Argentina’s win was their greatest efficiency of the World Cup

AL DAAYEN, Qatar — Knockout tournaments just like the World Cup usually require you to complete sturdy, not like, say, a league format the place you possibly can construct up a giant lead in the beginning and hobble first throughout the end line. Argentina evidently acquired the message. On the evening that Lionel Messi scored his eleventh World Cup purpose (surpassing Gabriel Batistuta for many within the nation’s males’s match historical past) in his twenty fifth World Cup match (equaling Lothar Matthaus) they reached their sixth World Cup closing in essentially the most convincing means potential.

Argentina got here out for his or her pre-match warmup with the swagger of a professional wrestler, because the Lusail Stadium DJ performed Rodrigo’s “La Mano de Dios,” the homage to Diego Maradona set to a “cumbia” beat. And, as with a professional wrestler’s entrance music, the largely Albiceleste crowd dutifully popped.

Massive entrances, although, imply little when they don’t seem to be backed up by massive performances. Argentina had, in actual fact, been getting higher because the match wore on. Other than the third group sport towards Poland, although, that they had did not put collectively a 90-minute efficiency, letting a two-goal margin slip towards the Netherlands within the quarterfinals (they ultimately superior on penalties) and practically doing the identical towards Australia within the spherical of 16.

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Tuesday evening at Lusail Iconic Stadium was completely different. This was complete. This was assured. This was management. And, whereas Messi opened the scoring from the spot and offered a ridiculous second of ability in establishing the third purpose, this was a staff efficiency. No matter Messi dependency might have stricken them previously was cured on the evening. He was merely the cherry on prime.

Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni knew how Croatia had been going to play. His counterpart Zlatko Dalic made no secret of it. In his view, he had the “greatest midfield on the planet” in Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, and he was going to make use of it to manage the sport as a lot as he might. It was the gameplan that labored so effectively towards Brazil: make the opposition chase you when you’ve the ball, not least as a result of, if in case you have possession, the opposite guys cannot rating on you.

To counter the risk, Argentina switched to a again 4 and a de facto diamond in midfield. Out went Lisandro Martinez on the again, in got here Leandro Paredes, a ball-playing defensive midfielder. With Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister, it not solely meant that they had an additional man within the center to counter Croatia’s trio, additionally they had a midfield that might ratchet up the depth.

That mattered towards a Croatia facet who’s older and who had gone to penalties twice within the previous rounds. Simply after the half-hour mark, Fernandez’s through-ball discovered Julian Alvarez, who was introduced down by Dominik Livakovic within the field. Messi transformed from the spot.

Moments later, Argentina acquired a dose of excellent fortune, however of the kind that favors the courageous. Alvarez picked up a free ball close to midway and powered ahead on the counter like a runaway freight practice. The ball caromed off Josko Gvardiol (twice) after which Borna Sosa and but, as if by magic, remained in Alvarez’s path for him to poke dwelling.

Argentina had been up 2-0 and on their means. In reality, they may have made it three earlier than the break however Livakovic was alert on Nicolas Tagliafico’s near-post header.

Dalic is a never-say-die man, but in addition a realist. He clearly realized that his midfield triangles weren’t going to get Croatia again into the sport, and by the fifth minute of the second half, he had despatched on two wingers (Mislav Orsic and Nikola Vlasic) and a burly center-forward (Bruno Petkovic) whereas taking off his midfield normal in Brozovic. Croatia had been going to go direct.

Scaloni countered Dalic’s chess transfer with one in every of his personal. Out got here Paredes, in went Martinez, giving Argentina a again three and further our bodies to counter the inevitable aerial assault.

Argentina had been comfy and arranged and will launch counters. After which, after all, there was the Messi issue: the truth that wherever, at any time, he can do one thing unthinkable. With 20 minutes to go, he acquired the ball in transition, broad proper across the midway mark, with Gvardiol on his heels.

This was 35-year-old Messi towards Gvardiol, who is not only 15 years Messi’s junior but in addition among the finest younger defenders in Europe. You count on Messi to conjure up some form of footwork trickery to seek out house, or perhaps see (and pull off) a move that no one else sees. You don’t count on him to take the younger’un for a journey.

However that is what he did.

Messi went on a kind of runs had been he seems to take 10 steps a second, with Gvardiol on prime of him, matching him step for step. A shimmy, a stop-start, Messi could not shake his mark, although. Nonetheless, the ball remained glued to his foot. A dragback, a pirouette, and nonetheless Gvardiol was there, not possible to lose, just like the reflection in a mirror. And so Messi faked a method and went the opposite, legs pumping ever sooner, and someway dribbled round Gvardiol, the best way he may need performed round a thousand and one orange cones in coaching as a baby. This was a feat as athletic because it was technical. It is not what you count on from a veteran. However then, Messi is Messi.

He capped it off with a easy sq. ball into the field, which the ready Alvarez side-footed dwelling and that was that. Besides, after all, for the highlight-reel reminiscence of an unreal piece of ability that has most likely already been become a GIF.