The bad news for whoever faces Argentina in Sunday’s World Cup final is that footballing magician Lionel Messi now has an apprentice in 22-year-old Julian Alvarez who scored twice in Argentina’s commanding semifinal win over Croatia.
Messi scored a penalty and then set up two goals for Alvarez, sealing a 3-0 defeat of the Croats that advanced Argentina to Sunday’s final against either France or Morocco.
Messi and Alvarez were described by the Associated Press as being like a pair of predators working in partnership on the pitch against Croatia on Tuesday night.
A tight-fought first half-hour was entirely turned upside down by Alvarez’s runs as he barrelled at speed into and through challenges in a devastating five-minute spell that left Croatia’s players strewn behind him on the grass.
Alvarez, who became the youngest player to score twice in a World Cup semifinal match since a 17-year-old Pele scored a hat trick for Brazil in 1958, now has four goals so far in this World Cup tournament, placing him just one behind joint top scorers Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappe.
But Alvarez’s path to his World Cup appearance was anything but smooth.
He had to fight his way into the starting lineup as Argentinian coach Lionel Scaloni initially preferred Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez. He then stayed on the bench during the shock 2-1 defeat Argentina suffered to Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s group stage. He also sat out the 2-0 win over Mexico that steadied Argentina’s campaign.
Getting his first start in the 2-0 win over Poland that secured Argentina’s passage to the tournament’s last 16 – and scoring his team’s second goal for good measure – Alvarez has been in the starting lineup since. He scored the crucial second goal in the 2-1 victory over Australia in the round of 16, and then caused the Netherlands plenty of problems in the quarterfinal.
Aside from the two goals on Tuesday against Croatia, both taken in ice-cool fashion, Alvarez stretched the Croatian defence with his constant running and probing.
It was a performance that left Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni purring.
“Julian played very well, not just because of his goals but also because he worked so hard to help against their three midfielders,” Scaloni said.
“At his age, it is normal that he wants to conquer the world.”
Of Messi, Scaloni said he had “no doubt” he is the greatest player of all time.
“So there is nothing left to say about Messi. It’s indeed a privilege to have him in the squad,” he said.
After taking applause for his performance at Lusail Stadium, Alvarez now has his sights set on Sunday’s challenge.
“We deserved this. We played a great game today. We’re in the final, which is what we wanted and now we need to rest and hope for a great game on Sunday,” Alvarez said after the Croatia match, and what was his greatest night so far wearing the famous light blue and white striped jersey.
“I’m happy on a personal level and for the group. We are happy with the way we are playing. We deserve to be in the final. That’s what we wanted,” he said.
While Messi will now hope to bow out as an absolute superstar of football with the one trophy that has eluded him, Alvarez is at the other end of his career.