Made by Messi, finished by Alvarez. Argentina coasted past Croatia to the World Cup final with considerably less fuss than many were expecting.
Messi or Modric. Modric or Messi. Much of the talk prior to this match had concerned the near-last stands of these two fine players, but at the end of a surprisingly one-sided World Cup semi-final between Argentina and Croatia, the answer turned out to be Julian Alvarez. The young Manchester City striker has spent much of his time since arriving at The Etihad Stadium in the not-insubstantial shadow of Erling Haaland but on this particular evening, with a place in the World Cup at stake, Alvarez stepped out of the shadows to score two of Argentina’s three goals as they coasted past a Croatia team for whom this all rather looked like a game too many.
Lionel Messi and Luka Modric have considerable similarities and differences in terms of their roles on the pitch during these twilight years. Both are the engines through which their teams function, but this manifests itself in very different ways.
Modric remains a joy to watch. He can turn up literally anywhere on the pitch. One minute he’ll be out on the left-wing, the next he’ll be doing the centre-backs’ jobs for them. Look again and he’ll be up front, supporting the strikers. Messi on the other hand, plays the first half an hour at walking pace and then scores the opening goal of the game.
The penalty was the first of several pieces of Croatian defensive clumsiness that combined to give Argentina a 2-0 lead by half-time. For thirty minutes things had been going fairly well for them. They dominated possession and controlled the tempo of the game without too much apparent difficulty, albeit without creating anything that looked much like a chance. But then a simple pass from Enzo Ferdandez sent Alvarez through with the Croatian central defence nowhere to be seen. Dominik Livakovic clattered into him – it should be added that it could be that Alvarez clattered into him – and Messi did the rest, from twelve yards.
Quite suddenly Croatia looked very leggy and six minutes later Alvarez scored one of the more extraordinary goals in the history of the World Cup when, having been released down the centre, he assumed the gait of a Krypton Factor contestant, charging forward as Croatian defenders fell around him, eventually toe-poking the ball past Livakovic for a magnificently bad brilliant goal. Diego Maradona’s second goal against England from 1986, as directed by Ed Wood. Argentina, quite understandably, didn’t seem to want the half-time whistle to blow.
The interval didn’t seem to bring out much of a change from the first. As per the first half, the second started with Croatia dominating possession, with the only thing that passed for a chance for them being the ball momentarily bouncing around the Argentina penalty area. And just had been the case through the first half, every time Argentina did get forward they looked substantially more likely to score a third goal, and this came to pass midway through the half when Messi took off on the right, cut inside, dumped Josko Gvardiol – who previously been probably a strong contender as the best defender in this entire tournament – on his backside, and rolled the ball back for Alvarez to score his second and Argentina’s third. Assist of the tournament? Almost certainly.
The third goal killed the game stone dead as a contest, and Modric left the pitch with ten minutes to play. Argentina’s goal had seldom been threatened all evening, and all that experience that Croatia have accrued over the years must have led them to the conclusion that the jig was well and truly up. Argentina were home and dry, and with room to spare. A match that had been widely expected to be as tight as some of the games in the rounds which preceded it had ended up very one-sided indeed.
Was this only a game too far for Croatia? Not quite. Their heads dropped visibly with the first Argentina goal, but for the first half an hour they’d been competitive. And during the lengthy periods when they did control possession they didn’t do so to very great effect. Certainly from the point of the second Argentina goal on, when they needed to be chasing the game with everything they had they lacked the creativity to make the Argentina defence work anywhere near hard enough.
If Argentina are coming together as a team, they’re certainly picking the right time to do so. That opening game defeat against Saudi Arabia all feels like such a long time ago. And the same might well be said for Lionel Messi, who is clearly having his best ever World Cup and now stands just one game removed from the medal that would complete the set.
Messi remains a most unusual best player in the world. Even when he was at his physical peak, his game was always about the application of the essential bricks and mortar that make up a football, of pace, strength, vision and skill. And now, at 35 years old, he has found a way of conserving his energy in such a way that he can still dramatically influence a game with these tiny bursts, often while spending much of the rest of the game as a spectator.
But Argentina are far from a one-man team. It’s true to say that Croatia lacked in attacking positions, but their defence was well-organised all evening and every single one of them worked really hard for this result. And Julian Alvarez stepped up with his two goals, one of which will be long-remembered. even if not completely for the reasons that he might want it to be. Not that he’ll care that much, of course. He’ll be playing in a World Cup final on Sunday. His opportunity to become the 21st-century Mario Kempes is visible on the horizon.
It’ll be France or Morocco in the final, two teams that would present a very different sort of challenge. France have probably the best player in the world at the moment in their attack and would surely offer a substantially greater challenge to Argentina’s defence than Croatia did. They couldn’t really offer much less. At the other end of the spectrum, the Morocco defence has – prior to their semi-final – only conceded one goal in the entire tournament, and they scored that themselves. But on the evidence of this performance, Argentina need fear no-one. They have the creator, they have the finisher, and they have a whole heap of momentum behind them.