For Lionel Messi the crowning glory beckons. As Argentina’s gaze zeroed in on a third World Cup triumph, it was impossible to ignore their leader. It should not only be about him. There were other stars in blue and white stripes, most notably Julián Álvarez. But when Messi plays like this and with the power of the narrative around him, it can surely feel that way.
Messi was irresistible, overwhelming. He got Argentina up and running with a coolly converted penalty – his fifth goal of the tournament, taking him level with France’s Kylian Mbappé in the race for the Golden Boot – and he was involved at the beginning of the killer second for Álvarez.
But Messi made sure that he provided the abiding memory, saving his jaw-dropping moment for midway through the second half to end any notion of a Croatia comeback; an assist that came from a higher plane.
He picked up the ball flush on the right flank and surged in front of Josko Gvardiol, the acceleration belying his 35 years. He slowed down and went again but Gvardiol, one of the tournament’s best defenders, would recover. So Messi checked, back to his opponent. He needed to find another way.
And so he dropped his right shoulder and spun left, touching the ball around Gvardiol with his left boot, showing it to him, almost teasing him, but never allowing him to get close enough to it. Messi pattered to the byline and along it before pulling back for Álvarez, who did the rest. Guardiol was powerless.
A few numbers are relevant because they seem to track Messi’s every breath. It was a record-equaling 25th World Cup appearance for him and his 11th goal in the competition was an Argentine record. His assist gave him eight in World Cups – the same as Diego Maradona. But it is what Maradona did at the 1986 tournament that Messi wants to emulate.
Messi has pretty much done it all. Eleven league titles. Four Champions Leagues. The Copa America. Seven Golden Balls. He has now scored 791 career goals, 96 of them for Argentina. The World Cup, though, is the CV gap that burns. Could it finally be his time?
Croatia have lived on the brink, close to the exit at the group stage; fighting back to beat Japan and Brazil on penalties in the knockout rounds. The 2018 finalists have routinely gone to extra time and beyond; they never know when they are beaten. This country of 3.9 million people has defied the odds time and again. . . but not here.
It was Argentina’s sixth World Cup semi-final and they have yet to lose one. Once Álvarez had scored his first, it came to look like an awfully big ask for Croatia and a symbol of their broken resistance came on 81 minutes when Zlatko Dalic replaced the talismanic Luka Modric. It wasn’t his night.
Lionel Scaloni could conduct the delirious hoards of Argentina fans behind one of the goals after full time and the manager was able to reflect on getting his tactics right. He went with a narrow but flexible 4-4-2, in which the full-backs were encouraged to push high and wide. It provided the platform for Messi to roam, his teammates filling the gaps around him, and also to get runners in behind, particularly Álvarez. Croatia came to be stifled, their full-backs pinned back.
It was an uncharacteristic loose touch from Modric that Argentina seized on to blow the contest open, Enzo Fernández sending Álvarez galloping away from Dejan Lovren. It was startling to see how much space Álvarez had and, although he could not finish, Lovren getting back to clear his chip, he was blocked off by the goalkeeper, Dominik Livakovic, who made no attempt to play the ball. Messi was never going to miss from the spot.
Croatia had wanted a corner from their previous move when Ivan Perisic’s shot seemed to deflect off an Argentina limb. They were incensed when the penalty was awarded. Mario Mandzukic, the assistant coach, was shown a red card.
A 1-0 deficit has tended not to be a problem for Croatia. In each of their previous knockout games at this World Cup and the last one they had conceded first. They would win on each occasion – apart from in the final against France. But 2-0 was more problematic.
What a terrible goal it was for Croatia to concede, caught on another quick transition after Argentina had cleared a corner. Messi got there before Marcelo Brozovic and, when Álvarez picked up possession just before halfway, he simply bulldozed through.
The decoy runs from Rodrigo De Paul and Nahuel Molina helped and, when Álvarez dropped his shoulder on the edge of the area, he got a break off Josip Juranovic. Borna Sosa could not adjust his feet, missing the attempted clearance and Álvarez relished the close-range conversion.
Messi radiated menace, ever alive to the killer pass. At 2-0 he really started to enjoy himself, wowing with the adhesiveness of his touch, the savage sharpness of his turns. Argentina almost scored again before the interval, Alexis Mac Allister extending Livakovic with a free header on a corner. The rebound almost went in off Juranovic. Mac Allister would go close to a fourth for Argentina late on.
Dalic went for broke at the start of the second-half, introducing Mislav Orsic on the left and Bruno Petkovic as a second striker, switching to 4-4-2. But Croatia would create little of clear-cut note and they were vulnerable to the break. Messi almost got in when he swapped passes with Fernández. The scene was set for his final sprinkling of magic.