Lionel Messi’s lifelong dream of leading Argentina to the world title will live on until the final day of Qatar 2022 la Albiceleste outclassed a tired-looking Croatia in a 3-0 win in Tuesday’s semifinals.
Two goals in the first half, the first a penalty from Messi and the second a solo effort from Julian Alvarez, put Argentina in a superior position at the break, a position from which it looked like Croatia would never recover.
Alvarez secured victory with Argentina’s third second-half goal after a wonderful assist from Messi, giving the South American team and their 35-year-old captain a chance to banish the demons of the 2014 final defeat and secure the country’s first World Cup since 1986
Messi spent parts of the game feeling his left hamstring, although you wouldn’t guess he was uncomfortable considering how his labyrinthine, winding run saw one of the tournament’s top defenders, Joško Gvardiol, finish Argentina’s third to score a goal.
Messi’s near-superhuman powers are no doubt dwindling 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-finals and his overall performance in Tuesday’s semi-finals added more memorable moments to a nation of 45 million who believe him to be almost 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 the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night.
As the clock ticked deeper into injury time and victory was in doubt, the Argentina bench and coaching staff joined in the rhythmic songs and chants roared from the stands.
After the final whistle, Argentina’s players stood in front of the huge wall of blue and white jerseys and took in the admiration of their adoring fans.
It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same side that lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia in their opening group stage game just three weeks ago – a performance so tasteless and uninspired it left some wondering if Argentina would even make it out of the group.
Now, against either France or Morocco, Messi has one last chance to lift the trophy he most desires.
When asked if Sunday’s game will be his last at a World Cup, Messi replied: “Yes. Sure, yes. It’s many years from now and I don’t think I have it in me and finishing like this is the best.
“[I feel] good luck in being able to achieve this. To end my World Cup career, I played my last game in a final. Everything I experienced at this World Cup, what people experienced and how much the people of Argentina enjoy it all is very emotional.
“I enjoy everything very much, I feel strong to be able to face every game. We made a lot of big sacrifices, like playing extra time, which wasn’t easy. We were tired but the group gave a bit more, it was a very tough game that went the way we prepared.
“We knew they would have a lot of possession and that we would have our chances. It was a well-prepared game like we always do and I’m happy, I’m enjoying it all a lot.”
With Messi and Croatia’s Luka Modrić both captains have led their countries to losing World Cups and this would be the last chance for either of them to get their hands on football’s most coveted prize.
Neither side was among the tournament favorites before Qatar 2022, but Croatia surprised the world by reaching the final four years ago and did so again in the previous round in Qatar, beating pre-tournament favorites Brazil on penalties with a show of pure Determination turned off and determination.
Modrić, Croatia’s star player and a living legend in the small Balkan nation, is battle hardened in the biggest games and has been part of arguably the best midfield in Qatar alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic.
Argentina have also improved over the course of the tournament – although after their stunning defeat by Saudi Arabia they couldn’t have gotten worse.
The team who now seem to believe the script was written for Messi’s final dance, which ends in glory on Sunday, is hardly recognizable from the squad that took the field that day.
Despite Croatia being just the better of the two teams early in the game, these players had played as many minutes as possible in Qatar, beating Japan and Brazil on penalties after two energy-sapping overtimes.
Their weary legs seemed to show early on at Lusail Stadium and even a mistake at this level can prove costly.
That was the case for Croatia, as surprisingly Modrić missed the ball in midfield and Gvardiol was denied by Alvarez, leaving Dominik Livakovic – two-time Croatian penalty taker in Qatar – exposed to the Manchester City striker one-on-one .
Alvarez punched the ball around Livakovic, whose outstretched leg brought the forward down, and Messi made no mistake as he converted the resulting penalty and smashed it high into the top corner.
It was Messi’s 11th World Cup goal, taking him past Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time leading scorer at World Cups.
The game quickly looked like Croatia would get away with it, as Alvarez made it 2-0 just five minutes later.
Borna Sosa’s feeble cross into the box set off an Argentine counterattack, with Alvarez running for three quarters of the field and sinking the ball past Livakovic after two random rebounds inside the box.
Only a brilliant reflex save from Livakovic kept Croatia’s score from deteriorating before half-time, but even for a side used to conjuring up footballing wonders it would take something special to bounce back from this one.
However, Croatia offered little forward movement in the second half, a combination of tired attacking play and strong Argentine defense, and the execution suspension lasted until the 70th minute.
Messi took the ball low and ran Gvardiol into the air before finding Alvarez in the box to delight Argentina fans at the Lusail Stadium.
Argentina, written off by many as inferior to other World Cup contenders, weren’t supposed to make it to the final in Qatar, but a determined and determined Messi helped make it happen.