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Messi and Alvarez send Argentina to World Cup final

Mark Meadows Lusail Stadium
December 13, 2022

Lionel Messi can end doubts about the greatest player ever if he finally bags a winner's medal in Sunday's final, with Luka Modric's Croatia out of luck. Julian Alvarez also wowed the thunderous Argentina support.

Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez celebrate a goal for Argentina
Argentina forwards Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez provided the cutting edge Croatia lackedImage: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

In the battle of the majestic maestros, Lionel Messi got the better of Luka Modric on the mighty stage of a World Cup semifinal. Glory now awaits arguably the greatest player to ever kick a ball, while the other will surely bid farewell to the globe's premier competition in Saturday's unedifying third place playoff.

Argentina's captain fantastic struck the opening penalty and beautifully set-up the third in a 3-0 win, with young forward Julian Alvarez netting two to prove the team is much more than just their number 10.

"We have gone through some tough situations and some very good ones. Today we experienced something spectacular," Messi said. "I am enjoying it with all these fans and with all the Argentinians who are back in our country. I imagine it must be crazy."

Despite another virtuoso display from Messis Croatian counterpart, the game slipped away for the 37-year-old Modric amid uncharacteristically slack defending from his side.

Croatia exposed

RB Leipzig's masked warrior Josko Gvardiol has been a rock at this World Cup but suddenly a huge hole opened in Croatia's back line, allowing Enzo Fernandez's superb pass to find Alvarez free and bearing down on goal.

Dominik Livakovic, another star in Qatar, could do little to stop himself colliding with the Manchester City striker and Messi did the rest from the spot on 34 minutes, as he became Argentina's record World Cup scorer with 11.

The noise in the Lusail Stadium as the ball bashed the back of the net was like little else at this tournament, the throngs of Argentina fans dwarfing their rivals from southern Europe.

Many of the Argentina supporters are Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers who live in Qatar, adding a fervour and local flavour which spiced up the contest in Qatar's biggest arena of almost 89,000 people.

Alvarez then exposed a second chasm in the opposition defence when he charged through on goal, had a little bit of luck with the bounce of the ball and finished with aplomb.

All this was before halftime, and Croatia had no answer despite having decent possession. Oh how their fans dreamt of their 2018 run to the final and the power of Mario Mandzukic up front.

Andrej Kramaric is a solid Bundesliga striker but against the Albiceleste, they needed more presence in the forward positions. Modric's tidy play and metronomic accuracy can only do so much.

"We have prepared everything but we missed a real, genuine attacker," said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic. "I have nothing to complain about regarding the boys. They gave their best during this whole tournament... It is a deserved defeat."

Messi the magician

The whistle for the interval followed a piece of outrageous skill by Argentina's fulcrum on the touchline and the fans broke out into a deafening chorus of 'Messi, Messi, Messi' —  many of the migrant fans support the twice winners simply because of the 35-year-old magician.

Lionel Messi takes a penalty against Croatia
Lionel Messi opened the scoring for Argentina and was instrumental in the thirdImage: DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS

Alvarez, 22, showed there is a bright future for Argentina when the great man hangs up his boots. But Argentina's third and his second was more to do with mercurial Messi turning Gvardiol inside out before laying it off for the finish. The 20-year-old defender’s rising transfer value may just have dipped a little.

Now Messi has a second final to enjoy or endure after the pain of losing late on in extra-time to Germany in the 2014 showpiece.

Defending champions France or Morocco will be waiting in this same stadium on Sunday. Messi now knows the place well and crossed almost every blade of thinning grass, yet still looked so laid-back throughout.

A winner’s medal on Sunday will surely end the debate about football's top dog, as a tearful Cristiano Ronaldo heads with his tail between his legs into the Arabian desert or elsewhere.

Modric falls short

Messi's last World Cup dance will be in the final when he will become the tournament's all-time top appearance maker with his 26th game. Forbearer Diego Maradona also reached two finals, winning one and losing the other.

Luka Modric on the ball for Croatia
Luka Modric was as tidy as ever but Croatia rarely threatenedImage: Frank Augstein/AP/picture alliance

Real Madrid's Modric was meanwhile substituted off on 80 minutes to warm applause — left to wonder why Croatia’s previously solid backline crumbled.

The answer is that Argentina are a fine team with the best fans at the World Cup. That opening defeat to Saudi Arabia — also at this stadium — feels a lifetime ago.

"We knew we were not the big favorites, but we were not going to give anything away to anyone. We proved it match by match," smiled Messi.

Edited by: Matt Pearson