A second chance: How Messi’s Argentina reached the World Cup final again

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Pre-tournament favourites Argentina stumbled at the first World Cup hurdle before getting their act together to storm into another final, led by their inspirational skipper Lionel Messi who has moved to the top of the tournament’s scoring charts.

Eight years ago, Messi dragged Argentina to the World Cup final only to lose to Germany but this time he has a supporting cast and a tactically astute coach in Lionel Scaloni who has guided them to the showpiece match in Qatar.

The following is Argentina’s path to the final:

GROUP STAGE MATCH 1ARGENTINA 1-2 SAUDI ARABIA

Argentina came into the tournament on the back of a 36-match unbeaten run and the last thing Scaloni’s side expected was to suffer what was statistically the biggest shock in World Cup history when Saudi Arabia beat them 2-1.

Messi scored a 10th minute penalty in the first half where Argentina had three goals disallowed for offside before the Saudis struck twice in the second half to stun the South American champions.

If Argentina could take any solace from the result, it was that when they lost their group opener to Cameroon in 1990 they still reached the final.

Scaloni was calm, however, while Messi rallied his troops with the message: “We have to return to the foundation of who we are.”

GROUP STAGE MATCH 2ARGENTINA 2-0 MEXICO

With a World Cup trophy missing in his cabinet, Messi has never really been considered as equal with Diego Maradona but against Mexico he matched the late Argentina great’s record of 21 matches and eight goals at the finals.

With the match deadlocked at 0-0 after more than an hour, Messi picked his moment and then picked his spot, firing home from 20 metres to beat goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa by the narrowest of margins.

Substitute Enzo Fernandez scored with another sublime strike to seal the points and set Argentina on their way amid an electric atmosphere at Lusail Stadium, the biggest arena in Qatar.

“Today starts another World Cup for Argentina,” Messi had said after admitting they were poor in the first half. “We started to play the ball better (in the second half) and until the goal we went back to being what we are.”

GROUP STAGE MATCH 3POLAND 0-2 ARGENTINA

In a match between Barcelona’s past and present, it was the club’s record scorer Messi who saw his side triumph while Robert Lewandowski, Barca’s top scorer this season, finished the game without a shot on goal.

Messi was fortunate to win a controversial penalty after a VAR check but missed from the spot as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny kept his cool and denied the Argentine skipper.

But, despite the miss, Messi was at the heart of Argentina’s attacks and ran the show in his free role up front while Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez scored to ensure their side topped the group.

“We tried to stay positive, to stay calm (after Messi missed his penalty),” Mac Allister said. “We did not feel down, we tried to be optimistic. Fortunately we managed to win and go through.”

LAST 16ARGENTINA 2-1 AUSTRALIA

The stars seemed to align for Messi in a physical last-16 clash with Australia as he scored in his 1,000th match to move past Maradona’s World Cup tally.

The goal was vintage Messi, almost as if time stood still for everyone else except the 35-year-old, who reacted quickly to a short layoff in little space to curl the ball home even as four Australia defenders tried to close the gap.

Alvarez made it 2-0 but an own goal from Fernandez set up a tense finish in which Argentina clung on for victory.

“Now we have a really tough clash with Holland, who play very well. They have great players and a great coach, it’s going to be hard-fought,” Messi had said.

His words proved to be prophetic.

QUARTER-FINALNETHERLANDS 2-2 ARGENTINA(3-4 ON PENALTIES)

Four goals, an equaliser at the death, brawls with team benches emptying out, a tense penalty shootout, accusations of unsportsmanlike conduct, 16 yellow cards and one red card – the Netherlands-Argentina game had it all.

In a battle between the youngest and oldest coaches at the World Cup, Scaloni (44) came out on top against Louis van Gaal (71), who discarded football purity for pragmatism by bringing on 6-foot, 6-inch striker Wout Weghorst to torment the defence.

Messi was front and centre again, finding Nahuel Molina with a pass from an impossible angle to set up the opener and then converted a penalty, but Weghorst headed home before taking the match to extra time after a clever free kick routine.

A shell-shocked Argentina recovered from the last-gasp equaliser and in the shootout goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez made two saves before Lautaro Martinez finished things off to eliminate the Dutch in an ill-tempered game.

The bad blood spilt over into the tunnel too with plenty of words exchanged. But after things had calmed down, Messi said: “Diego (Maradona) is watching us from heaven. He is pushing us and I really hope this stays the same until the end.”

SEMI-FINALARGENTINA 3-0 CROATIA

A match against Croatia, a team who had not won a knockout game in normal time since 1998, was set to test Argentina but they passed with flying colours as Messi almost single-handedly dispatched the 2018 runners-up.

Alvarez earned the penalty that Messi converted with aplomb and also scored twice, his first goal a fantastic solo run from the halfway line to beat three defenders.

But once again it was Messi running things, setting Alvarez through on goal with the crucial touch before his own run from the halfway line and dribble past defender Josko Gvardiol set up his young strike partner for the easy finish.

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic hailed Messi as the “best player in the world”, saying he made the difference, while Argentina’s skipper urged his team to turn up one last time on Sunday.

“We have played five finals (since the Saudi defeat) and we were lucky to win five finals. I hope it will be like this for the final game,” said Messi, who joined France’s Kylian Mbappe atop the scoring charts with five goals at the tournament.

Argentina will play holders France in the final on Sunday.

-Reuters

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