Magical Messi one match from immortality as Argentina storm into World Cup final
Lionel Messi is once again just one match away from winning the World Cup after Argentina swatted aside Croatia 3-0 at the Lusail Stadium in Tuesday’s semi-final, and they will now take on either France or Morocco in the final on Sunday.
After a quiet and cagey first half-an-hour, the South American side suddenly exploded into life and netted two quick-fire goals in the space of just five minutes through Messi and Julian Alvarez – a passage of play which effectively decided the contest.
A blunt Croatian attack struggled to mount a comeback in the second half and Argentina comfortably saw out the tie after Alvarez netted for a second time to set up another date with destiny for Messi after the heartbreak of losing the 2014 final in extra-time against Germany.
Argentina took the lead on Tuesday night in the 34th minute after Alvarez was played clean through on goal by a brilliant pass from the all-action Enzo Fernandez, only for the Manchester City forward to be wiped out by Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic as he attempted a dink.
The referee pointed to the spot and Messi stepped up. The Zagreb shot-stopper had already saved four penalties in Qatar but he could do nothing about the Argentine skipper’s strike, which flew into the roof of the net to see him eclipse Gabriel Batistuta as his nation’s outright top scorer in World Cups on 11 goals.
Croatia had enjoyed a measure of control up until that point, dominating possession through their trident of midfield maestros, but suddenly they looked rattled and Argentina smelt blood.
Just five minutes after opening the scoring, the Copa America holders doubled their lead with Alvarez again decisive; the 22-year-old picked up the ball on the halfway line, drove forward and bundled his way past a despairing challenge from Borna Sosa with the help of several ricochets before poking the ball past Livakovic.
The match was very nearly put firmly to bed moments later when Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister was left unmarked from a corner but this time Livakovic produced a brilliant, point-blank save to keep his side in the tie.
Croatia made a double substitution at half-time but it did little to change the flow of the match, with Argentina – and Messi in particular – finding and exploiting space on the break. One brilliant dribble on the hour-mark saw the PSG star unbelievably hold off centre-back Josko Gvardiol – arguably the most impressive defender of the Qatar World Cup – and spin in behind before stinging Livakovic’s palms.
Argentina had also taken a two-goal lead against the Netherlands in Friday’s fiery quarter-final only to suffer a late implosion under a bombardment of long balls, but there was no repeat of that collapse this time around as Messi produced a moment of unforgettable skill to end the contest.
Picking up the ball just inside the Croatian half, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner had Gvardiol on strings for the second time in the match, slowing down and speeding up all the way to the byline before finally escaping the centre-back and pulling the ball back for Alvarez, who had the easiest task to slot home from close range.
Victory means Argentina – who, let’s not forget, lost to Saudi Arabia in their first group match – will now compete to claim their third World Cup title in their sixth final, while Messi can overtake Lothar Matthaus and set a new record for the most appearances at a World Cup after tying the German on 25 thanks to his magical outing against Croatia on Tuesday night.
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