Lionel Messi leads Argentina into World Cup final and one last chance to emulate Maradona
There will always be those who prefer their little maestros to come with a twist of villainy. But there’s been something about Messi at these finals. He’s declared his genius again but has done so with a snarl at times.
He’s dragged a rather ordinary team to the final of the World Cup for the second time in eight years. He can still lift the one trophy that has eluded him, emulating Maradona in 1986.
It wasn’t all about Messi. Julian Alvarez, his strike partner 12 years his junior, scored a stunning second goal six minutes before half time. There was no way Argentina were going to lose a two-goal lead for the second game in succession.
The Manchester City forward put his side three up with 21 minutes left - after more Messi brilliance left Josko Gvardiol in a daze - to make absolutely sure La Albiceleste will contest the final again on Sunday.
In 2014, the stage was Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana. The purpose-built Lusail stadium on the outskirts of Doha is not one of the temples of football, and likely never will be, but it could be where Messi seals a pact with his adoring public.
Millions who have never set foot in Argentina are willing him on but there’s also France or Morocco to consider. It’s far from a foregone conclusion. Who would have thought Argentina would return to the stadium where they lost against Saudi Arabia in their opening group game to have a tilt at being champions? Well, many probably suspected they might.
They recovered because of Messi. They always have a chance because of Messi, even a Messi who is in the twilight of his career and suffering from a hamstring niggle. There were worries he might not be able to continue as he held the back of his leg.
The 35-year-old burst into life to plant a penalty beyond Dominik Livakovic after 34 minutes after the 'keeper upended Alvarez with a clumsy challenge. It seemed a straightforward award but the Croatia bench protested vehemently. Messi ignored the hullabaloo to lash the ball past Livakovic, who was booked for the foul. The No. 10 is now Argentina's leading goalscorer in World Cups with 11 goals.
Alvarez has four already. The 22-year-old scored one that both Maradona and Messi would have been proud of, although it perhaps relied more on athleticism and luck than artistry. Alvarez twice got the benefit of the break of the ball, the first time after Celtic right back Josip Juranovic tried to intervene to halt a run that started in the Argentina striker’s own half, following a Croatia corner.
Alvarez saw the ball land in his path again after Borna Sosa’s despairing attempt to clear and he stabbed it past Livakovic. Messi left his best ‘til last, finding the energy to embarrass Gvardiol on the touchline by twice turning him inside out. The last dip of the shoulder allowed him to wriggle into the box before cutting the ball back for Alvarez, who converted again.
Messi, who recently racked up his 1000th appearance, now has four days to prepare for the game of his life.
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