Argentina’s victory was a team performance. Messi’s magic is the cherry on top.

AL DAAYEN, Qatar — Knockout tournaments like the World Cup generally require you to finish strong, unlike, say, a league format where you can build a big lead early on and hobble over the finish line. Argentina apparently got the message. On the night Lionel Messi scored his 11th World Cup goal (surpassing Gabriel Batistuta for most in the country’s men’s tournament history) in his 25th World Cup game (matching Lothar Matthaus), they reached their sixth World Cup final in the most convincing fashion yet.

Argentina came out for their pre-match warm-up with the swagger of a professional wrestler, as the Lusail Stadium DJ played Rodrigo’s “La Mano de Dios”, a tribute to Diego Maradona to the beat of “cumbia”. And, like music in pro wrestlers, mostly Albiceleste an obedient crowd appeared.

A large entrance, however, means nothing if it is not supported by a big show. In fact, Argentina got better as the tournament went on. Apart from the third group game against Poland, they failed to put in a 90-minute performance, letting a two-goal margin slip against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals (they eventually advanced via penalties) and nearly did the same against Australia. in the round of 16.

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Tuesday night at the Lusail Iconic Stadium was different. It’s comprehensive. This is confident. This is control. And, while Messi opened the scoring from the spot and provided a ridiculous moment of skill in setting up the third goal, it was a team performance. Whatever dependency Messi may have had on them in the past, heals over night. She is just the cherry on top.

Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni knows how Croatia will play. His colleague Zlatko Dalic has made no secret of it. In his view, he has the “best midfield in the world” in Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, and he will use them to control the game as much as he can. It was a game plan that worked so well against Brazil: have your opponents chase you when you have the ball, not least because, if you have the ball, the other players can’t score off you.

To deal with the threat, Argentina turned to a back four and a de facto diamond in midfield. Out and away from Lisandro Martinez at the back, in comes Leandro Paredes, a defensive midfielder who plays ball. With Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister, it doesn’t just mean they have an extra man in the middle against the Croatian trio, they also have a midfield that can increase the intensity.

It was important against an older Croatian side and who had taken penalties twice in the previous round. Just after the half-hour mark, Fernandez’s through ball found Julian Alvarez, who was brought down by Dominik Livakovic in the box. Messi converted from the spot.

Moments later, Argentina got a dose of luck, but the kind that sided with the brave. Alvarez picked up the loose ball near halfway and raced forward on the counter like a freight train speeding. The ball went off Josko Gvardiol (twice) and then Borna Sosa but, like magic, stayed in Alvarez’s path to score.

Argentina is 2-0 up and on their way. In fact, they could have got three goals before the interval but Livakovic was wary of Nicolas Tagliafico’s near post header.

Dalic is a man who never dies, but also a realist. He was clearly aware that his midfield triangle was not going to get Croatia back into the game, and by the fifth minute of the second half, he had sent on two wingers (Mislav Orsic and Nikola Vlasic) and a stocky centre-forward (Bruno Petkovic) while offloading his midfield generals in Brozovic. Croatia will be direct.

Scaloni countered Dalic’s chess move with one of his own. Out Paredes, in Martinez, giving Argentina three defenders and an extra body to counter the inevitable aerial attacks.

Argentina is comfortable and organized and can counterattack. Then, of course, there’s the Messi factor: the fact that anywhere, at any time, he can do the unthinkable. With 20 minutes remaining, he received the ball in transition, wide just around the halfway line, with Gvardiol behind him.

This is the 35 year old Messi against Gvardiol, who is not only 15 years younger than Messi but also one of the best young defenders in Europe. You’d expect Messi to conjure some sort of footwork feint to find space, or maybe see (and make) a pass no one else sees. You don’t expect him to take the young man out for a walk.

But that’s what he did.

Messi does one of those runs if he seems to be taking 10 steps per second, with Gvardiol above him, matching him step by step. A shake-up, a stop-start, Messi just can’t shake his target. Even so, the ball remained stuck at his feet. A dragback, a pirouette, and there’s still Gvardiol there, impossible to lose, like a reflection in a mirror. And so Messi faked one way and went the other, feet pumping ever faster, and somehow dribbling around Gvardiol, the way he probably did about a thousand and one orange cones in training as a kid. This is a feat that is as athletic as it is technical. It’s not what you expect from a veteran. But then, Messi is Messi.

He closed it with a simple square ball into the box, which was met by a waiting Alvarez side-foot and that was it. Except, of course, for highlight-reel memories of unreal skills that may have been turned into GIFs.

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