Lionel Messi’s Argentina booked their place in the World Cup final in Qatar after beating Croatia 3-0 on Tuesday evening, giving the greatest player of his generation a shot at football’s most coveted prize.
The Argentina captain opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 34th minute after Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković collided with Argentina forward Julián Alvarez.
Alvarez then doubled the lead just five minutes later after finishing off a lightning counter-attack from a Croatia corner. The Manchester City striker collected the ball in his own half, skipped past one Croatia defender then caught two lucky ricochets in the box before stabbing home from the six-yard line.
In the second half, with just over 20 minutes left to play, Messi helped seal the win after forcing his way to the touchline and then laying it back for Alvarez to add his second of the night.
The World Cup has provided a welcome distraction for an Argentine population suffering from economic and political distress. The Albiceleste will face either France or Morocco in Sunday’s final. The two play each other at the tent-like Al Bayt stadium on Wednesday evening.
Croatia had enjoyed the better of a cagey opening half-hour in front of nearly 90,000 fans at Qatar’s Lusail stadium — its flagship venue that will also host the final.
Over the course of the game the Europeans kept the bulk of possession and completed far more passes than Argentina. However, they failed to register a single shot on target until the 89th minute.
The contest featured two of the world’s best players over the past decade: Messi, and diminutive Croatia midfielder Luka Modrić. The pair, both now in the twilight years of their careers, have long been the driving force of their national sides.
Argentina will now have the chance to win their first World Cup since Diego Maradona lifted the trophy in 1986. The team has twice made it to the final since, losing to Germany in both 1990 and 2014.
The South Americans began in Qatar as second favourites after winning the Copa America last year but lost their opening match to Saudi Arabia in one of the early shocks of the tournament.
However, the team went on to win their two remaining group games against Mexico and Poland, and then beat Australia in the second round. Their path to the semi-final included a penalty shootout — in which they beat the Netherlands after a 2-2 draw in the quarter-final.
Despite having a population of just 3.9mn, Croatia has a strong recent history in tournament football. They were runners-up at the World Cup in Russia four years ago, and reached the semi-final in Qatar despite having only won a single game in open play. The team beat Canada 4-1 in the group stages, and then drew against Morocco and Belgium.
In the second round, Croatia drew 1-1 with Japan but won on penalties, before ousting Brazil in the quarter-finals, again in a penalty shootout. Until Tuesday evening, the side had conceded just three goals in five games.