Lionel Messi’s lifelong dream of guiding Argentina to World Cup glory will remain alive until the final day of Qatar 2022, as La Albiceleste outclassed a tired-looking Croatia in a 3-0 victory in Tuesday’s semi-final.
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 Croatia never looked like recovering from.
Alvarez secured the victory with Argentina’s third goal in the second half after a wonderful Messi assist, providing the South American team and its 35-year-old captain with a chance to exorcise the demons of the last defeat of 2014, as well as securing the country. The first World Cup title since 1986.
Messi spent part of the game with his left hamstring, although you wouldn’t have guessed he was in any discomfort from the way his mad, twisting run bamboozled Joško Gvardiol, one of the tournament’s best defenders, to create Argentina’s third target.
Messi’s almost superhuman powers are undoubtedly waning as he plays in 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 quarter-finals and his overall performance in Tuesday’s semi-final provided yet more memorable moments for a nation of 45 million people who consider him not far from a deity.
As many as 40,000 Argentina fans are estimated to have traveled to Qatar for the 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 clock ticked deeper into injury time and the victory was beyond doubt, the Argentine bench and coaching staff began to join in with the rhythmic songs and chants that were booming from the stands.
After the final whistle, 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’s 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 uninspired that it had some wondering whether Argentina would even make it. Out of the group.
Now, against France or Morocco, Messi will have one last chance to lift the trophy he craves the most.
When asked if Sunday’s game would be his last in a World Cup, Messi replied: “Yes. Of course yes. There are a lot of years until the next one and I don’t think I have it in me to finish How is it best.
“[I feel] A lot of luck to be able to achieve this. To end my World Cup career with my last game in a final. Everything that I lived in the World Cup, what people experienced and how much the people back in Argentina are enjoying it all is very emotional.
“I really enjoy everything, I feel strong to be able to meet every match. We have come to make a lot of big sacrifices, like playing the extra time which is not easy. We are tired but the group has a little more , it was a very tough game that was like we prepared for.
“We knew that 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 really enjoyed everything.
In Messi and Croatia’s Luka Modrić, both captains led their countries in losing the World Cup finals and this would be the last chance for both to receive football’s most coveted prize.
Neither side was among the tournament favorites before Qatar 2022, but Croatia stunned the world four years ago to reach the final and did so once again in the previous round in Qatar, eliminating pre-tournament favorites Brazil on penalties in an exhibition of Sheer grit and determination.
Modrić, Croatia’s star player and a living legend in the small Balkan nation, has solidified himself in the biggest matches and, alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, was part of arguably Qatar’s best midfield.
Argentina, similarly, has also improved as the tournament has gone on – although it has hardly been worse after the stunning defeat to Saudi Arabia.
The team, who now seem to believe the script has been written for Messi’s last dance to end in glory on Sunday, are almost unrecognizable from the one who was on the pitch that day.
Although Croatia started the match marginally the better of the two teams, the players have played as many minutes as possible so far in Qatar, winning against Japan and Brazil on penalties after two energy-sapping spells of extra time.
Their tired legs seemed to show early at the Lusail Stadium and even one mistake at this level is likely to prove costly.
That was 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 ahead.
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.
It was Messi’s 11th World Cup goal, taking him past Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s leading goalscorer in World Cup finals.
The match quickly looked as if it was away from Croatia as Alvarez made it 2-0 just five minutes later.
Borna Sosa’s unfortunate cross into the box sparked an Argentine counterattack, with Alvarez running three-quarters of the length of the pitch and, after two lucky ricochets in the box, burying the ball past Livakovic.
Only a stunning reflex save from Livakovic prevented the score from getting worse for Croatia before half-time, but it would take something extra special, even for a team used to conjuring footballing miracles, to come back from that.
However, Croatia offered a little forward in the second half, a combination of tired attacking play and strong Argentine defense, and his execution lasted until the 70th minute.
Messi picked up the ball deep and ran Guardiola away, before finding Alvarez in the box to send the Argentine fans at the Lusail Stadium into raptures.
Argentina, written off by many as worse than other World Cup contenders, were not supposed to reach the final match in Qatar, but a determined and single-minded Messi helped ensure that they did.