Lusail, Qatar, Dec 13 (EFE).- Lionel Messi had a goal and an assist Tuesday to lead Argentina 3-0 over Croatia in the World Cup 2022 semifinal in front of nearly 89,000 people at Lusail Stadium.
Playing in his fifth World Cup, the 35-year-old Argentine captain will set a new record for most appearances – 26 – when he steps onto the pitch next Sunday to face the winner of the semifinal between reigning champions France and surprising Morocco.
Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or, won 35 trophies in 16 seasons with FC Barcelona, but his first title with the Albiceleste came only last year, when the national side hoisted the Copa America.
For some in Argentina, Messi must add a third World Cup to the team’s trophy case to be considered on a par with the late Diego Maradona (1960-2020), the architect of the 1986 triumph in Mexico.
Also key to Argentina’s reaching their sixth final has been young Julian Alvarez, who has four goals – just one fewer than Messi – after taking Lautaro Martinez’s spot in the starting 11.
Croatia’s captain, 37-year-old Real Madrid stalwart Luka Modric, likely played his last World Cup game on Tuesday. The man who received the Ballon d’Or on the strength of the Balkan side’s second-place finish at World Cup 2018 suffered through their worst-ever loss in the competition.
Even so, the Croatians left Lusail Stadium with their heads held high, having dispatched pre-tournament favorites Brazil to reach the semifinals for the third time in the 28 years of the existence of the national team.
The contest’s first serious attempt was a strike by Enzo Fernandez in the 25th minute saved by Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, the hero of the penalty shootout against Brazil.
What would prove to be the decisive sequence unfolded as the match passed the half-hour mark.
Ivan Perisic put the ball on top of the Argentine net on a rare Croatian attack and the ensuing goal-kick sent Alvarez bearing down on Livakovic’s goal.
The keeper came rushing out to challenge the Manchester City man, who managed to get off a shot before being dropped by Livakovic, but Dejan Lovren stopped the ball from crossing the line.
The referee pointed to the spot. Messi stepped up and converted with authority to make it 1-0 in the 34th minute and overtake Gabriel Batistuta as the Albiceleste’s top World Cup scorer with 11 goals.
Five minutes later, an Argentina counter off a Croatia corner resulted in a goal by Alvarez and it took a tremendous stop by Livakovic to prevent Alexis Mac Allister from extending the lead in the 42nd minute.
By necessity, Croatia were more venturesome in the second half and Lovren should have scored in the 61st minute off the free kick for a foul on Modric before Alvarez shut the door in the 69th with an assist from Messi.
The Paris Saint-Germain striker made a dazzling dash down the right side and spun away from Josko Gvardiol before cutting back to Alvarez in scoring position. EFE jap/dr