Messi paints final masterpiece

Lusail, December 14

Lionel Messi bent over, clutched his left hamstring and appeared to grimace, immediately spreading panic through the football world but especially among all Argentines.

Was their superstar — their idol — injured? Was he going to have to come off early in the World Cup semifinals? No such luck for Croatia.

Before long, Messi was producing perhaps the best performance of his record-tying 25 appearances at the World Cup, leading Argentina to a 3-0 victory over Croatia on Tuesday that set up a meeting with either France or Morocco in Sunday’s final.

Messi is back in football’s biggest match on his mission to win the game’s greatest prize for the first time. At 35, he could hardly be playing any better.

Messi converted a penalty and played a part in the other two goals by Julian Alvarez — one with an outrageous piece of skill that brought roars of approval from Argentina’s huge following — to turn an initially tense occasion into a procession.

“A lot is going through my head — it’s very emotional seeing all of this,” Messi said in a post-match interview on the field as he looked up at Argentina’s celebrating, scarf-waving supporters. “To see the fans — the family — during the whole tournament was so incredible. We’re going to the final, which is what we wanted.”

It will be Messi’s second World Cup final — Argentina lost the other one to Germany in 2014 — in what is likely his last appearance at the tournament.

The stage is set for a player widely regarded as one of the game’s best, if not the absolute best, to go out on the ultimate high.

He is thrilling his legion of fans along the way. His swivel and driving run to set up the third goal for Alvarez in the 69th minute left Josko Gvardiol — one of the best defenders at the World Cup — grasping at thin air and epitomised Messi’s confidence and swagger.

He is embracing the responsibility of leading Argentina to their third World Cup title, scoring in five of his six games. He even had a penalty saved in the one game in which he didn’t score.

“I am honoured to train him and see him play,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who was in tears in the post-match celebrations. — AP

11Messi became Argentina’s record scorer at World Cups with his third penalty of the tournament taking him to 11 goals in total — one more than Gabriel Batistuta.

13Since the 1966 edition, no player has scored or assisted in more different World Cup matches than Lionel Messi (13 — level with Brazilian Ronaldo).

25Messi has tied the record for most appearances at the World Cup by playing for the

25th time, the same number as Lothar Matthaeus of Germany.

6Argentina maintained their record of never having lost in the World Cup semifinals and have reached the final for the sixth time.

Qatar final is last dance

Doha: Lionel Messi has confirmed he will play his last World Cup game when Argentina take on France or Morocco in Sunday’s final in Qatar.

“I feel very happy, to be able to achieve this, to finish my World Cup journey by playing my last game in a final,” Messi told Argentine media outlet Diario Deportivo Ole. “It’s many years for the next one and I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. And to finish like this, it’s the best,” added the Argentina captain.

The 35-year-old is playing at his fifth World Cup, surpassing the four of Diego Maradona and Javier Mascherano.

With his fifth goal in Qatar, he also surpassed Gabriel Batistuta as the top Albiceleste scorer at World Cups, netting 11 times. “It’s all well and good (the records), but the important thing is to be able to achieve the group objective, which is the most beautiful thing of all,” Messi added. “We’re just one step away, after fighting hard, and we’re going to give everything to try to make it happen this time.”Reuters

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