Argentina reach World Cup 2022 finals
In a one-sided semifinal match, Argentina defeated Croatia 3-0 to reach the final of Qatar’s World Cup 2022. One Croatian blunder at the 34th minute, one piece of ridiculous Argentine good fortune at the 39th minute, and one moment of 20-year-old Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol’s hubris at the 69th minute spelled doom for the Europeans who simply could not find a rhythm once their team allowed those two back-to-back goals in the first half.
In the 34th minute, an uncharacteristic Croatian defensive blunder saw Argentine striker Julian Alvarez run down the middle of the field to latch on to a through ball that should have never reached him but bounced into his path. Penalty shootout hero, Dominick Livakovic came out to meet the striker but collided with him in an easy-to-call penalty and yellow card. Lionel Messi, who else, was called upon to take the spot kick and blasted it high and to the keeper’s left for the opening score.
Five minutes later, an Argentine counter, this one a classic produced when most of the Croatian team was in the Argentina penalty area taking a corner, saw Alvarez run down the middle of the field again, this time fully unopposed until the first defender caught up with and confronted him. The Argentine tried to dribble but kicked the ball at the defender only it bounced up and Alvarez was able to knee it forward twenty yards.
The second defender then materialized in his path, got in his way, and again the Argentine striker managed to dribble the ball into the defender. But once again, the ball bounced off of the defender and fell perfectly for Alvarez who was now in the Croatian penalty area. The ball then seemed to float in the air about three feet off the ground and much nearer Alvarez than the onrushing Livakovic. The Argentine simply stretched his leg out to kick it past the hapless keeper for the 2-0 lead.
It was obvious Zlatko Dalic had employed his stars to their limits as the game wore on as he had not employed any strategies to overcome the fact that Argentina had flooded the midfield, using a 4-4-2 rather than their typical 4-3-3 to negate the Croatian’s midfield superiority in skill. Knowing his subs were not at the level of his starters and that Marcelo Brozovic was nursing an injury coming in limited his options so he probably counted himself lucky when the half-time whistle blew.
In the second half the Croats seemed to be out of steam as the mountain they needed to climb was pretty steep and the Argentines are masters at wasting time. So, few Croatian attacks were back-to-back as when one broke down the South Americans simply did to the Europeans what the Croatians had done to the Brazilians in their previous game. Possession as a simple time-wasting and rhythm-breaking mechanism.
But the Argentines had the 2018 World Cup loss in mind and a 2-0 win would be a less satisfying revenge than they needed for the 3-0 drubbing they experienced in Russia, and there was one player on the Argentine side who had taken that loss personally—Messi.
In the 68th minute, the diminutive Argentine took possession on the right wing on a counter when Croatia were pressing for a score. Messi found himself one-on-one with Gvardiol. The young defender could not help himself; he had performed admirably all tournament long so why not take on this guy, Messi. The best player on the planet then proceeded to turn the young defender inside out as he dribbled past him to reach the goal line at about where it met the goal area before the Croatian defense could recover. Messi then simply passed the ball back to an open Alvarez for the easy, close-in put-away. Game-set-match and you’re welcome for the lesson, son. With 2018 fully paid off, the Argentines turned their thoughts to other endeavors.
Messi felt the Croatians were demoralized and thus there was no better time to get a garbage goal for himself. This was important as he wanted to exit football’s biggest stage with as much silverware as he could carry. So, as he was only ahead of Kylian Mbappe by a single assist in the Golden Boot sweepstakes, he stayed on the pitch. Interestingly, with nothing else to gain for the last twenty-five minutes of the match, Lionel Scaloni felt it wise to leave Messi in to achieve that extra World Cup 2022 cherry on top, you know, besides going to the final.
In the 81st minute, coach Dalic had endured enough and did not want his star, 37-year-old Luka Modric, on the pitch should Argentina score again so the superstar was subbed out. And in a rare moment of sportsmanship, both sets of antagonist fans joined the neutrals in the stadium in giving Modric a send-off ovation.
By the time Italian referee, Daniele Orsato, blew his whistle on a relatively well-officiated match, that added goal had not materialized for Messi but all of the raw greed for glory stood out, as in this tournament that emotion has only been matched by one other participant, a Mr. Mbappe, who may yet meet Mr. Messi this coming Sunday in the same stadium for the biggest prize(s) in world football.
Photo: Lionel Messi, Shutterstock ID 2219939959, by Alizada Studios.