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World Cup recap - Argentina advance

Semi-Final one, Argentina 3 - 0 Croatia

Lionel Messi was at his crafty and creative best during Argentina's win over Croatia

A Lionel Messi masterclass has propelled Argentina into their second World Cup Final in eight years. A goal and an assist to Argentina’s Little Master ensured that he would have another chance at World Cup glory when Argentina take on either France or Morocco in the final on Sunday morning Australian time.

It will be a tough pill to swallow for Croatia, who were outplayed in their second successive World Cup Semi-Final, but today most of the headlines will be about Lionel Messi and how he propelled his team towards the World Cup Final.

Here are five things we learned from Argentina’s stunning 3 - 0 win over Croatia.

Five Things We Learned

Are Argentina Timing Their Run Perfectly?

Argentina’s semi-final win this morning was their best performance of the tournament so far.

There was a sense that Argentina had anticipated this game to be against their traditional rivals Brazil. Despite Croatia being their opponent instead, they still brought the same hunger and determination they would have had they faced their fierce South American rivals.

Argentina added elements to their game that we haven’t seen so far throughout this tournament, and if they continue with this vein of form, they enter the final looking like the most complete side they have all tournament.

Although Argentina has won all their games since their first shock loss against Saudi Arabia, we haven’t seen the best of Argentina’s counterattacking play in this tournament so far.

Today, the Argentines were able to exploit this facet of the game to perfection, with all three of their goals involving some element of counterattacking play.

It’s a style that suits 22-year-old Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez, who scored two goals and earned the penalty for Argentina’s other goal. Argentina started the tournament with Lautaro Martinez up front, who plays more of a traditional number 9 role. It seems as though Alvarez, who replaced Martinez in the starting side after two games, has warmed into the tournament now. His combination with Messi is proving dangerous, even when Argentina regains the ball in a more defensive position.

There is a growing sense that Messi’s fairytale ending is a real possibility now that we enter the final stages of this tournament. For someone who has been so central to world football for the last 18 years since he made his debut for Barcelona in 2004, it would be a fitting ending to his wonderful career if he could lift the World Cup.

There is now a growing feeling that this fairytale ending might happen, and watching the Croatia game, it felt as though his teammates recognised this and were rising to the occasion.

When Argentina went 2 - 0 up against the Netherlands, they weren’t able to sustain the same level for the entire game. The Netherlands got the game back on their terms, partly by firing up the Argentinians emotionally and distracting them from playing the way that had served them so well for the first 83 minutes of the game.

Today, it was clear Argentina wasn’t going to make the same mistake, and Lionel Messi and his teammates worked tirelessly to ensure that was the case.

By the time a piece of Lionel Messi magic had created the third goal, the game was put to rest, and Argentina could start looking towards the final.

Their most likely opponent for the final is France, although they still have to overcome an impressive Moroccan side who will have the support of the entire African continent behind them.

Before today’s game against Croatia, before they had illustrated their newfound ability to score from the counterattack, it wasn’t clear exactly how Argentina would beat France. If the two sides meet, the French are likely to spend long amounts of time on the ball, and the Argentinians would have to commit resources to defence to account for the threat of Kylian Mbappe. It’s unclear whether they would win this ‘toe-to-toe’ style of game against the French.

However, after watching today’s game, there’s a growing sense that Argentina can win this World Cup.

France will have to be extra wary of overexposing its defence when they send numbers forward to attack. It’s by no means guaranteed that the French will play Argentina in the final, but if they do, I’m sure Argentinian fans can rest a little bit easier today, knowing they’re every chance to take the game up to the reigning World Champions and the Little Master might yet get his fairytale ending.

Lionel Messi Becomes Argentina’s All-Time Top Goalscorer in World Cups

As Lionel Messi rifled the ball into the back of the net from the penalty spot today, he became Argentina’s all-time top scorer in World Cup Finals. It was the 11th time Messi had sent Argentinian spirits soaring with a goal in a World Cup game, overtaking the record of Gabriel Batistuta, who he had previously levelled on 10.

