Lionel Messi produced a magical display to inspire Argentina to a 3-0 win over Croatia and fire his side into Sunday’s World Cup final.
Messi, 35, put his team 1-0 ahead from the penalty spot in the 34th minute at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday after fellow forward Julian Alvarez was brought down by goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
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His searing strike saw him become Argentina’s all-time World Cup top scorer with 11 goals before Alvarez took matters into his own hands to add a second five minutes following a scintillating 50-metre solo run.
The pair combined again for Argentina’s third goal in the 69th minute when Messi toyed with Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol out wide before driving past him into the box and laying on a pass for Alvarez to slot home.
Croatia, for all their control of the ball, were toothless throughout and registered just a single shot on target.
The 2018 runners-up paid the price for some atypically poor defending as they went out in the last four for the second time after their 1998 loss to France in their maiden tournament.
It marked a disappointing end for the team’s array of experienced stars, most notably captain and instrumental midfielder Luka Modric who, at 37, is unlikely to take part in another World Cup.
Argentina eye third World Cup win
Argentina will now look to land a third world crown after victories in 1978 and 1986. They last appeared in a final in 2014, when they were beaten 1-0 by Germany.
Clinching the trophy would also elevate seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi to the mythical status that the late Diego Maradona enjoys in the South American country.
The final could mark his last appearance at the World Cup, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward having hinted the 2022 edition will be his last.
It could yet be the perfect way to go out for a player widely regarded as one of the game’s finest ever players, if not the best.
“A lot is going through my head – it’s very emotional seeing all of this,” Messi said in a post-match interview on the field as he looked up at Argentina’s celebrating, scarf-waving supporters.
“To see the fans – ‘the family’ – during the whole tournament was so incredible. We’re going to the final, which is what we wanted.”
Argentina will face either defending champions France or surprise package Morocco, the first Arab and African country to make it to a World Cup semifinal, on Sunday.
France and Morocco play each other on Wednesday at Al Bayt Stadium. The final will be played at the 88,000-capacity Lusail Stadium.