Lionel Messi’s lifelong dream of leading Argentina to World Cup glory will remain alive until the final day of Qatar 2022 as La albiceleste defeated a tired-looking Croatia in a 3-0 win in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Two goals in the first half, the first a Messi penalty and the second a solo effort from Julian Alvarez, put Argentina in a leading position at the break, a position from which Croatia never looked set to recover.
Alvarez secured victory with Argentina’s third goal in the second half after a superb assist from Messi, giving the South American team and the 35-year-old captain a chance to banish the demons of 2014’s latest defeat and secure the nation’s victory. first World Cup title since 1986.
Messi spent parts of the match feeling his left hamstring strain, although you wouldn’t have guessed he was uncomfortable with the way his crazy, spinning run fooled Joško Gvardiol, one of the tournament’s best defenders. took to create Argentina’s third goal.
Messi’s near-superhuman powers are no doubt waning as he plays into the twilight of his career, but the diminutive magician still has the ability to deliver moments of genius just when his country needs him most.
His goal against Mexico in the group stage, the assist against the Netherlands in the quarter-final and his overall performance in Tuesday’s semi-final have provided even more memorable moments for a nation of 45 million that consider him not far from a god.
According to the Argentine embassy in Qatar, an estimated 40,000 Argentine fans have traveled to Qatar for this World Cup, and it sounded like they were all at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night.
As stoppage time ticked on and victory was beyond doubt, the Argentina bench and coaching staff began to join in with the rhythmic songs and chants bellowed from the stands.
After the final whistle, the Argentine players stood in front of the huge wall of blue and white shirts and enjoyed the admiration of their adoring fans.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same team that lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia just three weeks ago in the opening group stage match – a performance so bland and uninspiring that some questioned whether Argentina would make it through . from the group.
Now, against France or Morocco, Messi will have one last chance to lift the trophy he most desires.
With Messi and Croatian Luka Modrić, both captains have led their countries by losing the World Cup final and this would be their last chance to get their hands on football’s most coveted trophy.
Neither side were among the tournament favorites ahead of 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 pre-tournament favorite Brazil on penalties in a display of sheer guts and determination.
Croatia’s star player and a living legend in the small Balkan nation, Modrić is battle-hardened in the biggest games and has been part of arguably Qatar’s best midfield alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic.
Argentina has similarly improved as the tournament has progressed – although after that stunning defeat to Saudi Arabia it could hardly get any worse.
The team, who now seem to believe the script has been written for Messi’s last dance to finish in glory on Sunday, are almost unrecognizable from those who took the field that day.
Although Croatia started the game marginally better of the two teams, these players had played as many minutes as they could so far in Qatar, where they won against Japan and Brazil on penalties after two energy-consuming extra times.
Their tired legs seemed to show themselves early on at Lusail Stadium and even one mistake at this level is likely to prove costly.
That turned out to be the case for Croatia as, surprisingly, of all people, Modrić gave the ball away in midfield and Gvardiol failed to follow Alvarez, leaving Dominik Livakovic – Croatia’s two-time shootout in Qatar – one-on-one one was exposed to the Manchester City striker. .
Alvarez jabbed the ball around Livakovic, whose outstretched leg knocked the striker down and Messi made no mistake converting the resulting penalty, high into the top corner.
That was Messi’s 11th World Cup goal, passing Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time top goalscorer in World Cup finals.
The match soon looked to get away from Croatia as Alvarez made it 2-0 just five minutes later.
Borna Sosa’s poor cross into the box led to an Argentina counter-attack, with Alvarez running three quarters of the way down the field and, after two accidental ricochetes into the box, burying the ball past Livakovic.
Only a stunning reflex save from Livakovic prevented Croatia’s scoring from deteriorating before half-time, but it would take something extra special, even for a team accustomed to conjuring football wonders, to bounce back from this one.
However, Croatia offered little progress in the second half, a combination of tired attacking play and stout Argentine defence, and the stay of execution lasted until the 70th minute.
Messi picked up the ball deep and ran Gvardiol fraying, before finding Alvarez in the penalty area to thrill the Argentine fans at the Lusail Stadium.
Argentina, written off by many as inferior to other World Cup contenders, should not have made it to the final in Qatar, but a determined and determined Messi made sure they did.