If Argentina’s World Cup began with rival fans enquiring “Where is Messi?“, then here he was.
Arms outstretched, eyes wide, the sense of timing washing over him. National pride, too. Possibly relief. Kiss blown to the bedlam in the stand in front — it was a chef’s kiss of an assist — Lionel Messi at his majestic best. Isn’t he supposed to be well past that by now?
By now, meaning aged 35, the lingering fear of that one great failure — his career has otherwise been an overwhelming, almost exhausting success — surely gnawing. Even if his face rarely betrays emotion. Not here. Not now. Not when Argentina had on Tuesday night looked to their captain and their captain answered the call.
In the build-up to the semi-final with Croatia, left-back Nicolas Tagliafico described Messi as a “special advantage”, offering that winning the World Cup would be the “most beautiful thing to do with Messi by our side”.
Well here he was, chest out, front and centre, starring in a stunning 3-0 win.
Savour this. Embrace it. For we might not see it for an age; we might not see it again. Messi’s final World Cup could conceivably be the World Cup; the one to denounce the detractors, the tournament to hoist him, finally, alongside the previously peerless Maradona.
For all Messi’s sustained brilliance — the goals, the assists, the creaking highlight reels, the collective titles and individual trinkets — he has never elevated himself to there. To Maradona 1986.
Now, after another man-of-the-match display and another night of records ratcheted up, Messi stands one match from capturing that one prize he craves above all else. The one exception in the most exceptional of careers.
Croatia overcome, the 2018 runners-up running eventually out of energy and ideas, this World Cup’s great narrative stretches until Sunday. France, the holders, or Morocco, the history-makers? Take your pick.
For now, though, the majority of those packed inside a throbbing Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night did not care. They departed with thoughts only of the dream ending to their Doha adventure. That 2022 really could be his year.
As it was always going to be, it was Messi who set Argentina on their way, his 34th-minute penalty thrashed high into the Croatia net, a shuddering show of a man who has played this tournament with a greater sense of urgency.
It lifted Messi alongside Kylian Mbappe at the summit of the Qatar scoring charts, on five goals. It carried him clear for his country of Gabriel Batistuta; with 11, no Argentine has plundered more at the World Cup. Crucially, he will have another match to attach some more.
Julian Alvarez added the second on Tuesday, forging forward, with a touch of good fortune, before poking home to seemingly seize the semi-final from Croatia. He could not snaffle it from Messi. Midway through the second-half, the forward conjured some more magic, feinting on the flank and leaving Croatia for dead, then finding Alvarez to finish. Finish off Croatia. At 3-0, they were gone.
This time, Argentina would not have to resist a Dutch-esque rally. Croatia, who appeared to have run since Russia 2018 right through to another semi-final, for once had no response. Their remarkable journey to the last four — and it has been that — would be where it would all end.
But Argentina have theirs, a sixth World Cup final, eight years after their last, when Messi and Co came up against Germany and could not get it done.
Against Croatia, they did what they needed to do. After their rivals had controlled proceedings for most of the opening half hour, Argentina struck out of the blue. Theo Fernandez’s perfect pass over the top sent Alvarez through and, as he tapped the ball beyond Dominik Livakovic, the Croatia goalkeeper clattered into him. The referee pointed to the spot, and Messi smashed his penalty home. Livakovic, his side’s shoot-out hero this World Cup, could do nothing.
Nine minutes later, Argentina were two to the good. Alvarez burst through, carried on as Croatia twice tried to clear, and finished past Livakovic. It represented the Manchester City youngster’s third goal this campaign. It arrived in his sixth World Cup match.
At the other end of the scale, Messi's 25 appearances at the finals moved him alongside Lothar Matthaus for the most in tournament history.
But the Argentine wasn’t finished there. On 69 minutes, Messi collected the ball out wide, dropped the shoulder, took off for the touchline and left opponents trailing, before he pulled back for Alvarez to side-foot into the net.
With a fourth assist of the past three weeks, and 10th overall in the World Cup, Messi equalled Maradona as the tournament record-holder, even if the stats date back only as far as 1966.
It will be 1986 he will seek to emulate next. One match from Maradona, one from mortality in his homeland and maybe around the world, too. Messi is so close he can almost touch it.