'He just halved Gvardiol's market value!' - Fans react as unplayable Lionel Messi fires Argentina to World Cup final against Croatia
In a tournament that has been dominated by the Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo last dance narrative, the Argentine had all eyes on him following Portugal's shock elimination at the hands of Morocco.
But with Argentina pitted against 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia - who have built a reputation as hard-to-beat giant killers - in the semi-final, there were no guarantees that Messi wouldn't fall to the same fate as his long-term rival.
That in itself was likely motivation for the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner to turn on the style. And boy did he. Croatia dominated possession from the first whistle, but La Albiceleste were patient. A well-worked counter attack saw Julian Alvarez bundled over inside the penalty area after half an hour, which Messi stepped up to convert. 1-0.
And just like that, the floodgates were opened. Croatia had been slapped in the face by end-game Messi and his Argentina squad that are quite literally ready to die for him. They could hold possession all they wanted, but before the half-time whistle sounded, they were 2-0 down, thanks to an amazing solo goal from Alvarez.
With Croatia trailing, Argentina buoyant and cheered on by the thousands in attendance, and Messi and Alvarez putting in a tag-team display that would give the Hardy Boyz in their prime a run for their money, it's fair to say that Zlatko Dalic's side faced an uphill battle. That back-to-back finals prospect suddenly looked a long way away.
For all their lovely midfield technicians and brutish defenders, Croatia's kryptonite had been exposed - winning a game inside 90 minutes.
And for some, the mere presence of Croatia in a semi-final against Argentina was a hellish enough reality, without the game even going the distance.
Fortunately for the anti-Croatia audience, Messi and Alvarez were ready to settle things once and for all.
The master rolled back the years and dazzled onlookers as he so often has done throughout his career, by making Josko Gvardiol look like an amateur and turning him inside out at the byline, before firing an improbable pass square to his apprentice, who put the icing on the cake. 3-0.
That was the game, in effect. Despite a few half-hearted Croatian efforts to get forward, we all knew that was it. And when Luka Modric was ordered to come and watch the remainder of the tie from the dugout, any faint hopes of that storied comeback vanished.
But for all the flowers he deserves, this was Messi's show. Messi's time in the limelight.