Argentina defeats Croatia 3-0 to advance to World Cup final

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Lionel Messi scored one goal and set up two others Tuesday, leading Argentina to a 3-0 victory over Croatia in a World Cup semifinal, keeping alive his quest to win the one trophy that has eluded him during a stellar career.

Argentina will face the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Morocco and defending champion France in Sunday’s final.

Messi put Argentina ahead to stay with a penalty kick in the 34th minute.

Argentine forward Julián Álvarez drew the foul that sent up the penalty, charging into the 18-yard box a couple of steps clear of Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic,which forced Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic to come off his line. When Livakovic’s clumsily took Álvarez down, Italian referee Daniele Orsato pointed at the penalty spot immediately.

At the other end of the field, Argentina keeper Emiliano Martínez turned his back and looked the other way, unable to watch as Messi drilled his left-footed shot into the upper right corner. The crowd’s reaction told Martínez that Messi had scored, giving him an Argentine-record 11 World Cup goals and five in this tournament, matching France’s Kylian Mbappe for the scoring lead.

It wouldn’t be the last time Álvarez and Messi, who was playing in his 25th World Cup match, tying Germany’s Lothar Matthaus’ record, would get together.

Álvarez got the next goal himself five minutes later, doubling Argentina’s lead with a brilliant individual effort. Released by Messi at the halfway line, Álvarez charged up the center of the field, weaving his way through the Croatia defense. In the box he steered around defender Josip Juranovic and away from Borna Sosa, got help from a fortunate deflection, then poked the ball in with his right foot from close range.

The goal gave Álvarez, 22, six scores in eight starts for Argentina in all competition. It also marked the first time in 29 World Cup games that Croatia has trailed by two goals at the intermission. Argentina, meanwhile, had history of its side since it has never lost in the semifinals.

Messi and Álvarez hooked up in the 69th minute, this time with Messi doing most of the work, hugging the touchline as he battled Josko Gvardiol up the right wing before turning into the penalty area and delivering a beautiful ball for Álvarez in the center of the box.

Argentina players huddle on the field after taking a 3-0 lead in the second half.

The easy finish gave Álvarez a brace and made Messi the first player since 1966 to have a goal and an assist in three games during the same World Cup, an achievement he celebrated with Argentina’s fans, darting to the edge of the stands behind the goal to drink in their applause.

With five goals and three assists, he has had a hand in eight of Argentina’s 12 goals in Qatar. The three goals Tuesday were the most by Argentina in a World Cup game since a 4-3 loss to France in the round of 16 in 2018.

For Croatia, the runner-up four years ago, the loss was just its second in 13 World Cup games dating to 2014, though four of its matches in Qatar ended in draws. It will play the Morocco-France loser in the third-place game on Saturday.

Tuesday’s attendance of 88,966 at Lusail Stadium matched Argentina’s group-play game with Mexico at the same stadium. The last World Cup game played before a larger crowd was the 1994 final at the Rose Bowl.

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