News analysis

Polished performance, sans petulance, sends Argentina into World Cup final

Argentina's Julian Alvarez (right) celebrating after scoring their second goal against Croatia with Lionel Messi. PHOTO: REUTERS

LUSAIL, Qatar - That twisting run, dribble and assist will be replayed countless times over the next few days and so will that emphatic, record-setting penalty.

But if Lionel Messi and Argentina are to lift the World Cup on Sunday, they need to replicate what they did during their 3-0 win over Croatia in Tuesday’s semi-final.

Against a Croatian team who had relied on resilience to get that far, Lionel Scaloni’s men arrived at the Lusail Stadium with a plan, stuck to it, and ultimately executed it perfectly.

There were none of the shenanigans that the Argentinians displayed in their quarter-final win over the Netherlands five days earlier.

No play-acting, silly fouls, or less-than-savoury antics like midfielder Leandro Paredes booting the ball at their opponents’ bench, which almost sparked a free-for-all.

Hanging on to a 2-1 lead near the end of that game then, Argentina conceded another goal in the final minute of injury time after Paredes’ foolishness.

That forced them to play another 30 minutes with the Dutch and they eventually relied on a penalty shoot-out to win, with ugly scenes from both sets of players marring that classic.

Against Croatia, they were all business, all the way.

Setting out to stifle the Croats’ excellent central midfield trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, Scaloni lined his team up with four midfielders narrowly, in order to clog up the middle of the pitch.

This meant the first half hour of the game was a stodgy affair, with the first shot on target coming only in the 25th minute.

Still, Scaloni would have been pleased with his charges’ discipline in keeping their shape and avoiding the sort of calamitous defending during their 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia in their first game of Qatar 2022.

That loss, 23 days ago at the same venue, seems a long time ago now and Argentina look a different team.

In fact, the two young starlets who helped them open the scoring in the 34th minute were not in the XI who started the Saudi match.

Midfielder Enzo Fernandez, 21, had set striker Julian Alvarez, 22, through on goal with a lofted pass that was completely misjudged by Croatia defender Dejan Lovren.

Alvarez managed to stab the ball past onrushing goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and was clattered in the process.

A recovering Lovren hacked the ball clear but referee Daniele Orsato gave the penalty for the foul on Alvarez.

The Croatian players crowded around the penalty spot protesting the decision, probably trying to unsettle Argentina’s kicker too by causing a delay.

Problem was, that player was Messi.

In a strike that typified his team’s performance on the night, Messi belted the ball into the top corner from 12 yards, giving Livakovic – who had stopped four penalties in shoot-outs in the previous rounds – no chance.

The goal was Messi’s 11th at the World Cup, and put him ahead of Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time top scorer in the event.

Five minutes later, Alvarez doubled Argentina’s lead with an incredible solo goal, having picked up the ball inside his own half.

It was not quite in the calibre of Diego Maradona’s “Goal of the Century” against England at the 1986 edition – when Argentina won their last World Cup – but it was memorable in its own right.

Alvarez ran almost straight through the Croatia defence, benefiting from a couple of lucky bobbles along the way before finishing from close range.

Alvarez’s energy and relentless pressing of Croatia’s defenders thrilled the Argentina supporters – who made up most of the 88,966 fans in the Lusail Stadium – but Messi was always the main attraction, and once again emerged as the standout performer.

The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, 35, is seeking his first World Cup as he nears the end of a trophy-laden career and there was an air of expectation each time the ball arrived at his feet in the attacking third of the pitch.

Fans wanted to see the type of brilliance he had engineered against the Netherlands, when he shimmied past two orange shirts and picked out an almost impossible pass for the opening goal.

He delivered.

SPH Brightcove Video
Sports correspondent Sazali Abdul Aziz spoke to fans after Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 at the Lusail Stadium – a match featuring a masterclass in penalty taking from Lionel Messi and one of the most-oddly scored goals of the tournament.

In the 69th minute, while tightly marked by Josko Gvardiol, Messi took the 20-year-old – arguably this World Cup’s outstanding defender – on a run almost half the length of the pitch, twisted him inside out, before laying the ball on a platter for Alvarez to sweep home.

It was yet another moment of magic, and one which sealed Argentina’s place in Sunday’s final, where they will play either Morocco or France.

Whoever their opponents, another focused team performance, some fizz from Fernandez and Alvarez, and a little bit of genius from Messi, could help them go down in history.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.