Messi’s World Cup dream alive as Argentina cruises past Croatia

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LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi earned a last shot at World Cup glory after his penalty and a double from Julian Alvarez helped Argentina sweep past Croatia 3-0 on Tuesday and into the final where they will face either holders France or Morocco.

While all eyes were on Argentina captain Messi and his fifth bid to win the one major trophy eluding him, it was 22-year-old Alvarez who stole the show, earning the penalty before opening his own account at the end of a scintillating 50-meter run.

Messi coolly put away the spot kick in the 34th minute, after Alvarez was brought down by keeper Dominik Livakovic, to become his country’s all-time World Cup top scorer with 11 goals.

Alvarez then took matters into his own hands with his solo effort to double their lead five minutes later.

The pair combined perfectly in the 69th for Alvarez to tap in his second goal after a mesmerizing Messi drive to the byline and cut-back to make sure of Argentina’s sixth World Cup final appearance.

“Throughout the World Cup it has been incredible what we have lived through and we are going to play the last game which is what we wanted,” the 35-year-old Messi said.

Finalists as recently as 2014, the Argentines will try to land a third world crown after 1978 and 1986, a feat that looked unlikely a few weeks ago following their opening group-stage defeat by Saudi Arabia that left them facing the prospect of elimination.

Claiming the world title would elevate seven-time Ballon D’Or winner Messi to the mythical status that the late Diego Maradona enjoys in Argentina.

On Sunday they will face either defending champions France or surprise package Morocco, the first Arab country in a World Cup semifinal, who play each other on Wednesday.

FIERY SUPPORTCroatia, the 2018 runners-up, wanted possession at the start, as they did against Brazil in their quarterfinal, and circulated the ball well but struggled to find a way into the Argentina box.

The South Americans, who have now won every World Cup semifinal they have contested, enjoyed fiery support from their fans who far outnumbered the Croatia supporters in the stands of Lusail stadium, also the site for Sunday’s showcase match.

They exploded with a loud roar when Alvarez tumbled to earn a penalty after being felled by the onrushing Livakovic.

Messi, who drew level with Germany’s Lothar Matthaeus as joint record holder for most World Cup appearances with his 25th game, fired past Livakovic after Croatia’s assistant coach Mario Mandzukic was sent off for dissent.

But the best was yet to come and it was Alvarez, nicknamed ‘the spider,’ who delivered, picking up a Messi pass in his own half, weaving his way into the Croatia box, thanks to two lucky bounces and sloppy defending, before tucking in the second goal.

Unlike their extra-time comeback heroics against tournament favorites Brazil, there was no way back this time for Croatia.

Argentina were in no mood to squander a two-goal advantage as they did against the Netherlands in the last eight and Alvarez dashed any lingering Croatia hopes in the 69th, tapping in Messi’s cutback to seal the Balkan country’s defeat.

As the Argentines celebrated wildly with their fans, Croatia’s golden generation, led by their 37-year-old captain Luka Modric, quietly made their exit.

LOSING TO SAUDI ARABIA WAS ARGENTINA’S TURNING POINTArgentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia in their first World Cup game was a turning point in the changing room, coach Lionel Scaloni said on Tuesday, bringing out the grit to recover, win five consecutive matches and reach the tournament final.

“After we lost to Saudi Arabia, we felt a love and support from our fans, the entire country, our people, and that was amazing because it gave us the strength and energy that we needed to recuperate,” Scaloni told reporters after Argentina swept past Croatia 3-0 in their World Cup semifinal.

Unheralded Saudi Arabia notched one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history with their 2-1 win on Nov. 22.

But Argentina rose again thanks to a superb 35-year-old Lionel Messi who, on his fifth and final quest for the only major trophy to elude him, has participated in eight of the 12 goals his team have scored in Qatar.

He scored the first against Croatia and was elected man-of-the-match.

Scaloni said he had no doubt Messi was the all-time best player. “For me, it is just remarkable and exciting to watch from inside. Seeing him train, lead the changing room. Every time I see him, he generates something, a spark in his team mates, in people. Not only to the Argentines. Luckily for us, he wears our colors,” he said. — Reuters