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Lionel Messi is not normal! Winners and losers as Argentina ace defies age, logic and Croatia to reach World Cup final

21:31 GMT 13/12/2022
Messi Alvarez Modric GFX
The Albiceleste captain scored one goal and created another, by destroying Josko Gvardiol, as Lionel Scaloni's side triumphed 3-0 in Lusail

How is Lionel Messi still doing this?! The man is 35 years of age. And yet he's back in a World Cup final after playing a pivotal role in Argentina dismantling Croatia in a rousing 3-0 win at the Lusail Stadium.

In a record-equalling 25th World Cup appearance, Messi made yet more history, becoming the first man since records began in 1966 to score and assist in the same World Cup game for the fourth time.

And what an assist!

With Argentina 2-0 up thanks to a Messi penalty and the luckiest great goal you'll probably ever see from Julian Alvarez, the diminutive No.10 tormented the highly-rated Josko Gvardiol on the right flank before cutting the ball back for his strike partner to score his second of the evening.

The fans behind the goal immediately bowed before their god once more, and why wouldn't they? What Messi has already achieved in Qatar is super-human.

However, with the help of Lionel Scaloni and a mix of exciting young talents and valiant veterans, he will have another chance to rewrite the record books on Sunday.

His 26th World Cup appearance will be a final. He will have the chance to win the Golden Ball, the Golden Boot and the trophy that would remove any lingering doubt over the identity of the greatest player of all time.

GOAL runs through all of the winners and losers from another historic night for the one and only Lionel Messi...

  • Lionel Messi Argentina Croacia Qatar 2022

    WINNER: Messi's penalty-taking

    Lionel Messi's game is pretty flawless. However, his penalty-taking has never exactly been his forte. He's even missed one at this tournament, against Poland.

    However, his response to the setback has been as emphatic as the spot-kick with which he opened the scoring here.

    Messi has now scored three penalties at Qatar 2022 – only Eusebio (four for Portugal in 1966) and Rob Rensenbrink (four for Netherlands in 1978) have ever scored more at a single World Cup. Let's also not forget that Messi struck first for Argentina in their shootout success against Netherlands in the quarter-finals.

    So, while it may seem strange to say, Messi's accuracy and composure from 12 yards have actually played a pivotal role in his country's progression to the final, as well as helping him become Argentina's all-time leading World Cup goalscorer (11), and move level with Kylian Mbappe in the race for this year's Golden Boot.

  • Josko Gvardiol Croatia World Cup 2022

    LOSER: Josko Gvardiol

    Some top team is going to pay a massive amount of money to sign Josko Gvardiol in the not-too-distant future. He is an outstanding prospect, as he had already proven at Qatar 2022

    Indeed, some had him down as the defender of the tournament. Probably not anymore, though.

    Very unfairly, the abiding image of Gvardiol's campaign will be the masked man being turned inside out by a 35-year-old forward, an outrageous passage of play from Messi that evoked memories of poor Jerome Boateng being wrong-footed to the point of collapse at Camp Nou a few years ago.

    There is, then, no shame in being embarrassed by the greatest player ever to play the game, especially at the age of just 20, but that won't make this night of torment an easier for Gvardiol to forget.

  • Julian Alvarez of Argentina

    WINNER: Julian Alvarez

    Before this game, there was no disputing that the luckiest solo strike in World Cup history was scored by Saudi Arabia's Saeed Al-Owairan at USA '94. However, Julian Alvarez arguably produced an even better mix of great play and good fortune.

    Just like Al-Owairan, the Argentina No.9 was in midfield when he picked up possession and elected to run right at the opposition defence.

    Alvarez probably should have passed at a couple of points, but his directness paid off, as he was left with the simplest of volleys after the ball had ricocheted off not one but two Croatian defenders while barging his way into the area.

    One could also argue that Alvarez deserved his rub of the green, given he had already covered every blade of grass in the Croatia half, and also won the penalty with which Messi broke the deadlock, after making a perfectly-timed run in behind Josko Gvardiol & Co.

    His strike from Messi's remarkable second-half assist means he now has four World Cup goals. For a player who began this tournament on the bench, that's a pretty good return.

  • Luka Modric Croatia 2022

    LOSER: Luka Modric

    This was just not Luka Modric's night, as so painfully illustrated by a ball being deflected into his face at one point in the second half.

    There were some typically terrific touches on the ball, particularly during the first half, when Croatia were hogging the ball. But Modric, for once, just wasn't able to bend the game to his well.

    He was never going to stop fighting, of course. The man's motto is 'Never. Give. Up' but this eagerly-awaited battle of the iconic No.10s sadly proved a mismatch.

    Modric is unlikely to play in another World Cup, but you never know. As Mateo Kovacic recently argued, his captain is so smart and so skilful that he could continue into his early-40s.

    Still, this felt like a last World Cup outing for Modric, so it was lovely to see him applauded from the field by the Argentina fans as he was replaced by Lovro Majer with 10 minutes to go.

    It was a fitting show of respect for one of the game's greats.

  • Enzo Fernandez Argentina 2022

    WINNER: Benfica's bank balance

    The opening half of this match was ridiculously tense, an incredibly cagey affair between two evenly-matched sides.

    It needed something special to end the stalemate. Step forward Enzo Fernandez, who produced a sublime pass from deep to put Julian Alvarez in on goal.

    It's no exaggeration to say that the 21-year-old has completely transformed Argentina's midfield since bring brought into the starting line-up after his sensational strike against Mexico in the group stage.

    Here, he was helped no end by the industry of Leandro Paredes, but Fernandez is one of those players that can do it all. He is the quintessential game-changer and such players are rare in football.

    Indeed, while Argentina are presently celebrating the emergence of a player that will grace their midfield for years to come, Benfica will soon be laughing all the way to the bank after paying an initial €10 million (£8m/$9.8m) for a talent that will make them a small fortune whenever they decide to sell him.

  • Ronaldo World Cup 2022

    LOSER: Cristiano Ronaldo

    A penny for Cristiano Ronaldo's thoughts right now...

    Portugal's Qatar 2022 campaign was an absolute disaster for their captain, who was slated for both his poor performances and petulant behaviour, both which played a part in him being relegated to the bench for the games against Switzerland and Morocco.

    To top it all off, Messi, Ronaldo's great rival, is having an incredible tournament, and it's telling that people are no longer debating who is the better player between the Argentine and the Portuguese.

    The focus now going into the final will be on whether Messi will usurp Diego Maradona as the GOAT if he wins the World Cup on Sunday.

    Life really does come at you fast sometimes.