Argentina crush Croatia
Messi confirms Qatar final will be his last World Cup game
Published: Dec 14, 2022 07:03 PM
Argentina's Julian Alvarez (right) celebrates after scoring the team's second goal with Lionel Messi during the World Cup semifinal match against Croatia on December 13, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. Photo: VCG

Argentina's Julian Alvarez (right) celebrates after scoring the team's second goal with Lionel Messi during the World Cup semifinal match against Croatia on December 13, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. Photo: VCG

An inspired Lionel Messi scored from the penalty spot and Julian Alvarez struck twice as Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 on Tuesday to reach their second World Cup final in eight years.

The two-time world champions, backed by their passionate, singing followers at the Lusail Stadium, produced their best display of the tournament to ensure they will meet the winners of Wednesday's semifinal between holders France and Morocco in Sunday's final.

Messi, who suffered defeat to ­Germany in the 2014 final, is desperate to crown his extraordinary career by ­winning his first World Cup and a third for Argentina after wins in 1978 and 1986.

And after getting his team on the way to victory with a perfectly struck first-half penalty, he made sure of the win by brilliantly creating the third goal.

"It's crazy; we did it; we did it; we're going to play one more final; once again Argentina is in a World Cup final," said Messi, after celebrating in front of the massed ranks of South American supporters who have traveled to Qatar.

"Seeing all these people, this family, throughout the World Cup, what we have experienced is something incredible. We are going for the last game, which is what we wanted." 

The superstar has confirmed he will play his last World Cup game in Sunday's final.

"I feel very happy, to be able to achieve this, to finish my World Cup journey by playing my last game in a final," Messi told Argentine media after the win. "It's many years for the next one and I don't think I'll be able to do it. And to finish like this, it's the best."

The 35-year-old is playing at his fifth World Cup, surpassing the four of Diego Maradona and Javier Mascherano.

Croatia paid the price for some poor defending as they went out in the last four for the second time after their 1998 loss to France.

"We lost the match. I have nothing to complain about regarding the boys. They gave their best during this whole tournament... It is a deserved defeat," said coach Zlatko Dalic.

It was not until the 25th minute when the game showed signs of life with a low potshot from outside the box by Enzo Fernandez but Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic did well to get across and keep it out.

It was a tight affair but then a simple lofted ball over the top from Fernandez caught out the Croatian defense: Alvarez latched on to it, knocking the ball past the advancing Livakovic who collided with the striker and Italian referee Daniele Orsato pointed to the spot.

The Croats protested, both the players on the field and the staff the bench, resulting in a red card for assistant coach Mario Mandzukic.

Scoring record

Livakovic guessed correctly but his dive was in vain as Messi's sweetly struck drive flew high into the net to put his side 1-0 up in the 34th minute.

It was Messi's fifth goal of the tournament, making him joint top scorer with France's Kylian Mbappe. His 11th career goal - in a record-equaling 25th World Cup appearance - also took him past Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina's all-time World Cup top scorer.

Five minutes later, Argentina doubled their lead when, after a break from a corner, Messi's first-time ball found Alvarez inside his own half who set off on a long dribble goalward.

With the Croatian defense backing off, Alvarez rode weak challenges from Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa and then slipped the ball past Livakovic to send the heavily Argentine crowd into delirium.

Alexis Mac Allister then went close with an angled header from a corner, forcing a fine save out of Livakovic to avoid a third.

All Croatia could muster in response, before the break, was a low Juranovic cross-shot that Emiliano Martinez reacted well to.

Messi saved his best for last though, tormenting Josko Gvardial down the right, twisting and turning to leave the 20-year-old defender behind and pull the ball back to the clinical ­Alvarez who coolly slotted home his fourth goal of the tournament.

'Still one step to go'

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni admitted it was difficult not to get carried away but called on his side to quickly gather their focus for the final.

"The truth is that the result maybe didn't reflect the game. I think we deserved to win but maybe not by such a margin," said Scaloni.

Scaloni said he expected his side to find the going tough against a Croatian midfield inspired by Luka Modric.

"They controlled possession at first, but we knew that could happen because they have three top-class midfielders who have been playing together for years and know each other very well," he said.

"We celebrated because it is exciting to be in the final, but there is still one step to go. This is something to enjoy but it's over now, so we need to move on to the next one."

The 44-year-old Scaloni is now hoping to win the World Cup just 18 months after leading Argentina to victory in the Copa America in Brazil.

It will be Argentina's sixth World Cup final but the former defender rejected comparisons with illustrious coaches of the past, including Cesar Luis Menotti, Carlos Bilardo and Alejandro Sabella, who led them to the 2014 final.

"It fills me with pride to get to the final and represent the national team. But I can't put myself on the same level as them. I just feel privileged to be in the final," he said.

Croatia's 37-year-old playmaker Modric, so key to their outstanding record in the past two tournaments, took the applause when taken off nine minutes from the end of what was surely his final campaign.

"We're sad; we were hoping to play another final. It didn't happen. We have to congratulate Argentina and that's it," said Modric.

The third-place match is all that remains for Modric and Croatia, but the big prize remains within reach for Argentina, Alvarez and Messi. 

Now with a double attacking threat, confidence running through the squad and Messi in top form, they are peaking just in time for the biggest game of their lives.