Argentina’s win was their greatest efficiency of the World Cup

AL DAAYEN, Qatar — Knockout tournaments just like the World Cup typically require you to complete robust, not like, say, a league format the place you may construct up an enormous lead in the beginning and hobble first throughout the end line. Argentina evidently obtained the message. On the night time that Lionel Messi scored his eleventh World Cup aim (surpassing Gabriel Batistuta for many within the nation’s males’s match historical past) in his twenty fifth World Cup match (equaling Lothar Matthaus) they reached their sixth World Cup closing in essentially the most convincing method potential.

Argentina got here out for his or her pre-match warmup with the swagger of a professional wrestler, because the Lusail Stadium DJ performed Rodrigo’s “La Mano de Dios,” the homage to Diego Maradona set to a “cumbia” beat. And, as with a professional wrestler’s entrance music, the principally Albiceleste crowd dutifully popped.

Massive entrances, although, imply little when they aren’t backed up by massive performances. Argentina had, actually, been getting higher because the match wore on. Aside from the third group recreation in opposition to Poland, although, that they had didn’t put collectively a 90-minute efficiency, letting a two-goal margin slip in opposition to the Netherlands within the quarterfinals (they finally superior on penalties) and practically doing the identical in opposition to Australia within the spherical of 16.

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Tuesday night time at Lusail Iconic Stadium was totally different. This was complete. This was assured. This was management. And, whereas Messi opened the scoring from the spot and supplied a ridiculous second of ability in organising the third aim, this was a crew efficiency. No matter Messi dependency might have troubled them previously was cured on the night time. He was merely the cherry on prime.

Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni knew how Croatia had been going to play. His counterpart Zlatko Dalic made no secret of it. In his view, he had the “best midfield in the world” in Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, and he was going to make use of it to manage the sport as a lot as he might. It was the gameplan that labored so nicely in opposition to Brazil: make the opposition chase you when you have got the ball, not least as a result of, when you have possession, the opposite guys cannot rating on you.

To counter the risk, Argentina switched to a again 4 and a de facto diamond in midfield. Out went Lisandro Martinez on the again, in got here Leandro Paredes, a ball-playing defensive midfielder. With Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister, it not solely meant that they had an additional man within the center to counter Croatia’s trio, additionally they had a midfield that would ratchet up the depth.

That mattered in opposition to a Croatia facet who’s older and who had gone to penalties twice within the previous rounds. Simply after the half-hour mark, Fernandez’s through-ball discovered Julian Alvarez, who was introduced down by Dominik Livakovic within the field. Messi transformed from the spot.

Moments later, Argentina obtained a dose of fine fortune, however of the kind that favors the courageous. Alvarez picked up a unfastened ball close to midway and powered ahead on the counter like a runaway freight prepare. The ball caromed off Josko Gvardiol (twice) after which Borna Sosa and but, as if by magic, remained in Alvarez’s path for him to poke residence.

Argentina had been up 2-0 and on their method. In reality, they might have made it three earlier than the break however Livakovic was alert on Nicolas Tagliafico’s near-post header.

Dalic is a never-say-die man, but in addition a realist. He clearly realized that his midfield triangles weren’t going to get Croatia again into the sport, and by the fifth minute of the second half, he had despatched on two wingers (Mislav Orsic and Nikola Vlasic) and a burly center-forward (Bruno Petkovic) whereas taking off his midfield common in Brozovic. Croatia had been going to go direct.

Scaloni countered Dalic’s chess transfer with one in all his personal. Out got here Paredes, in went Martinez, giving Argentina a again three and additional our bodies to counter the inevitable aerial assault.

Argentina had been snug and arranged and will launch counters. After which, after all, there was the Messi issue: the truth that anyplace, at any time, he can do one thing unthinkable. With 20 minutes to go, he acquired the ball in transition, vast proper across the midway mark, with Gvardiol on his heels.

This was 35-year-old Messi in opposition to Gvardiol, who is not only 15 years Messi’s junior but in addition top-of-the-line younger defenders in Europe. You anticipate Messi to conjure up some type of footwork trickery to seek out area, or possibly see (and pull off) a go that no one else sees. You don’t anticipate him to take the younger’un for a journey.

However that is what he did.

Messi went on a kind of runs had been he seems to take 10 steps a second, with Gvardiol on prime of him, matching him step for step. A shimmy, a stop-start, Messi could not shake his mark, although. Nonetheless, the ball remained glued to his foot. A dragback, a pirouette, and nonetheless Gvardiol was there, inconceivable to lose, just like the reflection in a mirror. And so Messi faked a method and went the opposite, legs pumping ever sooner, and by some means dribbled round Gvardiol, the way in which he might need completed round a thousand and one orange cones in coaching as a toddler. This was a feat as athletic because it was technical. It isn’t what you anticipate from a veteran. However then, Messi is Messi.

He capped it off with a easy sq. ball into the field, which the ready Alvarez side-footed residence and that was that. Besides, after all, for the highlight-reel reminiscence of an unreal piece of ability that has in all probability already been became a GIF.