World Cup hits and misses: Messi out to end age-old GOAT debate

Lionel Messi produced perhaps the best performance of his record-tying 25 appearances at a World Cup, powering Argentina to a 3-0 victory over Croatia, to set up a meeting with either France or Morocco in Sunday’s final.

Here we explore the talking points from Tuesday’s first semi-final…

Messi rises to occasion, now can he end the GOAT debate?

For so long, the big question mark over Lionel Messi’s status as the GOAT has been his failure to win the World Cup.

Irrespective of his unparalleled achievements – seven Ballon d’Or titles, four Champions Leagues and even the Copa America win of two summers ago – it could always be said that he never managed to do what Diego Maradona could in 1986.

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Lionel Messi says he’s feeling strong after he inspired Argentina to a 3-0 win over Croatia to reach the World Cup final.

The extra-time defeat to Germany at the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil felt like it might be his last shot. The one that got away, perhaps.

But, at the ripe old age of 35, Messi has risen to the occasion for one last dance. He’s out to settle the debate once and for all.

It has not been without challenge, either. Remember, this all started with a defeat to Saudi Arabia in Argentina’s opening game 21 days ago. Rival fans were screaming, ‘Where’s Messi?!’ after that.

He’s in the final now.

Messi has scored in all three of Argentina’s knockout matches of this World Cup, leading them past Australia, the Netherlands and Croatia. No player has scored more than his five goals in Qatar.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward has timed this rich vein of form to perfection. His strike from the penalty spot was emphatic and his dribble for the third goal mesmeric. This is his moment.

Messi may stroll around the pitch, but he is unstoppable. A win on Sunday and he becomes eternal, indubitably.
Zinny Boswell

Messi plays the tune but what about the piano carriers?

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina's first goal
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Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina’s first goal

“Argentina have got 10 fighters and a genius up front,” said Gary Neville.

That genius is the music maestro. The pianist playing the spellbinding tune that leaves the audience in raptures. But to coin an Ian Holloway phrase, it’s all very well having a great pianist playing but it’s no good if you’ve got no one to put the piano on stage. That’s what those 10 other blokes do. Do the heavy lifting so that Messi can dazzle.

But those doing those hard yards should be celebrated in equal measure. While Messi took his tally to a staggering eight goal involvements at this tournament vs Croatia, his team-mates are putting up equally dazzling numbers in defence. Croatia could have played until the start of the 2026 World Cup and not scored such was the organisation and desire to defend their own box put in by the Argentina rear-guard.

This defence is a thing of beauty, led by Cristian Romero. It’s an absolute masterclass in how to restrict an opposition to low probability chances by defending as a unit. In six matches at this World Cup, Argentina have allowed just an expected goals against figure of 2.33, which works out at 0.38 worth of expected goals against per 90 minutes. Opposition teams are running into an Argentina brick wall, bouncing straight off it and then are subjected to Messi’s music. It’s a World Cup winning symphony, alright.
Lewis Jones

Majestic Modric bows out to plaudits he deserves

Croatia's Luka Modric during the 3-0 loss to Argentina
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Croatia’s Luka Modric during the 3-0 loss to Argentina

It was not to be. Outbursts of tears have been flowing from the biggest superstars as they make emotional exits from what might be their last World Cup. Not Luka Modric, though. Croatia’s symbol of poise and grace.

The 37-year-old took his place calmly on the Croatia bench in the 81st minute, knowing his World Cup adventure was coming to an agonising close. Perhaps forever. The composure was symptomatic of the way he plays football; with respect and elegance. Croatia were simply undone by a higher power and he was powerless to prevent it.

A this tournament, the Real Madrid playmaker continued to play the talismanic role he always has done for his country. He might not have scored a goal. He did not even register an assist. But he’s the guy who makes anything and everything tick – the conductor of the Croatian underdog mission. Modric probed the Argentinians, he controlled phases of possession, but his surrounding cast were unable to reach the level he so often can.

“He’s one of those players you’d happily go pay to watch,” Sky Sports‘ Roy Keane regaled on ITV‘s live coverage.

When he was substituted he received a standing ovation from both sets of fans. Rightly so.

This was not his or Croatia’s finest hour, and if it is the last time we see Modric on the international stage, it feels like a cruel and disappointing end. His legacy, however, will live gloriously on and Croatia will have to contest a third-place play-off, as ill-fitting as that is. This team has run out of road, meeting its final end against Lionel Messi’s stylish Argentina, but what a run, and what a player. A true master of his craft.
Laura Hunter

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