Many people’s pre-tournament tip to win the competition eased through to their 6th World Cup final on Tuesday (13 December) night, when Argentina comfortably despatched a Croatian side, which on the night had no answer to moments of brilliance from the genius that is Lionel Messi.
Two goals in five minutes towards the end of the first half and a third half way through the second half gave the Argentines a safe passage, and despite conceding a greater percentage of possession, they were never seriously troubled and can now look forward to discovering who their opponents will be in next Sunday’s show-piece fixture, when Morocco and France go head to head in the second semi-final, on Wednesday (14 December) night.
Both sides approach game in confident mood
Coming into the game these two sides had both had thrilling penalty shoot-out victories in their respective quarter-finals, so confidence would have been high. Argentina withstood a brave comeback from the Netherlands after seeming to be cruising; but to their credit, they found another gear to end extra-time the stronger side and there was an air of inevitability about the penalties, which they duly won with relative ease.
Croatia on the other hand had stunned the Brazilians, after the South Americans had taken the lead during extra-time in their match; but had switched off at a crucial moment near the end, which allowed the Croats to equalise, and more importantly gain the initiative, before running out eventual winners.
Penalty changes whole complexion of the game
During the first thirty minutes of the first semi-final, played at the Lusail Stadium, neither side imposed themselves on the game, with Croatia, beaten finalists four years ago, dominating possession, but not doing a great deal with it.
Then out of nothing, Julian Alvarez found himself clear of a sleeping defence and having knocked the ball past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, the players crashed into each other and the referee pointed to the spot, promptly booking the Croatian stopper for his troubles.
On first viewing it looked a blatant foul, but on closer inspection there certainly was an argument to suggest the forward had run into the keeper, rather than the other way around; but penalty it was and step forward the maestro that is Messi.
Never in doubt
Livakovic had been hero of the shoot-outs in both previous knock-out games, so in theory he would have fancied his chances… in practice not a hope! Messi smashed an unstoppable shot high and wide of his flailing arm and the ground erupted.
Level now for top scorer award
Not including shoot-outs, only the great Eusebio of Portugal with four in 1966 and Rob Rensenbrink also with four for the Netherlands in 1978, have scored more penalties at a single World Cup tournament than the three Messi has netted this time around. That also took his tally to five in Qatar, putting him level with Kylian Mbappe in the race for the Golden Boot.
Second goal kills contest
There was still plenty of time left and Croatia had proved in eight of their last nine knock-out games that they were masters of taking games in to extra-time. However, before they had settled, Argentina hit them with a killer second, and questions will be asked amongst the Croats with regards to how it was allowed to happen.
Alvarez picked the ball up in his own half and basically ran in a straight line towards goal, he rode two half-hearted tackles and with the aid of a ricochet, finished emphatically from well inside the box, to send the vast majority of the stadium wild with delight.
A Croatian comeback seemed unlikely, given their lack of inventiveness in an attacking sense throughout the first-half, and so it proved. There was though still opportunity for the sell-out crowd to witness some genuine Messi magic, when he laid on a second goal for Alvarez, and the third for the Argentines, practically on a plate.
Receiving the ball tight on the right hand touchline, he took on Josko Gvardiol, who in many “experts” opinions has been one of the stand out defenders at this tournament. Defying his 35 years, the little sorcerer dribbled from almost the half-way line all the way to the bye-line, with the ball seemingly stuck to his foot, accelerating away, stopping and doing the same again; leaving the defender floundering, whilst all the time keeping his head up to be in total control of the situation, and as a consequence, be able to set up his teammate for a simple stroke home from around eight yards.
Still the best
It was a run that was worth anybody’s entrance money to witness “live” and in that instance he proved to any doubters that he is still probably the best player on the planet and quite possible the greatest ever to play the game.
In search of third title
Argentina will now contest their sixth World Cup Final, having previously won twice: in 1978 and 1986; and been runners-up three times: in 1930, 1990, and 2014. The coach Lionel Scaloni has got the rest of the team to buy into the Messi show, and why wouldn’t they? With him in the form he is now showing, Argentina will take some stopping.
The shock defeat by the Saudis in the opening group game now seems a distant memory, and may actually have done them a favour, by straight away extinguishing all chances of complacency and adding a new focus to what was always unquestionably a very good side.
Fantastic showdown on the cards
France have a little matter of a semi-final showdown with Morocco to overcome first; but a victory for them would set up a fabulous side-contest in the final between Messi and Mbappe, as they battle not only for the Golden Boot, but also the recognition of being regarded the best player in the World… the smart money will be on Messi.