AL DAAYEN, Qatar — Knockout tournaments like the World Cup generally require you to finish strong, unlike, say, a league format where you can build up a big lead at the start and hobble first across the finish line. Argentina evidently got the message. On the night that Lionel Messi scored his 11th World Cup goal (surpassing Gabriel Batistuta for most in the country’s men’s tournament history) in his 25th World Cup match (equaling Lothar Matthaus) they reached their sixth World Cup final in the most convincing way possible.
Argentina came out for their pre-match warmup with the swagger of a pro wrestler, as the Lusail Stadium DJ played Rodrigo’s “La Mano de Dios,” the homage to Diego Maradona set to a “cumbia” beat. And, as with a pro wrestler’s entrance music, the mostly Albiceleste crowd dutifully popped.
Big entrances, though, mean little when they are not backed up by big performances. Argentina had, in fact, been getting better as the tournament wore on. Apart from the third group game against Poland, though, they had failed to put together a 90-minute performance, letting a two-goal margin slip against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals (they eventually advanced on penalties) and nearly doing the same against Australia in the round of 16.
Tuesday night at Lusail Iconic Stadium was different. This was comprehensive. This was confident. This was control. And, while Messi opened the scoring from the spot and provided a ridiculous moment of skill in setting up the third goal, this was a team performance. Whatever Messi dependency may have afflicted them in the past was cured on the night. He was merely the cherry on top.
Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni knew how Croatia were 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 use it to control the game as much as he could. It was the gameplan that worked so well against Brazil: make the opposition chase you when you have the ball, not least because, if you have possession, the other guys can’t score on you.