In this regal third act, Lionel Messi has the rarest second chance. A player commonly recognised as the greatest ever will have another sacred opportunity to confirm that on Sunday.
Messi goes to a second World Cup final, having driven Argentina to their sixth. The force of such a word doesn’t really do justice to the display that was witnessed at the Lusail, which had the 35-year-old take command of the stage by so dazzlingly taking control of the ball.
The first goal of this commanding 3-0 win over a jaded Croatia reflected the focus that has characterised his World Cup, and made him its joint top scorer. The assist for the third - if it can even be reduced to such a term - reflected the mercurial mastery of a football that has characterised his entire career.
If all of this seems too focused on Messi, just as a great football nation returns to the greatest stage, it is only because the Argentina players would say the same. They talk of how he has fired them through this World Cup, with the will to win it for him also uniting the team even more.
Qatar’s immoral World Cup may yet have an immortal story. That’s what they hosted it for.
Messi’s very way of playing is a testament to how there will always be something about football beyond value, and it is why much of the world is willing him to finally do it.
That isn’t universal, of course, and you don’t even have to go as far as devoted fans of a rival in Cristiano Ronaldo who has now been left in the dust. Messi’s very behaviour in this tournament has turned many off. It has influenced that of his teammates, which has occasionally been worse.
Those within the Argentina squad would say it just shows what it means to them. That could be heard in the crowd, which represented another football experience.
It wasn’t seen on the pitch this time, though, because Argentina didn’t need it. They were just so much better than Croatia, as they again showed they are a team becoming grander as a World Cup narrows to its grand finale.
If that represents Messi’s last ascension as a player, as he stands on the brink of something historic, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it might have been Luka Modric’s last in the World Cup.
This shouldn’t have been how he goes out. The midfielder still distinguished himself, but the issue was that he just didn’t have the quality around him.
There were moments in this game, especially in the procession of a second half, when it was hard not to wonder how they had got this far; how they had denied the world an Argentina vs Brazil showdown.
That path was actually part of the reason, though. They had little left to give. They had less up front. There was basically only one type of match they could play here, and Argentina were not going to give them that chance.
That superb Croatia midfield were left to keep possession in the middle, but the trapdoor was always there. They didn’t have the pace in front or behind, which made any potential slip fatal.
It was opened in the 33rd minute as the burgeoning Enzo Fernandez saw one of the many gaps behind the Croatian midfield and picked out Alvarez with a beautiful lofted ball. The forward turned and allowed it to come through, only to find Dominik Livakovic coming through the other side. Alvarez got a touch off but then felt the full force of the goalkeeper, whose body moment left both crashing to the ground.
It caused debate, but it was difficult to see how. If Livakovic doesn’t take him down after coming out with such force, it’s a goal. It was certainly a goal moments later.
Despite Croatia doing so much to distract him, and Livakovic having proven himself one of the finest penalty stoppers in the tournament, Messi stayed focused. More than focused. He perhaps hit his best ever penalty, one that was perfect. Messi just drove an unstoppable shot right into the top corner. Not even Livakovic was getting anywhere near that.
It was perhaps the purest illustration of his mindset in this World Cup, especially since penalties in international tournaments have been one of the great banes of his career. Is that one other ghost banished?
We will have to wait until the final, at this same stadium, to know for certain. It soon became certain that Argentina were returning.
Croatia now had to push up even more, leaving even more of those gaps in behind. It seemed like they were so used to congesting that space that they weren’t used to having to push up as a high line. Hence they had nothing even resembling an offside trap.
Worse, they had nothing really resembling a forward. That saw so many moves quickly collapse at the same area of the pitch after so much slow build-up, only for Argentina to break at pace.
This went to almost absurd extremes for the second goal. Croatia had a corner, lost the ball, and Alvarez just raced up the pitch to score. That rudimentary description removes key elements, like how Messi won it in the middle, and all of Croatia’s various attempts to challenge the forward.
There was little they could do. This was the story of the game. This was the ending of the contest.
Messi delivered a coup de grace to properly make the match his own - and maybe the World Cup his own - with a run that was just too good for Croatia to deal with and too easy for Alvarez to finish.
Even a defender as accomplished as Josko Gvardiol was made look hapless. It was vintage Messi, and maybe immortal Messi.
The reaction at the end said it all. The signature moment may be yet to come.
Croatia’s dream is over. This goes beyond a dream for Messi and Argentina, though.
It has never been closer to reality.
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