Lionel Messi has the opportunity to cap his stellar career with football’s ultimate accolade after he brilliantly led Argentina to an emphatic victory over Croatia in the World Cup semi-final.
The talented Croatia side, who made the final four years ago, just couldn’t cope with the little Argentinian genius on the night. While Messi and his team-mates danced in front of a sea of blue and white in the Lusail Stadium, another diminutive maestro, Luka Modric, looked despondent as the curtain fell on his own World Cup career.
Now attention turns to the second semi-final on Wednesday night, with current holders France taking on African shock specialists Morocco. They will battle to face two-time winners Argentina in the final on Sunday.
The Messi Show
While Lionel Messi’s club form at PSG has been hit and miss, the seven-time Ballon d’Or is coming to the boil at exactly the right time for his country. He scored from the spot in the first half before setting up Julian Alvarez’s second - and Argentina’s third - after a tenacious run down the right wing.
The 35-year-old superstar finished as World Cup runner-up in 2014 and his determination to get his hands on the trophy has been clear in Qatar, where thousands have flocked to cheer him in that quest. Messi had already made history by merely stepping onto the field, equalling Germany great Lothar Matthaus’ record of 25 matches in the tournament.
Croatia had begun the brighter in Lusail, only for Dominik Livakovic to clumsily bring down Alvarez and see Messi slam the resulting spot-kick past him. Alvarez put Lionel Scaloni’s side further ahead before half-time, having raced from inside his own half to coolly direct home after benefitting from a couple of deflections and some weak defending.
The 22-year-old grabbed his second against the 2018 finalists after being teed up by Messi following some exquisite work by the skipper, whose side have the chance to join the heroes of 1978 and 1986 in immortality.
La Albiceleste have been backed to the hilt by their fans in Qatar, where relentless chanting and rhythmic drumming continued throughout a nervy start against Dalic’s slick, well-drilled side.
Croatia lack cutting edge
Veteran star Modric was playing some incisive passes and Mateo Kovacic was a driving force in midfield, but that outstanding unit was lacking an elite striker. Croatia failed to create a clear-cut chance before Enzo Fernandez saw a hopeful curling effort saved as Argentina belatedly flickered into life.
That shot was soon followed by a chance to open the scoring from the spot after Alvarez raced onto a ball over the top, only to be flattened by Livakovic. Referee Daniele Orsato pointed to the spot, booking the goalkeeper and the frustrated Kovacic and eventually sending off assistant coach Mario Mandzukic.
Livakovic went the right way but Messi’s powerful spot-kick was beyond him, nestling in the top right-hand corner in the 34th minute as he became his country’s top scorer in World Cup history.
Argentina pulled further ahead in the 39th minute as Croatia saw a corner routine blocked, leading to a break and Alvarez driving forwards from just inside his own half.
Zlatko Dalic made two changes for the second half as Croatia pushed to reduce the deficit, but their lack of a frontman continued to hamper them. Livakovic denied Messi from an acute angle as Argentina sought to expose gaps – although their skipper can find spaces where few thought any existed.
The captain burst past Gvardiol after showing impressive close control in the 69th minute. The talented Croatia defender eventually got back, only for Messi to turn him and cut back for Alvarez to slot home.
That strike ended the contest. Ivan Perisic saw a driven free-kick saved and Modric was applauded by both sets of fans as he was withdrawn.
Mac Allister volleyed wide and substitute Lovro Majer tried his luck as the match wound down, with Argentina’s bench jumping in unison with their fans’ chants before the final whistle sparked wild celebrations.