Lionel Messi stands on the brink of matching the magic of Maradona

Argentine maestro is one game away from emulating the great Diego at World Cup 2022

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The best goal Diego Maradona scored at a World Cup started its journey with a pirouette in his own half.

He carried on past the attempted challenges of four England players down the inside-right channel and then won his duel with Peter Shilton, the goalkeeper. That virtuoso run put Argentina into the semi-final of the 1986 tournament, the event commonly remembered as The Maradona World Cup.

That goal, and that year’s gold medal, set a towering standard for Argentina for all nine World Cups since, and, for the last four of them, for Lionel Messi, whose moments of brilliance are routinely judged against the great Maradona’s.

So too the dazzling run that on Tuesday sealed Argentina’s place in the final of Qatar 2022. It started near the halfway line. It covered most of the right flank. It featured a pirouette. Poor Josko Gvardiol, the Croatia defender, endured all on his own, again and again, the same dispiriting frustrations as England’s Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick 34 years ago, in trying and failing to dispossess a dribbling genius.

A key difference is that at the Lusail Stadium, Messi’s epic run gathered steam without teammates feeling momentarily irritated. During Maradona’s legendary slalom, colleagues anxiously waited for a pass.

Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga, who both scored in the winning final against West Germany a week later, had made runs to anticipate a Maradona cross. The midfielder Ricardo Guisti later recalled: “I wanted him to give the ball to Valdano and thought: ‘He’s not going to pass it!’.”

Against Croatia, with Gvardiol twisted this way and that and left trailing in Messi’s wake, the PSG star delivered a perfect pass, a cutback from just in front of the goal-line. Julian Alvarez was his grateful Burruchaga or Valdano, steering in his second goal of the semi-final.

Alvarez had also contributed decisively to Argentina’s opener, fouled to earn the penalty emphatically converted by Messi in the first half.

Argentina v Croatia ratings

It has been quite a year for Alvarez. Twelve months ago he was preparing himself for a far less glamorous final, the equivalent of the Argentinian Super Cup. It was his last match as an employee of River Plate ahead of the announcement of his signing for Manchester City, who promptly told him he was not needed in their first team for six months and could continue on loan at River.

Enzo Fernandez, now of Benfica, was in River’s midfield that day. The pair of them, 22 and 21, have come a long way fast. In the past three weeks, both have established themselves as trusted starters for Argentina, now on the threshold of the most desired medal a football career can deliver.

Argentina’s supporting cast often talk of Messi as their “leader”, and for several, the elevation into his orbit has felt sudden and exhilarating.

Alvarez has made a good impression at City since August but is still the understudy to Erling Haaland. Fernandez only made his international debut in September. Alexis Mac Allister, of Brighton, won his first competitive cap in March.

Fernandez and Mac Allister’s companions in the midfield picked by coach Lionel Scaloni against Croatia were Rodrigo De Paul, who tends to be on the bench for his club, Atletico Madrid’s European Champions League matches, and Leandro Paredes, who in August was told by Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain he should leave if he wanted more chance of regular first-team minutes. He joined Juventus, who have had a very poor autumn, on loan.

On paper, that quartet are not a world-beating midfield. Scan the Argentina squad and it contains probably fewer stars than any of those that accompanied Messi to his previous four World Cups, from which his best finish was the losing final of 2014.

Yet Scaloni, reacting to the setback of an opening group-stage loss to Saudi Arabia, has developed a strong unit to complement his megastar.

While Messi can roll back the years with surges like the one that tortured Gvardiol, he also needs, at 35, his moments of pause. The energy and stamina of Mac Allister, 23, Fernandez and Alvarez compensate.

They are steadily eclipsing older allies, too. Fernandez is delivering the sort of through-balls that Angel Di Maria, in Qatar but restricted by fitness issues, has been directing at Messi for the best part of 15 years in the national jersey.

Alvarez is keeping Inter's Lautaro Martinez, a strike partner of Messi’s through almost 40 internationals, on the bench.

Which may be reassuring for Argentinians as they look beyond Sunday’s final, the game Messi says will be his last for his country.

Bravehearts for the next generation are emerging. None will ever be comparable to Messi but they have gained from being alongside him, guided by him in the month he honoured comparisons with Maradona in 1986, and, perhaps, the month when he finally matches Maradona’s status as World Cup-winning leader.

Updated: December 15, 2022, 4:56 AM