Argentina powered past Croatia to reach the final of the 2022 World Cup.
They beat their opponents 3 – 0 and will now meet either France or Morocco in Sunday’s final.
And, as ever, the Argentine captain, Lionel Messi was at the heart of the action.
Croatia reach the end of the road
Croatia have deservedly earned a reputation for punching above their weight in world football, given the size of their population and also for their character and resolve.
Four years ago they reached the final in Russia after going to extra time – and in two cases penalties – in all three of their knock-out games.
And they had beaten both Japan and Brazil in penalty shoot-outs to get this stage again.
But fielding one of the oldest teams in the World Cup, this game proved to be one too far for them.
Their game plan to keep the match tight, and rely on the odd set-piece and counter-attack to score was undone by their inability to keep Lionel Messi in check, whilst Julian Alvárez was able to run beyond and behind their defence time and again.
They failed to muster a single shot on target and, what promised to be a close encounter proved to be anything but in the end.
The team still has one more game to play, the largely meaningless third place match on Saturday.
But, if they can win that, a third placed finish in this World Cup is by no means an insignificant achievement.
Alvárez the new star
22 year old Alvárez arrived in Qatar as the back-up to main striker Lautaro Martínez, but with the Inter Milan striker struggling for form, the Manchester City player was given his chance and has not looked back.
He was a constant threat to Croatia throughout this game, who could not cope with his pace, and it was he who was brought down by goalkeeper Dominik Livaković in the 34th minute to earn his side the penalty from which Lionel Messi emphatically put his team ahead.
The second goal five minutes later was all his own work though, A run from his own half direct at the Argentine goal, although he was helped along the way by a couple of kind deflections that fell his way.
He scored his second to effectively kill of the match in the second half, but the architect of that goal was Messi.
When Messi felt his hamstring early in the match, the hearts of Argentine supporters were in their mouths, but he recovered and was able to play a full part in the match.
And it was he who produced the magic that led to the third goal. He picked up the ball on the right touchline, where he appeared to be tightly hemmed in Joško Gvardiol who has acquired the reputation of being one of the best defenders at this World Cup.
Yet Messi turned him inside out, shrugged off his challenge and pulled the ball back for Alvárez who was left with the simple task of putting the ball in the net.
He became the first man to both score and assist in three successive knock-out games in a World Cup since 1966.
Messi’s last World Cup
Now 35, Messi has confirmed that Sunday’s final will be his last ever World Cup game.
He has never won football’s biggest prize, and for years has lived with the tag of being one of the best players never to have won a World Cup. After the victory he said “I am very happy for finishing my journey in World Cups in a final, to play the last game in a final. That is really very gratifying.”
He now has the chance to cement his legacy and in the eyes of many finally decide one of the greatest debates among football fans,
Who is the greatest player of all time, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
This is after a campaign that began in the worst possible fashion with a shock defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia.
And it also proves that losing the first match in a World Cup does not have to be terminal. Argentina also lost the first game in the 1990 World Cup to Cameroon and still reached the final that year, whilst Spain would win it 20 years later after also experiencing opening game defeat.
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