Argentina’s master and pupil Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez combined to deadly effect as they reached their sixth World Cup final with victory over Croatia at Lusail Stadium.
Messi now gets one last chance to win the piece of silverware that has eluded him in his trophy-laden career but Manchester City’s 22-year-old striker Alvarez claimed at least an equal share of top billing as Argentina ensured they will return here on Sunday to face either France or Morocco
Argentina’s little genius looked to be struggling with a hamstring problem early on but recovered enough to break the deadlock from the penalty spot after 34 minutes following Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic’s foul on the marauding Alvarez.
Alvarez doubled Argentina’s lead five minutes later when he took Messi’s header just inside Croatian territory and embarked on a slaloming run, aided by fortunate bounces off Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa, before beating Livakovic.
There was no fortune involved in a brilliant third after the break as Messi mesmerised Croatia’s excellent defender Josko Gvardiol on the byeline before playing in Alvarez for the finish.
Messi will now have the opportunity to make amends for the bitter disappointment of losing the 2014 World Cup final to Germany in Rio’s iconic Maracana.
Messi’s last crack at World Cup glory
When Messi stretched and clutched the top of his left hamstring 19 minutes into this World Cup semi-final, there was a fear the dream for Argentina and their iconic number 10 might have the nightmare ending.
Instead, Messi recovered after a spell at walking pace to inspire Argentina as they go in search of a third triumph in the tournament following victories in 1978 and 1986.
And what a far cry it was from when Argentina were the victims of what is still the biggest shock of this World Cup in Qatar when they lost their opening game 2-1 to Saudi Arabia, despite Messi putting one of the pre-tournament favourites in front.
It was in 1990 that Argentina were stunned in similar fashion by Cameroon in their first game and went on to reach the final, losing 1-0 to West Germany.
Now they have the chance to go one better as the World Cup reaches its climax. And Messi can finally claim the crown in his final tournament.
Argentina used this meeting with the stubborn, resilient and talented 2018 finalists Croatia to produce their most convincing performance of this World Cup, suggesting Lionel Scaloni’s side are hitting their peak at the perfect time.
Messi, inevitably, was at the heart of it all and involved in every goal, but Alvarez has shown in Qatar that he has, barring accidents, a wonderful career ahead of him.
Much has been made of Manchester City’s big spending over the years but what a coup it was to sign Alvarez from River Plate for the bargain price of £14.1m.