Argentina reach World Cup final as Messi makes the unbelievable real before our eyes

Croatia latest to the sword as forward smashes European side to smithereens in semi-final

Lionel Messi is now in touching distance of Diego Maradona and Pelé.

In Qatar, Argentina have continually rewritten their country’s epic World Cup poem. They return to the Lusail stadium on Sunday for a sixth final, in search of a third title.

Every game since defeat to Saudi Arabia three weeks ago has rattled the nerves, enhancing Messi’s legacy while simultaneously threatening a sour ending for the second greatest footballer alive, and possibly the best to ever play the game.

Time will tell.


Messi is making the unbelievable real before our eyes. In the fake city of Lusail, he snatched hold of this World Cup, his fifth, resurrecting the Albicelestes with a moment of pure genius.

Messi broke Croatia in the 69th minute. He, almost single-handedly smashed them to smithereens, teasing and toying with Bundesliga centre half Joško Gvardiol before a delicate cut back gifted Julian Alvárez his second goal to make it 3-0.

Thousands of Argentineans in the 88,996 capacity crowd seemed to overdose on joy, unable to find their voice. They needed a moment to let sink in what was happening. They thought they had seen it all with Maradona in 1986 and the Messi who dragged them to the 2014 final, with last year’s Copa America title his parting gift to a country he left for Barcelona as a child.

They were wrong, old Messi has saved the best for now.

Throughout this monumental run to the final, to face Morocco or defending champions France, the 35-year-old version of La Pulga has taken the form of Maradona in 1990, with a gorgeous assist for Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands. He also scored a daisy-cutter against Mexico when elimination was a distinct possibility.

He had done enough, seemingly.

Perhaps shook by the Dutch snatching two late goals in this stadium last Friday, to force a penalty shoot-out, Messi felt the need to drive the knife deep into Croat hearts.

In the 69th minute, with Argentina 2-nil up and coasting, he took possession just inside the opposition half, gliding down the right with Gvardiol by his side, a slow motion replica of Maradona’s iconic dribble, pausing with his back to goal on the edge of the box before a sudden turn left the 20 year old defender for dust. The needle still needed threading to find Álvarez. No problem, 3-0, goodnight Croatia.

Stubborn, boisterous Croatia had scrapped into a second straight World Cup semi-final with victory over Canada and four draws which required teely shoot-out victories over Japan and, sensationally, Brazil.

Messi refused to give 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luca Modrić a sniff of the long goodbye but before the two first half goals, a streak of worry sailed around Lusail. On 19 minutes, Messi was stretching his hamstring, rubbing it tenderly, after an innocuous nudge by Mateo Kovačić near the right sideline.

Inside a hundred seconds he had recovered, flashing one-twos with team-mates before aiming a pass at Nicolás Tagliafico that was intercepted by Dejan Lovren.

He was awake. He needed to be as Modrić and the Croats were visibly gaining confidence with each sluggish minute they dominated territory.

Messi was initially unsettled, fly hacking at Kovačić, when the brilliant Chelsea midfielder disposed him and stormed into the Argentina half. A three on two situation was halted by Tagliafico fouling Andrej Kramaric but the sequence only ended with Modrić racing 80 metres down field to halt a rapid counter attack.

The penalty arrived like a jarring uppercut as Argentina sprang off the ropes. After Modrić nutmegged someone foolish enough to lunge at him, the Croatian attack ended with Ivan Perišić demanding a corner. Italian referee Danielle Orsato had other ideas, sprinting after the latest Argentina break out to yellow card Dominik Livaković for body-checking Álvarez. Penalty. The Manchester City striker legitimately earned Messi’s fifth spot kick at this World Cup, toe poking the ball beyond the big Croatian goalkeeper, with a red card avoided by Lovran’s positioning.

Messi made it four from five penalty attempts in Qatar with a powerful, swerving strike that gave Livaković no chance. This had to be the case as Livaković heroically saved four penalties against Japan and Brazil in recent days. It was how Harry Kane intended it to go against France.

Messi’s 11th goal in 25 World Cup matches pushed him past Gabriel Batistuta – the great Fiorentina striker was among the media gallery – to move alongside Jurgen Klinsmann and one shy of Pele on the all-time scorers list.

The second Argentina goal was football’s version of The Ride of the Valkyrie. Again, Croatia were speculating near the South American goal when Marcelo Brozović’s inswinging free kick was headed clear to Messi, who Brozović quickly fouled, but it seemed like the Lusail pitch had tipped on its axis as play rushed downhill towards Livaković.

There are moments at this World Cup when Messi is resting and other Argentina players appear frozen, unable to see or hear him. Not this time. Rodrigo De Paul and Nahuel Molina overlapped Álvarez at a ferocious pace forcing Josip Juranović and Borna Sosa to hesitate as the ball clipped off both Croat fullbacks and sat up for Álvarez to finish.

Argentina chased hard for a third before half-time with Alex Mac Allister nodding Messi’s out swinging corner towards the far corner only for a superb one handed save by Livaković.

All told, Argentina storm into Sunday’s final, looking nothing like the team caught cold by the Saudis, as Messi vies with Kylian Mbappé for the golden boot, they are on five goals apiece, while Álvarez and Oliver Giroud pause on four.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent