Argentina reached the World Cup final for the first time since 2014 with a 3-0 semi-final win over Croatia as a masterful Lionel Messi scored a penalty and Julian Alvarez struck a sensational brace.
Messi, looking to win the World Cup for the first time in his fifth and likely final appearance at the tournament, fired home a first-half penalty to become Argentina’s all-time top scorer in the competition with 11 goals.
Alvarez ran half the length of the pitch to double the Albiceleste’s lead, before Messi went on a dazzling dribble after the break to set up Alvarez for a tap-in.
Messi equalled Diego Maradona’s record of eight World Cup assists for Argentina, while this was his 25th World Cup appearance – matching the record of Germany legend Lothar Matthaus.
The 35-year-old will now captain his country against France or Morocco in Sunday’s final as Argentina look to become world champions for the first time since the Maradona-inspired campaign of 1986, and the third time overall.
A cagey start to the game burst into life when a long ball from halfway caught out the Croatia defence and Alvarez collided with Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic, allowing Messi the chance to step up and rifle a spot kick into the roof of the net.
The strike saw the PSG star draw level with France’s Kylian Mbappe in the Golden Boot race with five goals, and exceeded his own previous best tally for a single World Cup campaign.
It also brought a previously sluggish contest to life and Argentina found a second just five minutes later when they broke from a Croatia corner and Alvarez went on a solo run from inside his own half, surging through challenges and bundling past defenders before volleying home from six yards.
Buoyed by a jubilant Argentinean support at the Lusail Stadium, the South Americans almost made it three on the brink of half-time when Alexis Mac Allister’s glancing header from a corner was superbly palmed away by Livakovic.
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic threw on attackers to try and find a way back into the game, but they were toothless in the final third and struggled to test Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
In contrast, Messi produced a moment of sublime attacking artistry for Argentina’s third. He darted in from the right wing, paused when one-on-one with Josko Gvardiol, spun past the towering defender to skip into the box, and squared a ball to Alvarez six yards out for a tap-in.
It was an astonishing moment of skill from one of the greatest players to play the game, and and ended any resistance left in the Croatian side.
TALKING POINT – MESSI MAKES MORE HISTORY
Just when you think there are no more records for Messi to break or match, he comes up with new ones.
Against Croatia, Messi became Argentina’s all-time top scorer with 11 goals, moving ahead of Gabriel Batistuta, while his 25th World Cup appearance saw him draw level with overall record holder Matthaus of Germany, and his eighth assist equalled Maradona for his country.
Messi was almost anonymous for the opening 20 minutes, and there were even concerns about his fitness after he was seen rubbing and stretching his hamstring.
But this virtuoso performance only heightens the sense that his moment has come, that his illustrious career will be crowned with the biggest prize in international football. Messi is now just one game away from footballing immortality.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH – JULIAN ALVAREZ
In a match where Croatia’s ultra-organised defence threatened to frustrate the Argentina frontline in the opening 20 minutes, Alvarez’s pace, dribbling and directness proved to be the perfect solution.
It was the Manchester City man who led the charge to burst in behind the defensive line and win the penalty from which Messi broke the deadlock.
After that, he bagged two of his own, the first a remarkable solo effort and the second the fruit of being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of some Messi magic.
Alvarez now has four goals at the World Cup, the most from an Argentina player under the age of 22 since Gonzalo Higuain in 2010. He also became the youngest player to bag a brace in a semi-final or final since a certain Pele in 1958.
Argentina: Martinez 8, Molina 7, Romero 7, Otamendi 7, Tagliafico 7, De Paul 7, Paredes 7, Fernandez 7, Mac Allister 7, Messi 9, Alvarez 9
Subs: Lisandro Martinez 6, Palacios 6, Dybala 6, Foyth N/A, Correa N/A
Croatia: Livakovic 6, Juranovic 6, Lovren 5, Gvardiol 5, Sosa 6, Modric 7, Brozovic 6, Kovacic 7, Pasalic 6, Kramaric 5, Perisic 7
Subs: Orsic 6, Vlasic 6, Petkovic 6, Livaja 6, Majer 6
33’ PENALTY TO ARGENTINA!
Out of nowhere, the Croatian defence is breached! Alvarez is sent one-on-one with Livakovic and chips a finish past the keeper before being flattened. Lovren cleared the shot off the line, but it’s a penalty. Messi grabs the ball…
34’ MESSI SCORES! 1-0 ARGENTINA!
Messi makes no mistake against the penalty expert Livakovic! He thrashes his spot-kick into the top of the net. That goal makes him Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup with 11 goals.
39’ GOAL! ALVAREZ PUTS ARGENTINA 2-0 UP!
Incredible! Argentina break from a Croatia corner and Alvarez goes on a remarkable run from inside his own half, surging through challenges and bundling past defenders before volleying home from six yards!
69’ GOAL! 3-0 ARGENTINA!
Sensational from Messi, who darts in from the right wing, pauses, spins past Gvardiol to get into the box and then squares a ball to Alvarez for a tap-in. Fantastic goal!