The song books have run their course, the voice is all hoarse, but they cannot stop singing the praise of the man who refuses to let them down. For Lionel Messi, the long unfulfilled promise of the shiny World Cup trophy is making him play the best, drawing up hitherto hidden weapons from his armoury.
Here he scored one and created another in Lusail, the city of dreams, that kept alive his dreams and of his faithful as he and his beloved Argentina found an extra gear to see off Croatia’s challenge to move into the final for a shot to avenge the eight-year-old heartbreak.
But Messi’s Argentina was circumspect as Croatia’s midfield three used their experience and skills to take over the early midfield battle. But this Argentina of 2022 is more resilient and has dug deep to find answers whenever a question has been posed. And here, Messi led the way, dropping deep to be most involved in this World Cup to drag his team out of this mess.
As Croatia slowed after the initial burst of energy, Argentina picked up as Messi jolted like a switched-on appliance and danced past a few challenges to play a one-two with Enzo Fernandez and his pass almost reached Nicolas Tagliafico darting in from the left. He came back again weaving and dancing down the middle and Mateo Kovacic was suddenly out of breath.
Argentina’s penalty came when Julian Alvarez’s bursting run was cut short by Livakovic after the Argentine had lifted the ball over his head. Dejan Lovren cleared from the line, but it did not matter as the referee had already made up his mind. Fernandez had started the move after robbing the Croatian captain and played the simple ball over the high press of the Croatian defence.
The pressure was immense, Emiliano Martinez at the other end turned his back to the drama, as Messi stepped up. But with destiny and the world staring at his face, the Argentine captain slotted it with power and rage to the top right. He, then, ran to the right corner flag to celebrate with his teammates, respectfully away from the Croatian supporters moaning behind its goal. Emiliano, too, was jiving with the blue-and-white fans who had started singing their song as soon as the ball left Messi’s feet.
Then Alvarez had a moment of magic and the blessings of all those praying as he latched on to a ball from a Croatian corner to run past all challenges from the centre circle. The three men in dark blue shirts were eager to backtrack and not ready to tackle, perhaps transfixed by their role as extras in a movie only directed for the opposite captain. Josip Juranovic’s clumsy clearance came back to Alvarez inside the box, and it was worse from Borna Sosa, the next man standing, and Alvarez was happy to just lift it over the keeper who could do little.
Nicolas Tagliafico’s header almost sneaked in from a corner to make it worse for the Croats, but Livakovic’s strong left fist gave them something to play for in the next 45 minutes.
But, unfortunately for Croatia, Messi still had energy left for more. He woke up again in the 58th minute, twisting past two challenges to run behind and receive a layoff from Alvarez forcing Livakovic to go down quickly to parry the snapshot that came rocketing his way.
Lionel Scaloni introduced Lisandro Martinez to move to a back three and press the Croatians back with more pressure from the wings. Soon Lovren’s loose pass allowed Alvarez to skitter down the left but his penchant to feed his captain when Tagliafico was free ended this move a little too early.
And then Messi took on Josko Gvardiol, the World Cup’s standout defender, on the right. He refused to be cowered by the shove of the heavier Croatian man and danced inside keeping him at bay. He then turned a transfixed Gvardiol one way, then the other, then the first way again and was gone in less than a few seconds to cut it back to Alvarez. The Manchester City forward was happy to receive the present and glided it beyond the helpless Livakovic.
Modric, the other maestro in the middle, ended his night with a deflected shot hitting his head. As the Croatian legend walked away, the stadium was up on its feet, giving him the applause that he deserves for all the years of toil.
The game was closing to an end and the songs soon changed back about the patron saint. The Maradona cutouts were there, but Messi was ruling their hearts and the Cup, now, was just a step away.