Argentina look to 'leader' Lionel Messi for more World Cup magic against Croatia

After spiky victory against Netherlands, South Americans head into semi-final with talismanic attacker in excellent form

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Ninety two seconds into his first cap for Argentina, Lionel Messi received a red card. It was a notoriously inauspicious start, way back in 2005, to what would become a record-breaking international career.

For a little longer than 92 seconds on Friday, part of Messi may have feared his time on the game’s greatest stage, the World Cup, would end with a flurry of sending-offs around him.

There have been heightened emotions among the eliminated during the knockout phase of this World Cup, high profile tears or distress for superstars from Cristiano Ronaldo to Neymar to Harry Kane, but no match has been angrier than Argentina and the Netherlands’ spiky, see-saw quarter-final. Messi’s was among ten Argentinian names, including two on the coaching staff, that ended up in referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz’s notebook.

The Dutch, losers via penalty shoot-out, received eight yellow cards, two shown to Denzil Dumfries, in a contest peppered with incidents of gamesmanship: insults exchanged, intimidation of spot-kick takers, objects apparently thrown towards players from the bench, and the ball thumped, hard and venomous, by Argentina’s Leandro Paredes at the assembled Dutch coaching staff and substitutes.

At the moment that Lautaro Martinez converted the winning penalty, some telling photographs were taken from up in the stands. They showed the players gathered in the centre-circle, and vividly captured the animosity.

Most of the Argentinians in frame are seen pausing to taunt the crestfallen Dutch before making the traditional sprint to congratulate their goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, and the scorer, Lautaro.

There’s Paredes turning to shout something at his beaten opponents; there’s Nicolas Otamendi gesturing, hands behind his ears, while Gonzalo Montiel, Alexis Mac Allister and German Pezella roar defiantly and directly at the beaten men. Angel Di Maria creases his face into a mocking grin.

But there’s one player in the central throng looking in the opposite direction, not at the defeated Dutch but straight ahead, towards the goal and the spectators behind it. He is the winning captain. Messi had already moved on from the squabbling, and although he would settle some scores with his Dutch antagonists in his post-match interviews, his mind had already fixed on the next phase of what has been a rollercoaster journey.

Argentina on Tuesday face Croatia, as tough and worldly as any squad in Qatar, with Messi knowing this, the fifth Argentina side he has represented at a World Cup, and the second with which he has reached a semi-final, can be vulnerable tactically.

On matchday one, Saudi Arabia pushed up high against Argentina and, against most expectations, brought an end to a 36-match unbeaten run for Messi’s South American champions. The Dutch, on the back foot for most of the first 90 minutes, drew level in stoppage time thanks to a clever set-piece manoeuvre, a moment of sophisticated thinking amid all the crude snarling.

But where there’s Messi, there’s a match-winner, and his form, at 35, has been excellent for the past four months and through this, perhaps his last major tournament with his country. He has scored in four of five matches in Qatar, converted three penalties, including the first in the shoot-out against the Dutch, but missed from the spot when Argentina were drawing 0-0 with Poland.

He was still man of the match in that 2-0 victory. “He’s our leader,” said the Argentina full-back Nicolas Tagliafico. “It’s Messi who drives us on, and who motivates us. Knowing we have him on the pitch means we put in that little bit more.”

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Tagliafico will man the left-back position because Marcos Acuna’s booking in the quarter-final leaves him suspended. Likewise right-back Montiel is banned.

There are fitness doubts over Rodigro De Paul and Di Maria, although head coach Lionel Scaloni says they should both be healthy enough to play some part in a contest where fully engaging with Croatia’s formidable midfield looks vital. De Paul and Di Maria would both have their uses for that task.

Croatia beat Argentina 3-0 in the group stage at the last World Cup, a low point in Messi’s chequered history in the tournament. It’s a precedent not relevant to today, insisted Scaloni, although he expects the 2018 finalists, conquerors of Brazil on Friday, to “give us problems. They play as a team, and you get the feeling they have a strong group spirit”.

The absence of Acuna in particular looks like a damaging consequence of the card-heavy quarter-final. “The game the other day was played as it had to be played,” said Scaloni. “That’s on the Dutch side and on our side. In matches like that there will be moments of argument. But we know the right way to lose. And we know the right way to win.”

Updated: December 14, 2022, 7:03 AM