February 3, 2023

For Lionel Messi and Argentina, it looks like this World Cup is going both ways.

When the greatest player of his generation finally lifts the trophy in Lusail on Sunday, perhaps a life’s work will be considered complete.

If he doesn’t, other contrasting images will have accumulated over the past three weeks that may be harder to shake.

Lionel Messi wants to reach the World Cup final for the second time in his career

Lionel Messi wants to reach the World Cup final for the second time in his career

The Argentina squad trained in Doha ahead of their semi-final against Croatia

The Argentina squad trained in Doha ahead of their semi-final against Croatia

The Copa America champions are still two games away from winning the World Cup trophy in Qatar

The Copa America champions are still two games away from winning the World Cup trophy in Qatar

Angel Di Maria has struggled to get fit in recent games but has been available for training

Angel Di Maria has struggled to get fit in recent games but has been available for training

A penalty won questionably and then missed against Poland in an early group game. Perhaps the pass of the tournament to give Nahuel Molina the opening goal of last Friday’s quarter-final against the Netherlands.

And then, most vividly of all, Messi’s role in the thugs and deceit that tarnished the closing stages of that match was finally rewarded with penalties.

At home in Argentina and among the thousands of his compatriots who continue to gather here in Doha, all that is celebrated is how Messi and his teammates beat the Dutch in that ruthless and undignified denouement at the same Lusail stadium where they return to Croatia tonight.

But as for the rest of the world – a world that deeply wants to see Messi as someone who somehow rests above some of the dirtier aspects of our sport – we know what we saw. As such, it was left to Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni to somehow defend his players when he spoke yesterday.

“I just want to finish this topic,” Scaloni said. “The last game was played the way we had to play it. That goes for both teams. Things can happen in some games. There may be arguments and challenging times, but that’s it.

National coach Lionel Scaloni defended his team's actions during their quarter-final

National coach Lionel Scaloni defended his team’s actions during their quarter-final

Argentina received ten bookings on Friday evening during the game against the Netherlands

Argentina received ten bookings on Friday evening during the game against the Netherlands

There were a total of 17 cautions during the game - a new World Cup record

There were a total of 17 cautions during the game – a new World Cup record

That’s why we have a referee. To do justice. We must end the idea that Argentina is just a team with that kind of behaviour. We lost to Saudi Arabia in the first game and said nothing. We won the Copa America in Brazil last year and experienced the most sporting behavior when Messi and Neymar were together in the tunnel in the Maracana.

So I’m not convinced of the idea that it’s just unsportsmanlike conduct. We show our pride and we just played that match against the Netherlands as we had to play it.

Messi has always been a winner. He remains enthusiastic and motivated to win. We are very happy with that.’

With a World Cup short of a truly great team, Messi’s uncertain but convincing progress to a second final – Argentina lost to Germany in Rio de Janeiro in 2014 – remains the key storyline.

Lionel Messi has played a key role in Argentina's World Cup campaign

Lionel Messi has played a key role in Argentina’s World Cup campaign

The South American team can face France or Morocco if they reach the final

The South American team can face France or Morocco if they reach the final

With his attitude on the pitch often fluctuating between determination and sheer desperation, this tournament has seen a different side to the 35-year-old. As such, his teammate Nicolas Tagliafico was asked yesterday if he was just getting too aggressive.

“Messi is our captain and leader and he always has been,” said the Lyon defender. “He is the one who pushes us, motivates us. We have him and that is a great source of motivation and help.

“We are so happy to have him as our captain. We want to make our dreams come true and the best way is to do it with Messi by our side. In terms of the Dutch game, these are situations that occur. We feel emotions running high.’

With Croatia reaching a consecutive World Cup semi-final thanks to back-to-back penalty shootout wins, Argentina is understandably installed as a favorite ahead of tonight’s game.

However, as far as Croatian boss Zlatko Dalic is concerned, a life’s dream has already been fulfilled. Four years ago, the Croatian coach took his country to a World Cup final and he didn’t think it would happen again.

Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic spoke ahead of the crucial game for his side on Tuesday evening

Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic spoke ahead of the crucial game for his side on Tuesday evening

But if Morocco has been the eager and fresh giant killers of this tournament – ​​the North Africans face France tomorrow in the other semi-final – then the Croats are the gnarled veterans of the World Cups past who refuse to leave.

Not impressive to finish second to Morocco in Group F with a win and two draws, but Dalic and his players are still with us thanks to those shootout wins against Japan and then Brazil.

Croatia was right behind in both games. But perhaps the memory of what happened in Russia – where Croatia beat England in the last four and then lost to France in the final – is driving the likes of Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren and Ivan Perisic forward.

That trio, for example, has 103 years and 358 international matches between them and Scaloni praised Modric yesterday. “He is a role model,” said the Argentinian boss. ‘For his game and for his behaviour. We should enjoy him.’

And Spurs winger Perisic said: “If we play like we did against Brazil, then we have a chance.” But that may not be true. Croatia had one shot on target against Brazil in 120 minutes. He arrived three minutes before time and went in through a deflection.

Ivan Perisic scored the goal that gave Croatia a place in the final in 2018

Ivan Perisic scored the goal that gave Croatia a place in the final in 2018

They will need to perform more tonight, but if Argentina and Messi carry the weight of expectation in this match, Croatia is not.

“We are here again as one of the top four teams in the world and that is extraordinary for a country like Croatia,” said Dalic. “Argentina is under greater pressure than we are. We’ve played two overtimes, but we haven’t even talked about being exhausted yet. We have strength and energy.

“The semi-final against England four years ago was the most important game we have ever played. The one we just played against Brazil was the second. This is now the third.

“It would be fantastic to repeat that success against England with this team, but what we have achieved here is already a great triumph.

The Croatian duo spoke at a press conference on Monday afternoon prior to the game

The Croatian duo spoke at a press conference on Monday afternoon prior to the game

“I could never have imagined that I would get this far again with this team. I thank God. I am so grateful. Whatever happens in this game, I’m proud. I am now a happy person.

“Both teams are very emotional,” he added. “Look at the Argentinian fans and the emotion they carry. The same goes for the Croats. We have much less here and that will be an advantage for Argentina. But I firmly believe that the Croats will be the ones who will experience all the joy at the end.

That may be so, as this is largely a functional Argentinian team, albeit with one generation of talent at its core. But courage is not lacking, after overcoming the shock of that defeat against Saudi Arabia in the group and also the blow of Wout Weghorst’s equalizer in the last minute of 11 added to the normal time last Friday.

Messi will look to increase his four goals in the league when he faces Croatia

Messi will look to increase his four goals in the league when he faces Croatia

“It’s strange to have all those minutes at the end and then think the game is over,” Scaloni looked back yesterday.

Argentina’s fans are providing a much-needed backdrop of color and vitality to what’s left of this tournament. Argentina have not won a World Cup since 1986 and the memory of how poorly their team played in that final in Brazil eight years ago is one that needs to be purged.

As night falls earlier here, South Americans gather in numbers to make music in the squares of Doha. This evening Lusail will be painted light blue and white. Only the Argentina home shirt is no longer available in the sports shops.

Argentina. Messi. A World Cup final. It’s all right. As long as the Scaloni players don’t get in the way tonight.

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