World Cup 2022: Lionel Messi surge to within one win of elusive title

Lionel Messi had been waltzing about, searching for a way into Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal here at the Lusail Stadium, when Croatian seas parted and the moment arrived.

He had been stationary, one hand gnawing at his hamstring, prompting fears of an injury. He had been silent, almost as invisible as planet Earth’s greatest soccer player could possibly be. But then, over a rousing hour at the latter end of a rousing World Cup, Argentina roared.

Messi, for once, didn’t create the breakthrough; but he punctuated after his teammates concocted it from nothing. And that, above all, was the story of Argentina’s surge into its sixth World Cup final. Messi converted a 34th-minute penalty that Juilan Alvarez had won. Alvarez scored a second via fortune and space that Nahuel Molina had opened up. Messi, who’d grown into his typically dazzling self, then bamboozled the best defender at the tournament, Josko Gvardiol, to seal an emphatic win.

The Argentines beat Croatia 3-0 in yet another cauldron of noise, and lifted Messi, their captain and catalyst, and icon, to within 90 minutes of the trophy he has longed for.

Croatia, until Tuesday, had been the team that wouldn’t lose, a group of checkered warriors who simply refused to concede. In six World Cup knockout matches since 2018, they’d gone behind seven times, and only failed to equalize once, in the second half of 2018 final. They never actually held a lead in regulation, not once in six games, but they fought, survived extra time, and won five of them — four in penalty shootouts.

They never wilted and always believed, and Argentina knew this. La Albiceleste had lost to Croatia calamitously, 3-0, in 2018. Twelve years earlier, on the night Messi scored his first international goal to put Argentina up 2-1, the Croats had rebounded to win with a stoppage-time winner.

“In this beautiful sport, even if you think you’ve sealed the game, you may get surprised again,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal.

But then he added: ”I believe my team has the means, willingness, freshness, and pride to face anything.”

And on Tuesday night, for the umpteenth time, his team proved him right. They ascended into a first-half lead, and then, despite Croatia’s best efforts, just kept on ascending.

They started calmly, perhaps timidly, and settled into a cagey game that suited Croatia. But it surged into life in the 32nd minute, when Alvarez ran onto a through-ball, squirted a weak shot past Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, and clattered into Livakovic. Referee ​​Daniele Orsato pointed to the penalty spot. Enraged Croats surrounded him to no avail. And up stepped Messi.

Messi fired his penalty over Livakovic’s outstretched arm, and rose onto yet another page of Argentina’s record books. His fifth goal of this tournament was the 11th of his World Cup career, the most of any Argentine, ever.

This win, though, was as much about the 10 Argentines around him. They stifled Croatia, and five minutes after Messi’s penalty, they doubled the lead. Messi played a crucial part, poking the ball to Julian Alvarez and launching a counter. But Alvarez did the rest.

The 22-year-old forward picked the ball up in his own half and charged at the Croatian defense. A lung-bursting run from right back Nahuel Molina discombobulated the Croats, and knocked them back on their heels. Alvarez took advantage, running through a couple weak challenges. And with the benefit of a couple fortunate bounces, he incited the biggest eruption of noise all night.

Argentina only ascended from there, and put together its most complete performance of the tournament.

Its narrow four-man midfield — Rodrigo De Paul, Leandro Paredes, Enzo Fernandez, and Alexis Mac Allister — gradually wrested control of the game away from the Croatian trio of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic, and the supreme Luka Modric, who exited the game after 80 minutes to reverential applause.

And its fans, who have turned Qatari stadium after Qatari stadium into madhouses, kept singing, all the way through a final whistle that had become a foregone conclusion. They kept belting the catchy tune that has become their World Cup soundtrack, and which suddenly sounded prophetic.

“Muchaaaaachoooooosss,” they chorused, and then, over five short verses, on repeat, they told a story. It begins with decades of heartbreak since their two World Cup victories in 1978 and ‘86. It continues with “the finals that we lost,” including four at the Copa America since 1993, and “how many years I cried.”

With Yahoo Sports report

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