A stunning performance from Lionel Messi propelled Argentina into their sixth World Cup final by beating Croatia at the Lusail Stadium.
Messi now has one last chance to grab the silver piece that eluded him in his trophy-filled career, but Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez, 22, also shone as Argentina ensured they will return here on Sunday to compete against either France or Morocco.
Messi appeared to be struggling with a hamstring problem early on, but Argentina’s little genius recovered enough to take the penalty spot after Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic fouled the marauding Alvarez after 34 minutes.
Alvarez doubled Argentina’s lead five minutes later when he took Messi’s header inside Croatian territory and launched a slalom run, helped by lucky rebounds from Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa before beating Livakovic.
A brilliant third-place finish after the break was unlucky as Messi charmed Croatia’s superb defender Josko Gvardiol on the touchline before playing the finisher in Alvarez.
Messi will now have the opportunity to redeem the bitter disappointment of losing the 2014 World Cup final to Germany at the legendary Rio Maracana.
Messi’s last jump to the world title
When Messi stretched and clutched the top of his left hamstring after 19 minutes in that World Cup semi-final, there were fears the dream could be a nightmare ending for Argentina and their legendary number 10.
Instead, Messi bounced back after a period of walking pace to inspire Argentina as they sought a third triumph in the tournament after victories in 1978 and 1986.
And what a long road it was when Argentina fell victim to what is still the biggest shock of this World Cup in Qatar when they lost their opening game 2-1 to Saudi Arabia, despite Messi providing one of the favorites pre-tournament front.
In 1990, Argentina were similarly stunned in their first game by Cameroon and reached the final, losing 1-0 to West Germany.
Now they have a chance to go one better as the World Cup reaches its climax. And Messi can finally claim the crown in his final tournament.
Argentina used this duel with the tenacious, resilient and talented 2018 finalists Croatia to produce their most convincing performance of this World Cup, suggesting that Lionel Scaloni’s side are reaching their peak at the perfect time.
Messi was inevitably the center of attention and involved in every goal, but Alvarez showed in Qatar that accidents aside, he has a wonderful career ahead of him.
There has been much talk of Manchester City’s heavy spending over the years but what a coup it was to sign Alvarez from River Plate for the bargain price of £14.1million.
Croatia says goodbye with their heads held high
Croatia, like so many before them, were crushed by the brilliance of Messi – as well as his young partner Alvarez – after making a confident and commanding start to this World Cup semi-final.
Their defense was uncharacteristically exposed in Argentina’s first two goals and even their superb young defender Gvardiol could do little against Messi’s twisted run that set up the third.
Croatia, on the other hand, put in another stellar tournament as the country of just four million people followed them into the bottom four in Qatar after reaching the final in Russia 2018.
If Argentina have Messi, Croatia have their own champion footballer in Luka Modric and he received warm applause from all quarters of the Lusail Stadium when he was substituted nine minutes from time.
He, like Messi, had his sights set on a World Cup triumph after suffering the same pain of ultimate defeat, but it wasn’t to be.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic and his players can be proud of their performance despite being beaten well here, and in 20-year-old RB Leipzig defender Gvardiol they have spotted one of the World Cup’s standout stars who will serve them well for many years and is already a serious target for Europe’s elite clubs.
player of the game
7De Paul5Paredes24Fernández20Mac Allister
23E Martínez26MolinaSubstituted forFoythat 86’minutes13RomeroBooked at 68mins19OtamendiBooked at 71mins3Tagliafico7De PaulSubstituted forPalaciosat 74’minutes5ParedesSubstituted forLi Martínezat 62’minutes24Fernández20Mac AllisterSubstituted forCorreaat 86’minutes10Messi9ÁlvarezSubstituted forDybalaat 74’minutesSubstitutes1Armani2Foyth6Pezzella11Di María12Rulli14Palacios15Correa16Almada18Rodríguez21Dybala22La Martínez25Li Martínez
10 Modric 11 Brozovic 8 Kovacic
1LivakovicBooked at 32mins22Juranovic6Lovren20Gvardiol19SosaSubstituted forOrsicat 45’minutes10ModricSubstituted forMajerat 81’minutes11BrozovicSubstituted forPetkovicat 50’minutes8KovacicBooked at 32mins15PasalicSubstituted forVlasicat 45’minutes9KramaricSubstituted forLivajaat 72’minutes4PerisicSubstitutes2Stanisic3Barisic5Erlic7Majer12Grbic13Vlasic14Livaja16Petkovic17Budimir18Orsic21Vida23Ivusic24Sutalo25Sucic26Jakic
Referee: Daniele Orsato
Number of visitors: 88,966
Game ends, Argentina 3, Croatia 0.
End of the second half, Argentina 3, Croatia 0.
attempt failed. Dejan Lovren (Croatia) left footed shot from outside the box is too high. Assisted by Mislav Orsic.
attempt failed. Nikola Vlasic (Croatia) left footed shot from the right side of the box is high and wide on the left. Assisted by Mateo Kovacic.
Corner, Croatia. Nicolás Tagliafico scored.
Mateo Kovacic (Croatia) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Exequiel Palacios (Argentina).
Foul by Lovro Majer (Croatia).
Angel Correa (Argentina) wins a free kick on the left wing.
attempt saved. Lovro Majer (Croatia) left footed shot from outside the box is saved in the bottom right corner. Assisted by Mateo Kovacic.
Dejan Lovren (Croatia) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Paulo Dybala (Argentina).
Substitution, Argentina. Juan Foyth replaces Nahuel Molina.
Substitution, Argentina. Angel Correa replaces Alexis Mac Allister.
Corner, Croatia. Nicolás Tagliafico scored.
attempt failed. Alexis Mac Allister (Argentina) right footed shot from the center of the box is close, but misses to the right. Assisted by Paulo Dybala following a set piece situation.
Foul by Marko Livaja (Croatia).
Exequiel Palacios (Argentina) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Substitution Croatia. Lovro Majer replaces Luka Modric.
attempt failed. Mislav Orsic (Croatia) right footed shot from the left side of the box is close, but misses to the top right. Assisted by Ivan Perisic.
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