Lionel Messi pushes Argentina past Croatia and into the World Cup final

LUSAIL, Qatar – And so Lionel Messi will get his chance, the chance to give his legacy everything that can ever be asked of a footballer to go from greatness to true immortality.

Once again, Messi was at the forefront and at the center of everything in Tuesday’s 3-0 World Cup semi-final win over Croatia at the Lusail Stadium. That night was about him because he always is. That’s what it’s like when you’re 35 and you have one of the all-time greats looking for ultimate validation.

Argentina plays for the ultimate prize on Sunday (10:00 am ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App).

His contribution to his team’s first goal was to shoot home calmly and hard from the penalty spot after work done by others. Argentina’s runner-up came with a remarkable solo run from Julián Álvarez.

[Related: Lionel Messi’s World Cup résumé stands apart as he pushes Argentina into final]

Then, on 69 minutes, the real masterpiece, a dazzling Messi run near the halfway line before delivering a pass to Álvarez to end it and snuff out any slight chance of a comeback.

Messi’s penalty, awarded after Álvarez was struck by goalkeeper Dominik Livaković in the penalty area, was unstoppably driven into the top corner in the 34th minute. Not only did it put the South Americans ahead against the run of the game, but it also propelled Messi to a solo spot as his nation’s top scorer at the World Cup with 11 points, breaking a tie with Gabriel Batistuta.

It seems a long time since Argentina lost their opening game of this World Cup to Saudi Arabia in a stunning clash, and we briefly wondered if they could even fight their way out of the group stage.

Now is the chance to equal Diego Maradona’s historic 1986 title and atone for the disappointment of 2014 when Messi played brilliantly before the final but was beaten by Germany on the big night.

Everything was set up here by Argentina’s outburst late in the first half and the opening goal that changed the tone of the evening. As the Croatians pressed, Álvarez got free and uncovered after a quick counterattack before being fouled by Livaković, who received a yellow card for his troubles.

Livaković, so effective on penalties for Croatia, didn’t stand a chance when Messi’s left footed shot was perfectly angled, high and to the left of the keeper.

Lionel Messi drives a PK home

Lionel Messi drives a PK home

Lionel Messi converts a penalty to give Argentina an early lead.

Croatia failed to open the game in any of their games of the tournament, with two goalless draws in their group, a comeback against Canada and two wins on penalties after equalizing against Japan and Brazil.

The 2018 finalist would have liked his chances to fight his way back into that hole, but a two-goal hole was another matter.

The second came when Álvarez launched into a counterattack and had the opportunity to pass to either end, only to then decide to go it alone. Two rebounds from the defenders fell right back in his path, and the Manchester City striker nudged the ball home to extend the advantage.

Julian Alvarez makes it 2-0

Julian Alvarez makes it 2-0

Minutes later, it was almost three, when Livaković saved Alexis Mac Allister’s header, taking the sting out of Croatia, who had stood so determinedly behind superb midfielder Luka Modrić all season.

Zlatko Dalić’s men tried to get in front in the second half but Argentina controlled things. Messi wasn’t done yet, of course. His tap run wasn’t going to be thwarted and when he reached the finish line all he had to do was shove him in the path of the unmarked Álvarez.

Messi prepares Alvarez

Messi prepares Alvarez

Argentina’s Julian Alvarez makes it 3-0 in the 69th minute, giving Argentina full control.

Success creates opportunities, and that’s exactly what Argentina has now.

The chance to become the first non-European world champion in 20 years. Capturing football’s greatest trophy for the third time. To complete the resurrection from this bad start.

And to give everything to Messi.

Highlights Argentina-Croatia

Highlights Argentina-Croatia

Lionel Messi is propelling Argentina into Sunday’s World Cup final.

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and Subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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