Lionel Messi is a match away from possibly being able to do what Diego Maradona did for Argentina in 1986: win the FIFA World Cup. This he assured on December 14, when his team beat Croatia with a convincing 3-0 hammering, Messi scoring the first off a controversial penalty and then providing a brilliant assist for Julián Álvarez to score. Álvarez had scored another fine goal in between.
That put Argentina back in the World Cup final, waiting for the France-Morocco semi-final to throw up the other contestant.
If there were any doubts about the 35-year0old Messi’s form, those were washed away in the semi-final. Sure, Álvarez and the rest of the team was brilliant as well, but the solid imprint of a Messi match was clear.
The final is on Sunday (December 18).
It will be Messi’s second World Cup final. Argentina lost the other one to Germany in 2014. This could be Messi’s last appearance at the tournament. It could yet be the perfect way to go out for a player widely regarded as one of the game’s best players.
Croatia, aiming to reach back-to-back finals after their 2018 heroics, were the better side during a cagey opening half-hour, but goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic brought down Alvarez as the Manchester City striker lifted the ball over him. This part remains in the debate stage, as to how much defence by a goalkeeper is defence and when it transgresses to the foul zone. After all, the box belongs to the goalkeeper more than it does to the attacker.
Livakovic was his country’s hero in the shootout wins over Japan and Brazil but he was left with no chance as Messi thumped his penalty into the top-right corner to join Kylian Mbappe at the top of the Golden Boot leading scorer race.
Alvarez then tenaciously bundled his way through a scattered Croatia backline on the counter-attack to double the lead, and the two goal-scorers combined delightfully in the 69th minute — Messi tormenting Josko Gvardiol with a winding dribble before teeing up Alvarez for his fourth of the tournament.
Messi scored his fifth goal of the tournament in Qatar to become the all-time leading goal scorer for the South American giants in the history of the showpiece event. After Messi converted a first-half penalty, Julian Alvarez netted a brace to seal a famous 3-0 win for Argentina in the semi-finals.
After the match Messi said: “I feel many things, it’s very exciting to see all this. Seeing the people, the family throughout the World Cup was something incredible. We’re going for the last game, which was what we wanted. Argentina is, once again, in the world final. Enjoy. We knew we weren’t the top candidates, but we weren’t going to give anyone anything. We showed it game by game.”
Said Álvarez: “I’m happy, we deserved this. We’re in the final and that’s what we wanted. Now to rest and try to have a great game on Sunday.”