The first semi-final of the 2022 World Cup was to be a rematch of a quarter-final in the previous World Cup; Argentina and Croatia, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric, battling it out on the biggest stage in world football for the last time. The game itself did not disappoint if you are rooting for Messi to finally capture the elusive World Cup. Modric, on the other hand, can go home holding his head high, having had a brilliant career for both club and country.
The 3-0 Argentinian win puts that nation just one victory in the final of the tournament away from achieving what the legendary Diego Maradona was able to do last in 1986; led by Leo Messi, Argentina will have brought the World Cup back with them from Qatar to South America for the first time since Brazil won the trophy in 2002.
Argentina XI: Argentina, owing to tactics and unavailable personnel, chose to play a 4-4-2 with players like Leandro Parades and Nicholas Tagliafico. That was a change from the 3-5-2 they played against the Dutch in the quarter-finals, but it helped balance the lineup without Marcos Acuna in the lineup - suspended for accumulation; this Argentinian side was ready to roll and did so less wary of the Croatian attack than were they of the Oranje.
Martinez; Tagliafico, Otamendi, Romero, Molina; Mac Allister, Fernandez, Paredes, De Paul; Alvarez, Messi
Croatia XI: Croatia, meanwhile, ran out the same squad as in the previous penalty shootout victory against Brazil. Their 4-1-2-3 has been reliable as a shape that allows for the side to compress well when out of possession, with the ability to spring back into attack quickly with option forward, as well as three good ball-handling midfielders in the forms of Brozovic, Kovacic, and Modric. Today, however, this side simply met its match.
Livakovic; Sosa, Gvardiol, Lovren, Juranovic; Brozovic, Kovacic, Modric, Perisic, Kramaric, Pasalic
The match was not all too exciting to begin, with both sides feeling one another out, seeing which spots were available and vulnerable and which should not be tested. While Lionel Messi will be canonized for his footballing efforts and exploits with another victory in the final of this tournament, young Manchester City starlet Julian Alvarez did so much on this day.
The ambition, courage and technical ability of Alvarez was on display in the 34’ when, catching hold of a long ball from midfield off of a turnover by the Croatians. The player’s control and ability to dink the ball over Dominik Livakovic - understanding full well that he was going to take some punishment in the process - was class, and when the yellow card for the keeper and the penalty to Argentina were both awarded, everyone watching knew who was going to stroll to the spot in the box.
Leo Messi’s finish was undeniable, as even with the direction guessed properly, the still-wincing Livakovic stood no chance in stopping the shot drilled in the top right corner. This was Argentina’s fifth penalty in six games this tournament, and perhaps no more controversial than any of the others awarded to them before this.
There was no stopping this penalty kick by Messi pic.twitter.com/TrGy8v1wYJ— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 13, 2022
It was only about five minutes later on the game clock in the 39’ that the second goal was scored by Argentina - perhaps my favorite goal of the whole tournament so far - as Julian Alvarez went nearly the entire length of the pitch across eleven seconds to baffle Croatia’s disorganized and disillusioned backline and defense on his way to a true wondergoal. With a second half still to play, all could not be said to be signed, sealed, and delivered yet for the Albiceleste, but the final of this tournament was close enough to reach out to touch for this side; Croatia could fight and fight, but it would not be ever enough in this match.
JULIAN ALVAREZ WHAT A GOAL— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 13, 2022
2-0 ARGENTINA pic.twitter.com/73747qp92r
The third and final goal of the day for Argentina - a work of art by Messi schooling the young, very talented Croatian centre-back Josko Gvardiol of RB Leipzig in which he finally laid the ball off to a streaking Julian Alvarez just yards away from the goal. His second goal of the day - accountable for all three in many ways - should leave no doubt to any that both Argentina and Manchester City have another shining star on their hands, even with those big names that currently dominate each of those sides.
JULIAN ALVAREZ AGAIN— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 13, 2022
THREE for Argentina pic.twitter.com/Zdt4JW3EBi
From that point in the 69’ on, the match was in less question and doubt than ever before. Croatia did not surrender to be sure, and had chances to claw at least one back in the latter stages of the match - yet it was not to be on this day. That side and its wonderful group of players can hold their heads high as they head into the third-place match against the loser of France-Morocco.
Argentina, meanwhile, will find itself playing the winner of that France versus Morocco contest. Either the defending champions will challenge Messi and company for the title, or else the remarkable, shock side of the tournament, Morocco will have one more chapter in their Cinderella story to stop the legendary march of Lionel. The French — the incredible machine made of Kylian Mbappe and a star-studded supporting cast — or the Moroccans —a team so stingy on the defensive end that their only allowed goal of the tournament came in the group stages and was actually an own goal — stand between Messi and what at this time seems an inevitable trophy win, even while the conspiracy theorists continue to grumble that the tournament has been fixed in Argentina’s favour.
Each side poses their own challenges for the Abliceleste, but this balanced Argentine side would likely take their group over either after all that they have accomplished over the last several weeks - and who could blame them for doing so?