Lionel Messi urged Argentina to overcome one last hurdle after they reached the World Cup final by defeating Croatia 3-0 on Tuesday night.
Messi was in inspired form in front of an adoring audience at the Lusail Stadium, opening the scoring with a penalty and making two goals for Julián Álvarez. The 35-year-old’s performance led to his manager, Lionel Scaloni, calling him the greatest player of all time and opened up the prospect of Argentina, who had been in danger of an early exit after losing against Saudi Arabia in their opening game in Qatar, finally seeing their star player win the World Cup.
“The first match was a hard blow,” Messi said. “We had been unbeaten in 36 matches. We didn’t think we would lose versus Saudi Arabia. To start in such a way was an acid test for the squad. But this squad proved how strong we are. Every match was a final.
“This leaves a mental load. We have played five finals and have won five finals. I hope this will be the way in the final game. We were confident we would make it as we knew what we are capable of.”
Messi, who is not expected to play in another World Cup, is determined to make up for losing the 2014 final against Germany. The forward has led by example and was too good for Croatia, creating Álvarez’s second goal with a trademark dribble. He is now one win away from emulating Diego Maradona, who inspired Argentina when they became world champions in 1986.
“Whether Messi is the greatest of all time ... I don’t have any doubt,” Scaloni said. “I have been saying this all the time with my staff. Every time you see him playing it is a huge motivation for his teammates. There is nothing left to say about Messi. It is a privilege to have him.”
France or Morocco will block Argentina’s path to a third title. Messi argued that Scaloni’s side will be well prepared for either opponent. “This squad is very intelligent,” he said. “We know how to read the game. We know how to suffer. We have an excellent technical staff.”
Zlatko Dalic, who insisted he will lead Croatia into qualifying for Euro 2024, was unhappy with the penalty for the first goal. Dalic thought Croatia should have been given a corner before Argentina counterattacked, and he felt Dominik Livakovic was unfortunate to be penalised for bringing down Álvarez in the area.
There were angry protests from the Croatia bench before Messi converted his spot-kick. Mario Manduzkic, the assistant coach, was sent to the stands.
However, Dalic admitted his side were well beaten. It was a sad end for Luka Modric, who was withdrawn with 10 minutes left, although the 37-year-old midfielder has indicated he could continue to play for Croatia.