Destiny calling Messi: Argentina defeat Croatia 3-0, punch tickets to World Cup final

On an electrifying night at the Lusail Stadium, gleaming in all its grandeur, Lionel Messi kept his World Cup winning destiny on course. He tucked in a penalty, masterminded another for two-goal hero Julian Alvarez and produced a near vintage show to thrill the multitudes that had gathered to watch him and steer his team to the final, outclassing Croatia 3-0.

It’s all the crowd wanted. Messi moments. And he granted their wish several times. None as striking as the assist for the third goal though. He ripped through the right, through the edge of the touchline, gliding past Mislav Orsic, turning him over. But Josko Gvardiol, in his spidery mask, was clinging onto him like a child would a parent, not giving him room to shoot the pass, not affording his time and space to work or twist past him, and drifting him away. But Messi kept his shape against the muscle of a defender 20 years younger than him. He dragged him to the box, closer and closer to the keeper, then stopped and turned, escaping from his clutches before he cut the ball back onto Julian Alvarez’s route. The latter just slotted in from barely six yards. It was if Messi was inclined to make a whole album of glorious assists in the World Cup. It was the moment that captured his ruthless ambition. If destiny does not stop for me, I will stop for it.

The first moment of Messi arrived without any notice. He was largely quiet until that moment Dominik Livakovic dragged Julian Alvarez inside the box and the referee awarded the penalty. The sequence that led to the penalty itself was against the run of the play, at a time when Croatia seemed to command the flow of the game better than Argentina. But then the industrious Enzo Fernandez dispossessed Luka Modric and laid a glorious ball into the path of Alvarez, who was feathered into the ground when he was looking to round off Livakovic. It could be argued his chip was wayward before Livakovic laid his arms on him. Never mind, all that mattered was Argentina gor a penalty and Messi would take it.

The moments he waited for the whistle, still and tranquil, passed on like an eternity. Everything seemed to move in slow-motion, his two-step stroll and waft of the left foot, wrapping the foot over the ball and propelling the ball to the top left corner of Livakovic. You might have watched this a thousand times, the same routine, the same movements, the same destination.But you could watch it a hundred times over. The same goal, the same movements, the same destination. Nothing gets pixelated in the Messi album.

For the first time in the tournament, Croatia looked utterly rattled, suddenly caught out. They might have felt as though the whole world was conspiring against them. Barely, five minutes later, Argentina doubled the lead, revving up an electrifying atmosphere inside the magnificent Lusail. Alvarez was again the spark. Carrying the ball from the middle of the ground, where Messi lay pleading for a foul on him, he wove and spun past three Croatian shirts and nudged it beyond Livakovic’s reach, all by himself. A solo goal so sumptuous that it would soon be enshrined among the cult-goals in Argentina. Feeding on the energy, Argentina buzzed, they almost scored third but for Josko Gvardiol’s blocking Alexis Mac Allister’s header, and Messi had devilish little run down the right at the stroke of first-half stoppage time, rolling back the years, balancing the ball like a master juggler. In the frenzy of the moment, Messi might have felt himself younger.

Like several other Argentineans, Alvarez has blossomed this World Cup. Not that precious talents were hidden from the footballing earth—he starts for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City—but he displayed that the biggest stage on the earth would not frazzle him. A more mobile and spatially aware forward than Lautaro Martinez, who Lionel Scaloni had preferred due to his directness, Croatia’s defenders sweated to track him. Though Messi was pitted as the second of the two forwards in the tactical sheet, they often shaped up as a 4-2-3-1, with Alvarez as the focal point.

Messi was, as is characteristic of his recent vintage, mostly impassive until that moment. He loitered in the inside right channel, his brain continuously ticking for defence-unlocking move, his feet fretting for the ball. He was like a teacher watching the students play, then interfering when he felt that he needed to interfere, to guide and nurse them. Enzo Fernandez almost found him with a curling pass from the left, but Messi stepped over Josko Gvardiol and tripped over. The crowd stood and whistled in anticipation of a free-kick near the box, Messi flung his hands in the air. But the referee remained unmoved, and was duly booed. Messi would then drop back a bit deeper, chiefly to distract Marcelo Brozovic, the guard to the Croatian fort. There was a time when they held their breath in agony, when they saw Messi clutch his thigh, walking wobbly. But that was just a passing concern as he regathered. It seemed as if there were two parallel games, Messi versus Croatia, and Argentina vs Croatia. Two pairs of eyes seemed insufficient.

In the second half, Croatia invariably rung in the changes and attacked exhibited more belligerence. A couple of free kicks in the first 15 minutes of the half promised a tasty contest, Emi Martinez had to stretch to defang a header, but soon their perseverance fizzled out, and Argentina looked the likelier side to enhance the lead and so they did, in the way the crowd wanted it to.Through Messi against.

The beatific Lusail Stadium was a riot of colours and emotions as the kick-off time approached. The most ubiquitous was the blue and white stripes of Argentina, with the number and name, of you know who. Messi was everywhere as miniature face-shots on faces, on shirts, banners, in heart and in soul. It has become a routine—the eyes of the world converging into the five foot seven frame, wherever he is playing, whenever he is playing. No one has stopped the world as much as Messi has in the last fortnight, as if the real purpose of the tournament was to bestow Messi a flawless farewell. Somewhere lurked the fear of his final wish remaining unfulfilled, but the sight of Messi would allay all those, as though they are in the midst of a miracle-worker, a soul=healer, who soaks all fears and instills peace.

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Amidst the Argentina flags and shirts, the bright red and white of Croatia stuck out, as if the paint had been peeled off the wall, baring the old colours. But they made up for the lack of numbers with passion and noise, though invariably drowned out in the aural haemorrhage that Argentina fans generated. And how they were rewarded.

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