It’s a fitting achievement for Messi, who now has an opportunity to join Maradona in the pantheon of Argentinian greats if he can win the World Cup in his next game.

There has always been a sense in Argentina that without a World Cup, Messi is not quite on the same level as Maradona.

His brief international retirement following successive Copa America defeats in 2016 drew harsh criticism from Argentinian supporters, who saw Messi as deserting the team in their hour of need. However, if he can deliver them a World Cup to match his Copa America triumph last year, it’s hard to see how they can deny Messi a place as Maradona’s equal.

To add to his goal-scoring record for Argentina, when Messi takes the field for the 26th time in a World Cup when he starts in the final, he will break the record for World Cup appearances, overtaking German legend Lothar Matheus. Whether they’re records awarded for longevity or excellence, Messi nearly has them all.

It’s hard to understate the impact that winning a World Cup would have on Messi, who is already regarded as one of the very best players ever to play the game.

It would be the perfect ending to a career that would then have surely achieved all that is humanly possible within the timespan of a single career.

Luka Modrić bows out of World Cups as one of the greatest ever

Although Argentina will be at the centre of most of today’s World Cup coverage, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the end to the World Cup career of Luka Modrić, one of the greatest ever players to represent his country in a World Cup tournament.

At 37 years of age, it’s almost certainly the last time we will Modrić at a World Cup, but he bows out having served his country admirably throughout his career.

Modrić now leaves the World Cup having carried his team to a World Cup Final and now a World Cup Semi-Final. This would be a remarkable achievement for anyone who is so central to their team’s success, but for Modrić to do it with Croatia, a country with a smaller population and fewer resources than nearly all of their rivals, it’s truly a special feat.

Croatia made the semi-final of a World Cup once before, in 1998, but their success in the late 90s was relatively short-lived as their standard fell away after such a brilliant performance in that World Cup.

It showed that whilst it was a remarkable achievement for Croatia to do so well in such a big tournament, it wasn’t the result of sustained success over the course of many years, as it was with other countries who’ve risen to the same heights.

By now competing in two successive World Cup Semi-Finals, which bookend an extra-time loss to Spain in the Round of 16 at the European Cup, Croatia has shown that they are one of the world’s most successful teams over a relatively long period now, and Modrić has been central to that.

Modrić’s club manager at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, one of the most decorated figures in the game, said of the Croatian maestro, “I’ll continue to start Modric even after he’s 40. He won’t retire until he has my permission to retire. As long as he is breathing with a pulse, he’s going to start for me. I will use him like a bar of soap until there’s nothing left of him.”

With Modrić’s performances that have carried Croatia to their second successive semi-final, you can see why the Real Madrid manager regards him so highly.

Croatia’s Lack of Traditional Striker Ultimately Costs Them

From Croatia’s first game of the tournament, where they drew nil-all with Morocco, there was a sense of foreboding that Croatia would struggle without a traditional striker in their lineup.

In that first game, there were several times when the Croatian attackers created an opportunity and fired the ball dangerously across Morocco’s goal, but there wasn’t anyone there to make use of the cross and tap the ball in.

Throughout this tournament, Croatia’s midfield and defence have stood up admirably to compensate for this lack of central target up forward, but it felt that their game against Argentina was a step too far for the gallant Croatians.

Throughout this tournament, Croatia’s defence has stood up to some of the best attacks in world football. Their last game against Brazil perfectly illustrated this, with it taking something special from superstar Neymar to get past the Croatian goalkeeper. However, in today’s game, they couldn’t cope with the relentless pressure Lionel Messi and his compatriots placed on them.

At times throughout the game, it felt as if Croatia was crying out for a central striker who could use their strength to hold up the ball and take some of the pressure off their under-fire defenders.

