qatar, but a determined and single-minded Messi has helped ensure that it has.