For Lionel Messi, the coronation is announced. As Argentina’s eyes focused on a third World Cup triumph, it was impossible to ignore their leader. It shouldn’t just be about him. There were other stars with blue and white stripes, including Julián Álvarez. But when Messi plays like that and with the power of the narrative around him, surely it can feel that way.
Messi was irresistible, overwhelming. He put Argentina back on track with a coolly converted penalty – his fifth goal of the tournament, leveling him with Frenchman Kylian Mbappé in the Golden Boot race – and he was involved early in the second killer for Alvarez.
But Messi made sure he provided the lasting memory, recording his jaw-dropping moment for the middle of the second half to end any idea of a Croatia come back; help from a higher plane.
He collected the ball low on the right flank and leaped past Josko Gvardiol, the acceleration belying his 35 years. He slowed down and started again but Gvardiol, one of the best defenders in the tournament, was recovering. So Messi checked, with his back to his opponent. He had to find another way.
And so he dropped his right shoulder and turned 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. Messi tapped on and along the line before stepping back for Álvarez, who did the rest. Gvardiol was helpless.
Some numbers, because they seem to follow Messi’s every breath. It was a 25th record equaling world Cup appearance for him and his 11th goal in the competition was an Argentinian record. His assist gave him eight World Cups – like Diego Maradona. But that’s what Maradona did in the 1986 tournament that Messi wants to emulate.
Messi has done almost everything. Eleven championship titles. Four Champions Leagues. The Copa America. Seven Golden Balls. He has now scored 791 career goals, including 96 for Argentina. A World Cup, however, is the CV gap that burns. Could it finally be his time?
Croatia lived on the edge of the abyss, close to exiting the group stage; fought back to beat Japan and Brazil on penalties in the Round of 16. The 2018 finalists regularly went to overtime and beyond; they never know when they are beaten. This country of 3.9 million people has defied the odds time and time again. Not here.
It was the sixth World Cup semi-final for Argentina and they have yet to lose one. Once Álvarez scored his first goal, it looked like a very big ask for Croatia and a symbol of their broken stamina came in the 81st minute when Zlatko Dalic replaced talismanic Luka Modric. It was not his night.
Lionel Scaloni was able to lead the delirious hordes of Argentina fans behind one of the goals after full-time and the manager was able to think about the right tactic. He went with a narrow but flexible 4-4-2, in which full-backs were encouraged to push high and wide. This provided the platform for Messi to move on, his teammates filling the gaps around him, and also to get the runners to follow, especially Álvarez. Croatia had just been suffocated, its side pinned.
It was an unusual loose touch from Modric that Argentina seized on to blow up the contest, Enzo Fernández sending Álvarez galloping away from Dejan Lovren. It was surprising how much space Álvarez had and, although he couldn’t finish, with Lovren coming back to clear his chip, he was blocked by goalkeeper, Dominik Livakovic, who didn’t no attempt to play the ball. Messi was never going to miss.
Croatia had wanted a corner on their earlier shot when Ivan Perisic’s shot appeared to deflect off an Argentinian branch. They were furious when the penalty was handed down. Mario Mandzukic, the assistant coach, received a red card.
A 1-0 deficit has generally not been a problem for Croatia. In each of their previous knockout games at this World Cup and the last, they had conceded first. They would win every time – except in the final against France. But 2-0 was more problematic.
What a dreadful goal it was for Croatia to concede, caught up in another quick transition after Argentina cleared a corner. Messi arrived before Marcelo Brozovic and, when Álvarez took possession of the ball just before halfway, he simply bulldozed through.
Decoys from Rodrigo De Paul and Nahuel Molina helped and, when Álvarez dropped his shoulder at the edge of the box, he earned a break from Josip Juranovic. Borna Sosa couldn’t adjust his feet, missing the clearance attempt and Álvarez relished the conversion from close range.
Messi beamed with menace, still alive to the killer pass. At 2-0, he really started having fun, amazing with the grip of his touch, the wild sharpness of his turns. Argentina nearly scored again before the break, Alexis Mac Allister extending Livakovic with a free header from a corner. The rebound almost hit Juranovic. Mac Allister would go nearly a fourth for Argentina late.
Dalic went broke early in the second half, introducing Mislav Orsic on the left and Bruno Petkovic as a second striker, changing to 4-4-2. But Croatia would create little clear mark and they were vulnerable on the break. Messi nearly came in when he exchanged passes with Fernández. The stage was set for his last pinch of magic.