Lionel Messi’s Argentina is now a win away from its goal of World Cup glory after dismantling a weary-looking Croatia, 3-0, in the first semifinal match this morning (3 a.m., Dec. 14 in Manila) at Lusail Stadium.
It is the sixth time Argentina reached the World Cup final, and they are now waiting for the winner of the France-Morocco game tomorrow (3 a.m., Dec. 15 in Manila) to determine their opponent.
A World Cup trophy is the one thing missing from Messi’s illustrious collection, so he made sure he converted the penalty kick—Argentina’s first goal—on the 34th minute after Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livacovic fouled Julian Alvarez (that also earned him a yellow card).
With a left-footed shot that sailed to the top right corner of the goal, the 35-year-old Messi also became Argentina’s all-time leading scorer at World Cup games, overtaking Gabriel Batistuta’s previous record of 10 goals made in the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cup matches.
After scoring the first goal, Messi made sure he had a hand in the other two that was both delivered by fellow forward Julian Alvarez. On the 39th minute with Messi releasing the ball on their own half in a counter attack, Alvarez charged through the center, leaving a trail of defenders in his wake. He then benefitted from a couple of fortunate deflections before he was able to poke the ball home from close range to make it 2-0 before the first half ended.
The third goal was more dramatic. With the Croatian defense converged on Messi as he neared the goal post on the right side, he saw a slightly open Alvarez and slipped in a quick pass. Alvarez was able to slip the ball past the right side of the goalkeeper for Argentina’s goal No. 3 that definitively ended any attempt for a Croatian comeback.
Against the odds
The match began with the odds stacked against Messi and Argentina. Due to yellow card suspensions in their quarterfinal match with the Netherlands, Argentina played without left back Marcos Acuña and right back Gonzalo Montiel. Even midfielder Alejandro Gomez was not available as he was still nursing an ankle injury sustained in the Round of 16 match with Australia.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni lined up Nicolás Tagliafico to replace Acuña at left back, and Leandro Paredes was deployed into the midfield in place of Lisandro Martínez.
Argentina last reached the final in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. only to lose 1-0 to Germany. That was as close as Messi had come to hoisting football’s most prestigious trophy, and many believe that this tournament will be his last shot at capturing the coveted prize.
As for Croatia, a win could have been their second consecutive World Cup final appearance after failing to beat France in 2018. But unlike their previous games, Croatia looked toothless against Argentina, and though they controlled the ball 61 percent of the time, they registered just a single shot on target.
It marked a disappointing end for the team’s array of experienced stars, most notably team captain Luka Modric who, at 37, is unlikely to take part in another World Cup tournament.