The other aspect of not having a strong number 9 to control the ball in the attacking third was that Croatia then needed to commit more numbers forward. This left their defenders without cover and allowed Argentina to get through what had otherwise been a rock-solid Croatian defence.

This was perfectly illustrated in Argentina’s third goal where Joško Gvardiol, arguably the tournament's best defender, was isolated one-on-one against Lionel Messi.

Messi was able to wiggle his way nimbly past Gvardiol, whose only real defensive option at any stage was to foul Messi and risk a penalty or card. This allowed Messi to cross the ball to Julian Alvarez, who calmly slotted it home, and Argentina began celebrating their inevitable appearance in a World Cup Final.

It was strange to see Croatia’s defence made to look so elementary after they had done so well to stay rock-solid throughout this World Cup.

However, I think part of the reason for that is that with so much on the line in a World Cup Semi-Final, especially when they were chasing the game, they had to commit more numbers forward, and this then starved their defence of the support from midfield that had served it well throughout the previous matches.

With the impending retirement of Luka Modrić, Croatia may have more pieces of the puzzle they have to solve than just their lack of a striker, but they will want a striker to establish himself in the first team and then they can set up their defence, without having to overcommit their midfielders towards finding a reliable avenue to goal.

Can We Just Take A Second To Appreciate Lionel Messi (Again)?

For all the many incredible stories to have come out of this World Cup so far, there is a growing possibility that when the final is played, we will look back on the World Cup of 2022 as the ‘Messi World Cup.’

For that reason, I couldn’t resist doubling up on points related to Lionel Messi today, who put on one of the individual performances for the ages this morning against Croatia.

It’s incredible to think that for someone who has won a record seven Ballon D’Or awards, a record six European Golden Shoes, four UEFA Champion’s Leagues and a host of other individual and collective honours that only after all that, would they have their career-defining moment.

But that’s what we might be seeing play out here at the moment with Lionel Messi.

When people look back at today’s semi-final in years to come, it’s impossible to remove Messi from the heart of the narrative. Both in the sense that the win gives him the opportunity for a fairytale ending that his career so richly deserves, but also in terms of the gameplay itself.

Messi was centrally involved in all three of Argentina’s goals today, and each of them illustrates how hard it is to play against a team involving Lionel Messi.

Argentina’s first goal was scored after a counterattack following a Croatian corner. When Argentina recovered the ball in defence and shifted it out to Messi, who had found space in his own back half, the Croatian defenders overcommitted to stopping Messi and left gaps in the rest of their defence which Julian Alvarez duly exploited. When goalkeeper Dominik Livaković found himself one-on-one with Alvarez streaming in on goal, he had no choice but to bring him down and give away a penalty.

Messi then smashed the penalty into the roof of the net, having picked the same side that his penalty was saved against Poland. England Captain Harry Kane showed in the game against France how fraught the psychology around penalty taking can be, but Messi had no such trouble.

Even for Argentina’s second goal, which was brilliantly created and finished off by Julian Alvarez, Croatia’s defence overcommitted to stopping Messi when they would have been better tracking back to Alvarez’s position.

The third goal will be remembered for a very long time. Messi collected the ball and proceeded to make Joško Gvardial, the tournament’s best defender so far, look like a traffic cone as Messi weaved and squirmed his way past the Croatian. He was then able to then pinpoint his pass for Alvarez to finish off a simple tap-in goal.

The goal was the pinnacle of a performance that will be remembered for years to come. Croatia’s defenders had dealt with some of the world’s best attacks throughout this World Cup, but they just had no answers for Lionel Messi tonight.

It truly was a pleasure and privilege to see someone so adept at their craft perform so well under pressure.

If Messi can win the final against either France or Croatia, it would be hard to ignore the growing chorus of support for Messi to be recognised as the greatest ever player. Regardless of that debate, it’s just a treat to see the Little Master go about it.

See Monday’s article for a preview of France vs Morocco

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