Magical Messi inspires Argentina to World Cup final

Lionel Messi gave himself one last shot at World Cup glory as he and Julian Alvarez scored for Argentina in a 3-0 win over Croatia at the Lusail Iconic Stadium to reach the final.

They will face either France or Morocco, who play in Wednesday’s semi-final, on Sunday.

Messi fired into the top corner from the penalty spot (34) against the run of play to open the scoring after Man City striker Alvarez earned a debatable penalty following a collision with Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

With that strike, the 35-year-old surpassed Gabriel Batistuta to become Argentina’s top scorer at World Cup finals on 11 goals.

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina's first goal
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Messi will play in the final of his last World Cup

Croatia collapsed after the opener and conceded another five minutes later from an Argentina counter-attack after comical defending as Alvarez doubled their lead (39) having carried the ball from his own half.

Messi took matters into his own hands to ensure the game was out of reach, producing a moment of magic down the right to beat Josko Gvardiol before putting it on a plate for Alvarez to score Argentina’s third.

Argentina last reached the World Cup final in 2014 in Brazil and were beaten by Germany, but have not lifted the trophy since Diego Maradona led his nation to victory in Mexico in 1986.

Big moments in the game…

  • 32: Alvarez wins a penalty after colliding with Livakovic.
  • 34: Messi puts Argentina ahead against the run of play from the penalty spot.
  • 39: Alvarez doubles Argentina’s lead after carrying the ball from his own half.
  • 43: Livakovic produces a stunning save to deny Mac Allister’s header from close-range.
  • 70: Argentina put the game out of sight as Messi sets up Alvarez after a mesmerising run.

Player ratings

Argentina: Martinez (7), Molina (7), Romero (7), Otamendi (7), Tagliafico (7), De Paul (7), Paredes (7), Fernandez (7), Mac Allister (7), Messi (9), Alvarez (9).

Subs: Martinez (6), Foyth (6), Palacios (6), Correa (6), Dybala (6).

Croatia: Livakovic (7), Juranovic (6), Lovren (6), Gvardiol (6), Sosa (5), Modric (7), Brozovic (6), Kovacic (6), Pasalic (6), Kramaric (6), Perisic (6).

Subs: Majer (6), Vlasic (6), Orsic (5), Petkovic (6), Livaja (6).

Player of the match: Lionel Messi.

Messi books a date with destiny

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina's first goal
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Messi will play in the final of his last World Cup

Croatia bossed the opening half an hour and Messi was largely anonymous as he walked across the field at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, waiting for his team-mates to spring to life.

The game was turned on its head when Alvarez won a penalty just after the half-hour mark. Croatia were caught out at the back by a simple ball over the top from Argentina and Alvarez was brought down by Livakovic after he pushed the ball past the goalkeeper.

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was adamant the decision was wrong, arguing the goalkeeper did very little to stop Alvarez.

“The goalkeeper just stops,” he told ITV. “He has to make that motion to try and save the ball, he plants his feet. I don’t know how that’s a penalty.

“If I’m a defender and the striker is about to have a shot and I go to block, he then shoots, goes past me and runs into me, that can’t be a foul. You have to block the shot!”

Messi stepped up to the spot, as he did against the Netherlands in the round before, and gave Argentina the lead with an emphatic strike into the top corner.

Having looked so strong before, Croatia appeared to lose their heads and suffered another blow five minutes later as Alvarez rode two challenges in the area after carrying the ball from his own half before sticking a composed finish beyond Livakovic.

Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez celebrate after going 2-0 up
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Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez celebrate after going 2-0 up

Celtic right-back Josip Juranovic was perhaps unlucky to see the ball bounce off him and back into Alvarez’s path, but Borna Sosa crumbled under the pressure and allowed the 22-year-old through on goal leaving out a flailing leg to no avail.

Croatia brought on Bruno Petkovic, who scored an extra-time equaliser in stoppage time in last week’s quarter-final penalty shootout win over Brazil, in an attempt to turn the game, but Messi had other ideas.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward, intent on ensuring he gave himself one more chance to win the only trophy that has eluded him, rolled back the years against Gvardiol down the right flank as he turned the 20-year-old inside out with a mesmerising run before cutting it back to Alvarez from the byline.

Alvarez made no mistake from just outside the six-yard box as he became the youngest player to score twice in a World Cup semi-final or final since Pele in 1958.

Messi: I feel really good at this World Cup

Lionel Messi celebrates after team-mate Julian Alvarez scored Argentina's third goal
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Lionel Messi celebrates after team-mate Julian Alvarez scored Argentina’s third goal

Speaking after the match, Messi said: “I am enjoying this a lot. I am feeling really good, I feel strong enough to face every match. The previous match was a big sacrifice.

“Today we were tired, but we pulled out strength to earn the victory. We played very well, we preferred to play this way because we knew they would not have the ball. We knew we would have to run. We prepared in a very good way.

“I feel very happy in this World Cup. I am able to help the squad.”

He added: “I would say the first match [the defeat against Saudi Arabia] was a hard blow because we had been unbeaten in six matches. To start in such a way in a World Cup, we did not think we would lose to Saudi Arabia.

“It was an acid test of the whole squad but we proved how strong we are. We won the other matches and it was very difficult what we did. Every match was a final and we were aware if we did not win things would be complicated for us.

“We have won five finals and I hope this is the case for the final on Sunday. We lost in the first match due to fine details but it helped us to be stronger.”

Neville: Messi is on a mission

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal from penalty spot
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Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal from the penalty spot

Gary Neville speaking on ITV:

“Argentina have got 10 fighters and a genius up front. They’ve got the best fans in the tournament as well. They’ve grown in the tournament.

“It’s a mission. One he [Messi] is delivering on his own at the moment.”

Dalic: This is the end of a generation for Croatia

Croatia's Luka Modric during the 3-0 loss to Argentina
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Tuesday’s defeat was likely Luka Modric’s, 37, last World Cup apperance

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic said: “Perhaps this is the end of the generation of the World Cups, a couple have reached an age and have to see what happens in 2026.

“We have had a great team and this generation will finish off their career at Euro 2024. We have the National League and an excellent generation who reached two semi-finals.”

Asked about his own future, Dalic said: “I will continue, my contract is until 2024. We have the Nations League then the World Cup qualifications too. My plan and objective is to take Croatia to Euro 2024.”

Asked about Messi, he added: “Nothing much needs to be said about Messi. The best player in the world and very good and very dangerous today. It is the true Messi we expected to see.”

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