Pre-tournament favourites Argentina stumbled at the first hurdle before getting their act together to storm into another final, led by their inspirational skipper Lionel Messi who has moved to the top of the tournament’s scoring charts.
Eight years ago, Messi dragged Argentina to the World Cup final only to lose to Germany but this time he has a supporting cast and a tactically astute coach in Lionel Scaloni who has guided them to the showpiece match in Qatar.
Here is how Argentina reached the World Cup 2022 final:
Argentina 1-2 Saudi Arabia
Argentina came into the tournament on the back of a 36-match unbeaten run and the last thing Scaloni’s side expected was to suffer what was statistically the biggest shock in World Cup history when Saudi Arabia beat them 2-1.
Messi scored a 10th-minute penalty in the first half where Argentina had three goals disallowed for offside before the Saudis struck twice in the second half to stun the South American champions.
Argentina 2-0 Mexico
Against Mexico, Messi matched Diego Maradona’s record of 21 matches and eight goals at the World Cup.
With the match deadlocked at 0-0 after more than an hour, Messi picked his moment and then picked his spot, firing home from 20 metres to beat goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa by the narrowest of margins.
Substitute Enzo Fernandez scored with another sublime strike to seal the points.
Poland 0-2 Argentina
In a match between Barcelona’s past and present, it was the club’s record scorer Messi who saw his side triumph while Robert Lewandowski, Barca’s top scorer this season, finished the game without a shot on goal.
Messi was fortunate to win a controversial penalty after a VAR check but missed from the spot as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny kept his cool and denied the Argentinian skipper.
But, despite the miss, Messi was at the heart of Argentina’s attacks and ran the show in his free role up front while Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez scored to ensure their side topped the group.
Last-16: Argentina 2-1 Australia
The stars seemed to align for Messi in their last-16 clash with Australia as he scored in his thousandth match to move past Maradona’s World Cup tally.
The goal was vintage Messi, almost as if time stood still for everyone else except the 35-year-old, who reacted quickly to a short layoff in little space to curl the ball home even as four Australian defenders tried to close the gap.
Alvarez made it 2-0 but an own goal from Fernandez set up a tense finish in which Argentina clung on for the victory.
Quarterfinals: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (3-4 on penalties)
Four goals, an equaliser at the death, brawls with team benches emptying out, a tense penalty shootout, accusations of unsportsmanlike conduct, 16 yellow cards and one red card – the Netherlands-Argentina game had it all.
A shell-shocked Argentina recovered from the last-gasp equaliser and in the shootout, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez made two saves before Lautaro Martinez finished things off to eliminate the Dutch in an ill-tempered game.
Semifinal: Argentina 3-0 Croatia
A match against Croatia, a team who had not won a knockout game in normal time since 1998, was set to test Argentina but they passed with flying colours as Messi almost single-handedly dispatched the 2018 runners-up.
Alvarez earned the penalty that Messi converted with aplomb and also scored twice, his first goal – a fantastic solo run from the halfway line to beat three defenders.
But once again it was Messi running things, setting Alvarez through on goal with the crucial touch before his own run from the halfway line and dribble past defender Josko Gvardiol set up his young strike partner for the easy finish.
Argentina will play holders France in the final on Sunday.