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FIFA World Cup 2022: Lionel Messi ‘assists’ Argentina into final

Updated on: 15 December,2022 08:02 AM IST  |  Doha
Ashwin Ferro |

Mercurial skipper and striker executes assist of the tournament in 3-0 semi-final win over Croatia; both coaches doff their hats to world’s best player

FIFA World Cup 2022: Lionel Messi ‘assists’ Argentina into final

Julian Alvarez (right) celebrates a goal with skipper Lionel Messi on Tuesday. Pic/Getty Images

Argentina emerged overwhelming 3-0 victors against Croatia in the first semi-final at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night, but it was their mercurial skipper Lionel Messi, who emerged an outright winner in the debate of who’s the greatest of them all.

Messi first scored off the penalty spot (34th minute) where he beat an in-form Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic comfortably to shatter Gabriel Batistuta’s long-standing record and become Argentina’s all-time leading goal scorer (11) at World Cups. Earlier, Messi had also matched German legend Lothar Matthaus’s record of 25 World Cup appearances. Argentina’s second goal saw Julian Alvarez sprint from the half-line towards the Croatian goal, almost lose the ball to defender Borna Sosa before accidentally getting it back to finish with a tap in (39th minute). The third goal however, is what will be talked about for long, and not because it saw Alvarez, 22, become the youngest player to equal legendary Brazilian Pele’s (17) record of scoring twice in a World Cup semi-final or final, but because of the sheer build up that led to it. 

Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol—one of the best deep defenders on view at this tournament—would not have slept later that night after Messi outran him down and teased him before relaying the assist of the tournament to Alvarez. In the 69th minute, Messi picked up the ball from the right, at the half-line mark and tapped it ahead with Gvardiol a step behind and ready to pounce. Messi then ran diagonally across towards the Croatian goal, giving the ball a couple of more touches before suddenly shifting towards the right side of the Croatian penalty box. All this while Gvardiol, 20, is trying to keep pace and dislodge Messi, 15 years his senior, with a nudge here and there. Messi then suddenly stops and turns right with his back towards Gvardiol and gives a body feint suggesting he is turning around, but swiftly switches the ball to his left and takes off towards the byline. A horribly twisted and turning Gvardiol is cluelessly accompanying Messi into the history books now, as the diminutive Argentine sprints like a rocket down the byline towards goal and without even looking up, relays a pass to his left where Alvarez, standing bang in front of goal, merely taps in. 

Also Read: FIFA World Cup 2022: Friends to the foe

A special feeling

Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni hailed his heroic captain at the post-match press conference. “Regarding Messi being the best footballer in history, it seems like we say that just because we’re Argentines and we are accused of being selfish, but I think there are no doubts. The coaching staff, players and I, all feel privileged to train with Messi and to see him up close. Each time we see him play, he makes us and the players feel something special. There’s something about him that everyone likes, not only Argentines. We are just lucky and privileged to have him wear our shirt,” said Scaloni, who was in tears while hugging his talismanic captain soon after the final whistle.

Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic was unhappy about the penalty being given, but even he couldn’t stop praising his opposition skipper. “In the past 15 years, Messi has probably been the best player in the world, and today again, he was very good and dangerous. He made the difference in quality for the Argentina team. He had this explosiveness and technique at a very high-level performance. It’s the true Messi we expected to see,” he said.

‘Just enjoying this moment’

Meanwhile, the man himself, who picked up his record 10th Player of the Match award in a tournament, where he has already scored five times and provided three assists in Argentina’s 12 goals, said he’s merely enjoying himself out there. “I’m just enjoying this moment. Luckily, I feel good, I feel strong to face every game. We’ve made huge sacrifices. In the last game [v The Netherlands], we played a long extra time which was not easy. I’ve felt really happy throughout the tournament, and still do now. We are a smart team that knows exactly when to dig in, when to have ball possession, when to press and when to sit back. Our first match [1-2 defeat to Saudi Arabia] was a hard blow. We came here after playing 36 matches without a single loss. So nobody thought we could lose, but we showed strength, pulled through, and every match thereafter was like a final. So we have played and won five finals, and hopefully we’ll win the next one too,” said Messi.

Leo in numbers

No of goals scored to become Argentina’s all-time leading goalscorer in World Cup history 

No of players, including Messi, to have featured in five World Cups

No of World Cup minutes played—second highest after Italy’s Paolo Maldini (2,217)

No of World Cup match wins—second highest after Germany’s Miroslav Klose (17) 

Record number of World Cup appearances —joint highest with Germany’s Lothar Matthaus

Record number of Player of the Match awards won at World Cups

Record number of World Cup appearances as captain of Argentina

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