Football Features

“Absolutely sensational” — Messi masterclass seals Argentina place in World Cup final at the expense of Croatia

By Ben Green

Published: 21:10, 13 December 2022

Argentina have reached the World Cup final after eliminating Croatia 3-0 in the penultimate round — with Lionel Messi stealing the show.

It was on this day exactly three weeks ago that Messi left the Lusail Stadium dejected and licking the wounds from a humiliating defeat to Saudi Arabia in Argentina’s curtain-raising fixture; fast forward 21 days and he has just produced one of the great World Cup performances at the same venue.

Since he first burst onto the scene as a mop-haired phenom all those years ago, Messi has continued to normalise the extraordinary; and yet, even when the natural wonder of his talents come to the fore time and again, we are still awe-stricken and transfixed by the mesmerising fluidity of his footwork and vision.

Croatia have been stubborn and industrious this World Cup, an expected by-product of any midfield containing Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic. But in Lusail, Argentina — inspired by their skipper, Messi — slipped under their radar, and countered with devastating precision.

It took Lionel Scaloni’s Copa America winners 34 minutes to break the deadlock after Messi clinically converted from the spot, following Dominik Livakovic’s foul on Julian Alvarez. The Man City marksman doubled Argentina’s advantage just five minutes later with a finish that Messi would have been proud of.

Collecting the ball in his own half, Alvarez cantered forward before a few fortuitous bobbles in the Croatian box saw him tuck beyond Livakovic. It was a beautiful solo goal, and one that had all the hallmarks of a Messi run-and-finish. But the best was still to come.

As Zlatko Dalic rang the changes at half-time, Argentina kept their footing and soon made it three with 20 minutes to go. Messi, collecting the ball just inside the Croatian half, made absolute mince meat of precocious defender Josko Gvardiol — who has been one of the standout stars of Qatar 2022.

Such has been his impression that Dalic even recently referred to the RB Leipzig man as “the best centre-back in the world. To play this maturely, it’s amazing. The way he plays, with the elegance he carries the ball.” Messi thumbed his nose at that statement by turning Gvardiol inside out.

After initially skipping past him on the flank, Messi checked infield and then proceeded to round him once more with an exhibition of dazzling footwork, before laying it on a plate for Alvarez to nab his brace, and ultimately secure Argentina their place in the Qatar showpiece this weekend.

“Absolutely sensational from Lionel Messi,” Alan Shearer commented on BBC Radio 5 Live. “We talked about his ability to go past defenders. He picks his head up in such a tight situation. The understanding and the relationship that he has with Alvarez.”

Messi now has a chance to etch his name further into the history books when Argentina take to the Lusail Stadium once again on Sunday. He became his nation’s outright record goalscorer at World Cups following his penalty tonight — but the only record he will care about is winning football’s most-coveted trophy.

Will this be his year?