Lionel Messi will get his date with World Cup destiny, and the chance to emulate Diego Maradona, after Argentina’s emphatic 3-0 win over Croatia on Tuesday took them through to the final in Qatar. It is 36 years since Maradona dragged Argentina to their second and most recent World Cup triumph in Mexico, the crowning moment of his dazzling but often troubled career. Messi came to this World Cup admitting it would surely be his last at the age of 35 and therefore his final opportunity to lift the trophy that escaped him in 2014, when Argentina were defeated by Germany in Brazil.
The sense that Messi was building up to this moment was apparent in his displays for Paris Saint-Germain in the months before the tournament and he has performed at this World Cup like a player with no more time to waste.
Sixteen years after making his World Cup debut as a teenager, Qatar has witnessed Messi finally score in the knockout stages of the tournament, and he has done so in three straight games.
On Tuesday he scored his 11th World Cup goal, overtaking compatriot Gabriel Batistuta, who previously held the Argentine record.
He has now equalled former German player Lothar Matthaeus’ record of 25 World Cup appearances.
Yet for his country he is a captain who can still inspire and who always looks capable of creating something when the ball comes to his feet.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, who had been the hero in shoot-outs in the previous two rounds, had no chance of stopping Messi’s first-half penalty.
Messi then sent Julian Alvarez away to make it 2-0 late in the first half with a first-time ball on a counterattack.
But he saved the best moment for midway through the second half with a magnificent assist, twisting and turning to make a fool of Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol before teeing up Alvarez to score again.
“In the past 15 years he’s probably been the best player in the world and today he was very good again,” admitted the Croatia coach, Zlatko Dalic.
Messi is now level with Kylian Mbappe as the Qatar World Cup’s leading scorer, with five goals, but his assist was further confirmation of how the former Barcelona player has evolved with age.
The PSG version spends much of his time creating goals for Mbappe, and now for Argentina he is doing the same for the exciting young striker Alvarez.
“Sometimes it seems like we say Messi is the greatest just because we are Argentine, but I think there is no doubt about it,” said coach Lionel Scaloni.
“I am privileged to coach him and be able to watch him. It’s thrilling.”
Argentina’s run to the final has not been entirely down to Messi — their vast and passionate support turned the semi-final effectively into a home game, with fans filling Lusail with the sound of their anthem “Muchachos”.
Scaloni has built a capable team around their one true great, taking Argentina into the final of the first World Cup since the death of Maradona.
Argentines may feel that it was meant to be, and Qatar will surely be delighted too.
Just over a year after he ended his long association with Barcelona and signed for Qatar-owned PSG, Messi’s presence will light up the final in Doha.