MESS-MERISING THE stage is set for one last tango, and the little man will be taking the lead.
For the third and final goal of a memorable evening, Lionel Messi led Josko Gvardiol a merry dance.
Lionel Messi scored his fifth goal of this World Cup as Argentina beat Croatia
Croatia’s keeper Dominik Livakovic brought down Julian Alvarez for the spot kick
Messi stepped up to convert his third penalty in Qatar
He blasted the spot kick high into the top corner beyond Livakovic
Messi will now have a second shot at winning a World Cup final
Once, twice, three times, maybe four, the Argentina captain beat one of the outstanding defenders at this tournament.
Then he laid it on a plate for Julian Alvarez to seal a convincing victory over a Croatian team that had previously refused to lose.
Messi also set Argentina on their way with the opening goal from the penalty spot that means he now holds his country’s record for World Cup goals.
But the only thing he really wants in his grasp is that golden trophy on Sunday
And as the blue and white hordes sang their hearts out, you could not help believing that he will.
Earlier in the tournament, beIN SPORTS presenter Richard Keys had dismissively described Argentina as “Messi and 10 of his mates”.
But against the ultimate collective, Croatia, Lionel Scaloni’s men proved they are a proper team, not a one-man band.
The captain scored the crucial opening goal but the spotkick was won by 22-year-old Alvarez after a lofted pass by 21-year-old Enzo Fernandez.
When the Manchester City striker grabbed the second, after a Messi pass, it was thanks to lung-busting decoy runs by Rodrigo De Paul and right back Nahuel Molina.
That goal felt like the ultimate tribute to what Scaloni is on the verge of achieving.
Until recently, the Argentina boss was best known in England for a short spell with West Ham that included giving the ball away in the build-up to Steven Gerrard’s wondergoal for Liverpool in the 2006 FA Cup Final.
Now he’s going to give Aston Villa and Brighton and Hove Albion their first representatives in a World Cup final.
Villa goalkeeper Emi Martinez was deemed not good enough for Arsenal, yet he’s set to line up for football’s ultimate showpiece.
Carlos Mac Allister, dad of Seagulls star Alexis, played with Diego Maradona.
The band of brothers that Scaloni has created with, not around, Messi, will now try to emulate the 1986 side led by El Diego.
Speaking after the game, Messi said: “I feel many things, it’s very exciting to see all this. Seeing the people, the family throughout the World Cup was something incredible. We’re going for the last game, which was what we wanted.
“I don’t know if it’s my best World Cup or not. I’ve been enjoying this a lot for a long time.
“We were confident that this group was going to pull it off. We know what we are and we ask the people to believe in us.
“Argentina is, once again, in the world final. Enjoy!
“We’ve been through tough situations, other very good ones. Today we’re experiencing something spectacular. I’m enjoying all these people and all the Argentines who are in our country. I imagine it must all be crazy.
“We knew we weren’t the top candidates, but we weren’t going to give anyone anything. We showed it game by game.”
As for that other great No 10, it was just not Luka Modric’s night.
He and his team were the better side until their defence fell apart twice in seven first-half minutes.
They dominated the ball in the early stages and their possession was neater and crisper than their opponents’.
Moreover, their shape and diligence was cutting off the supply route to Messi, who barely had a kick for the first 20 minutes.
Neither side was giving its forwards much to work with, though, and when an effort on goal finally arrived in the 25th minute, it was from range. Even then Fernandez’s effort was probably going wide and did not need Dominik Livakovic’s save.
But a few minutes later the Croatian goalkeeper was found wanting.
Alvarez doubled Argentina’s lead with a superb solo goal
Argentina will play Morocco or France in Sunday’s final
Alvarez buried Messi’s pullback to give Argentina a third
Messi and Alvarez scored and assisted all of Argentina’s three goals
Fernandez’s ball over the top caught out the defence, Alvarez raced on and tipped the ball over Livakovic, who took him down.
There could be no arguments about the penalty, although Mateo Kovacic’s best efforts earned him a yellow card and coach Mario Mandzukic was sent off from the bench.
And there were none about Messi’s conversion as he hit it high, hard and handsome to Livakovic’s left.
The Argentina fans, whose early passion and volume had diminished a little, found their voices again.
Five minutes later, they turned it up to 11.
A Croatia attack broke down and Messi found Alvarez breaking from his own half. The brilliant diagonal run by Molina in particular caused panic, full backs Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa failed to clear and Alvarez took advantage of a ricochet to prod the ball home.
Only a fine save by Livakovic after a corner stopped Mac Allister heading in a corner.
Suddenly, Messi was everywhere, twisting, turning and tormenting.
Martinez pushed away a Juranovic cross but that was it for Croatian threats on goal.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic made a double change at half time and his team regained some of their composure.
But Argentina were menacing on the break.
Alvarez almost teed up Fernandez, who is adding to the price Benfica can demand from with every game, then Messi forced a save from Livakovic at his near post.
Dejan Lovren had a chance to head Croatia back into the game, but any lingering hope soon died.
Poor Gvardiol didn’t know which way to turn until Messi pulled the ball back to Alvarez and then he could only watch as it was despatched into the net.
Mac Allister had a late chance to make it four, Ivan Perisic’s flick on from a corner at the other end went begging, and then it was over.
But the dream is not. The fairytale ending that many neutrals wanted is there for the writing.
And Argentina will hope that Messi – and his team – have something godlike saved for Sunday.
Messi’s standout moment came in his assist for Argentina’s third goal
The World Cup is the one trophy that has eluded Messi throughout his career
Argentina have not won the World Cup since 1986