Lionel Messi from Argentina beat Croatia and surged to the one win of an elusive title

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Lionel Messi, Julian Alvarez and Julian Alvarez celebrating scoring during Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and Croatia at the Lusail Stadium (Qatar). (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi had been waltzing about, searching for a way into Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal here at the Lusail Stadium, when Croatian seas parted and the moment arrived.

One hand was gripping his hamstring with the other, prompting fears that he might have suffered an injury. He had been silent, almost as invisible as planet Earth’s greatest soccer player could possibly be. Then, at the end of a thrilling World Cup, Argentina roared.

Messi, for once, didn’t create the breakthrough; but he punctuated after his teammates concocted it from nothing. And that, above all, was the story of Argentina’s surge into its sixth World Cup final. Juilan Alvarez had won a 34-minute penalty, which Messi converted. Alvarez added a second through the space and fortune Nahuel Molin had opened up. Messi, who’d grown into his typically dazzling self, then bamboozled the best defender at the tournament, Josko Gvardiol, to seal an emphatic win.

The Argentines beat Croatia 3-0 and Messi, their captain, catalyst, and icon, was able to reach the trophy he longs for in just 90 minutes.

Croatia, until Tuesday, had been the team that wouldn’t lose, a group of checkered warriors who simply refused to concede. In six World Cup knockout matches since 2018, they’d gone behind seven times, and only failed to equalize once, in the second half of the 2018 final. They never actually held a lead in regulation, not once in six games, but they fought, survived extra time, and won five of them — four in penalty shootouts.

They were never weak and believed all the time, which Argentina also knew. La Albiceleste In 2018, Croatia had lost 3-0 to Argentina. Twelve years before, Messi’s first international goal had been scored to bring Argentina up 2-1. In 2018, Croatia lost 3-0 to Croatia.

“In this beautiful sport, even if you think you’ve sealed the game, you may get surprised again,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal.

But then he added: ”I believe my team has the means, willingness, freshness and pride to face anything.”

On Tuesday night, his team proved him correct for the umpteenth straight time.

On Tuesday, they ascended into a first-half lead, and then, despite Croatia’s best efforts, just kept on ascending.

They began calmly, perhaps timidly, before settling into a tight game that suited Croatia. The game exploded in the 32nd minute when Alvarez ran onto an through-ball and managed to score a weak goal past Dominik Livakovic. Referee ​​Daniele Orsato pointed to the penalty spot. The enraged Croats surrounded him but to no avail. Then came Messi.

Messi fired his penalty over Livakovic’s outstretched arm, and rose onto yet another page of Argentina’s record books. This tournament saw him score his fifth goal, which was the 11th of his World Cup career. It was also the most goals of any Argentine.

The 10 Argentines who were around Messi won this victory. They stifled Croatia, and five minutes after Messi’s penalty, they doubled the lead. Messi was instrumental in the game. He poked the ball to Julian Alvarez, and launched a counter. Alvarez was the one who did all the rest.

The forward aged 22 picked up the ball in his own sandbox and charged at the Croatian defence. A lung-bursting run by Nahuel Mollina, right back, discombobulated Croats and knocked them off their heels. Alvarez took the opportunity and ran through a few week challenges. He was able to make the most of the night’s noise with the help of two lucky bounces.

Argentina was the only country to ascend from that point and produced its best performance in the tournament.

Its narrow four-man midfield — Rodrigo De Paul, Leandro Paredes, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister — gradually wrested control of the game away from the Croatian trio of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and the supreme Luka Modric, who exited the game after 80 minutes to reverential applause.

The fans who have made Qatari stadiums madhouses into madhouses turned on their voices, singing all the way to the end, when it was clear that victory was certain. They continued to belt out the catchy tune that had become their World Cup soundtrack. It suddenly sounded prophetic.

“Muchaaaaachoooooosss,” they chorused, and then, over five short verses, on repeat, they told a story. It begins with decades of heartbreak since their two World Cup victories in 1978 and ‘86. It continues with “the finals that we lost,” including four at the Copa America since 1993, and “how many years I cried.”

“Pero eso se terminó,” they chant, and the tone changes. But, that was the end.. Last year, at the Maracanã, against the Brazilians in the Copa America final, “les volvió a ganar papá.” They lost again to Daddy.

And “boys, Muchaaaaachooooos, now we’re excited again,” they’ve bellowed again and again here in Qatar. They bowed it in downtown plazas as well as outside Lusail. They’ve used these words to christened wins over Mexico and Poland, then Australia and Holland, and now Croatia. Now onto Sunday’s final (10 a.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo). Time to continue singing.

“Quiero ganar la tercera, quiero ser campeón mundial,” the next line goes.

“I want to win the third. I want to be world champion.”

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