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 iconic leader and the compelling narrative around him. It was mainly because nobody inside this arena could take their eyes off him.
Messi 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 Golden Boot race – and he was involved at the beginning of the killer second for Julian Álvarez. What a run it was from Álvarez, all power and intent; the finish so simple after what had gone before.
Messi was not finished, his jaw-dropping moment being the assist for Álvarez’s second that ended any notion of a Croatia comeback. Picking up the ball on the right, he ran away from Josko Gvardiol, stopped, went again, tying one of the tournament’s best defenders in a knot. There was then a spin, an ease away from him along the byline and a pull‑back. Álvarez did the rest. Gvardiol was powerless. So were Croatia.
A few numbers, becauseas they seem to track Messi’s every breath. On the occasion of a record-equalling 25th World Cup finals appearance, he scored his 11th goal in the competition, an Argentina record. His assist gave him eight in World Cups – the same as Diego Maradona. But it is what Maradona did in 1986 that he most wants to equal. Messi has won it all – apart from the World Cup. Could this finally be his time?
Croatia have lived on the brink: close to the exit at the group stage; fighting back to turf out Japan and then Brazil in the knockout rounds. The 2018 finalists had routinely gone to extra time and beyond; they never know when they are beaten. This country of just 3.9 million people has defied the odds over and over again. Not here. Their resistance was finally broken. Comprehensively. It was Argentina’s sixth World Cup semi‑final. They are still to lose one.
The midfield was the battleground, with Lionel Scaloni changing Argentina’s shape from the quarter-final win against the Netherlands, going with a narrow 4-4-2 that featured plenty of flexibility, the full-backs encouraged to get high and wide. The idea was to provide a platform for Messi to roam, players essentially filling the gaps around him, and also to counter the threat of Luka Modric and his sidekicks. It would not be Modric’s night.
It was always going to be a slow‑burner at the start, heavy on shadow-boxing, both teams wanting to feel the ball, to size up what was in front of them. Croatia sought control, for their midfielders to come good on the pre-match line from the full‑back, Josip Juranovic. Giving them possession, he said, was “safer than having money in the bank”.
And yet. It was Modric who took a loose touch in the build-up to the breakthrough goal – which blew the contest wide open. After the caginess that had gone before, it was startling to see how Álvarez was able to tear beyond the last defender – Dejan Lovren – and on to Enzo Fernández’s nicely weighted pass. He was clean through.
Out came Dominik Livakovic, and Álvarez went for the chip, getting it past the goalkeeper, though not Lovren, who sprinted back to hook clear. But Livakovic had checked Álvarez to make sure that he got no further, failing to play the ball. It was a clear penalty.
At the other end, Emiliano Martínez looked away but he need not have worried. Messi was never going to miss. 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 on the bench.
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 won on each occasion – apart from in the final against France.
But 2-0 was more problematic. What a dreadful second 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 he dropped his shoulder on the edge of the area he got a break off Juranovic. Borna Sosa could not adjust his feet, swiping at the attempted clearance. Álvarez, who just kept on going, relished the close-range conversion.
Álvarez had worked Livakovic with a 25th-minute curler, although it might have been going just wide. Now Argentina went for the jugular before the interval, with Alexis Mac Allister extending Livakovic with a free header on a corner. The ball hit Juranovic and almost went in for an own goal. 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.
Zlatko Dalic could be seen trying to smooth his hair after the second goal. What had happened? He 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 an old-school 4-4-2.
Croatia looked briefly more threatening, even though they were vulnerable to the counter. Messi almost got in after playing a slick one-two. The angle was too tight for him. Scaloni had seen enough just past the hour, introducing Lisandro Martínez for Leandro Paredes and changing to 3-5-2. And when Messi broke again in the 69th minute, he applied the final sprinkling of magic.