Argentina captain Lionel Messi confirmed that Sunday's final against Morocco or France will be his last World Cup appearance as he seeks to bow out in style.

The 35-year-old played a leading role in Argentina's 3-0 semi-final win over Croatia with a goal and an assist.

Messi, a seven-time Ballon d'Or winner, had previously indicated this would be his last World Cup finals, which he reinforced after Tuesday's triumph.

"I am proud to be able to finish my World Cup journey playing this final," Messi told reporters. "What I'm experiencing is exciting. Sunday will be my last game in a World Cup.

"It will be many years before the next one [2026] and I don't think I'll be able to make it, so I hope I can finish in the best way."

Messi's goal against Croatia meant he became his country's all-time leading scorer at World Cups, with his 11th strike seeing him move past Gabriel Batistuta.

The goal was also Messi's 16th for Argentina in 2022, the most international strikes of any calendar year across his entire career.

"I'm enjoying it all very much," Messi said about the 2022 World Cup. "I feel good. I feel strong to face every game. We have been making a big sacrifice.

"The last game we played was with extra time. That was not easy at all. We were tired, but the group got strength. We played a very important game. We knew it was going to be the match it was.

"I'm very happy. Throughout this World Cup I've been having a lot of fun and, luckily, I was able to help the group to get things done."

Messi will be gunning for the ultimate crowning glory with his maiden World Cup title on Sunday, having played in 2014 when La Albiceleste were runners-up.

Argentina are into their sixth World Cup final, with only Germany (eight) having reached more in the competition.

Luis Suarez has hailed "best in the world" Lionel Messi after his former Barcelona teammate helped Argentina qualify for the 2022 World Cup final.

Messi opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 34th minute and set up Julian Alvarez's second goal in the 69th minute to round out an impressive 3-0 victory over Croatia on Tuesday.

The seven-time Ballon d'Or winner now has a shot at his first World Cup title, and Argentina's first since Diego Maradona led them to glory in 1986, with Messi having been a runner-up in 2014 when Germany edged La Albiceleste 1-0 in Rio de Janeiro.

"You never get tired of showing that you are the best in the world," Suarez, who spent six years with Messi at Barcelona from 2014 to 2020, wrote on Instagram.

"The whole world stops to applaud this guy and what he's given to football. Incredible my friend!"

Vanquished Croatia midfielder Luka Modric, who was a long-time adversary of Messi with Real Madrid in La Liga, said the Argentinian deserves to lift the World Cup.

"Hopefully [Messi] wins this World Cup, he is the best player in history and he deserves it," Modric told reporters after the game.

Argentina will play the final on Sunday against either reigning world champions France or Morocco, who will meet at Al Bayt Stadium in the second semi-final on Wednesday.

Lionel Messi is the walking proof that you can't keep a good man down as he heads for another World Cup final, according to Argentina team-mate Cristian Romero.

Eight years since Messi and Argentina were left heartbroken by defeat to Germany at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, another shot at football's greatest prize awaits on Sunday.

The Albiceleste coasted to a 3-0 semi-final victory over Croatia on Tuesday, with Messi's penalty followed by a Julian Alvarez double.

Messi was typically excellent, setting up Alvarez's second goal by dancing past Josko Gvardiol, and it will be the captain to whom Argentina look for inspiration in the final against France or Morocco.

At the age of 35, the Paris Saint-Germain forward could be about to experience his career's crowning glory.

Defender Romero said: "Leo's of course a wonderful player, but more than that he's a reference and he's somebody who is a personality, who is always going for more.

"He's been hit so many times and every time he gets back up again and goes for more and he has the strength to do that. He won a Copa America, he's a benchmark like others, [Angel] Di María, Kun [Sergio Aguero], who is no longer here."

Messi has matched the record of the most appearances in World Cups, the 25 previously held alone by Lothar Matthaus.

He is also now Argentina's record World Cup scorer with 11 goals, one more than Gabriel Batistuta.

Having such a figure as the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner in the ranks is inevitably uplifting for Argentina, who are seeking their first World Cup triumph since 1986 when the similarly inspirational Diego Maradona was pulling the strings.

Romero added: "You put your life into this, to bring the trophy home. We're here to deliver. It was shown once again that we are lions. No matter what happens on Sunday, we are going to give all we've got to bring the cup home."

Zlatko Dalic conceded Lionel Messi had produced the performance Croatia "expected to see" after the Argentina great ended their World Cup dream.

Messi played a starring role in denying Dalic's side a second successive final appearance, scoring and providing an assist as the Albiceleste enjoyed a 3-0 victory in Tuesday's semi-final.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward's heroics did not come as a great surprise to the Croatia head coach, who plans to remain in charge of the team until his contract expires in 2024.

However, Dalic acknowledges several players from this generation will not be available by the 2026 finals, with his 37-year-old captain Luka Modric likely to be among them.

"Nothing much needs to be said about Messi's qualities," he said. "In the past 15 years, he's probably the best player in the world, and today again, he was very good and dangerous.

"He made the difference in quality for the Argentina team. He had this explosiveness and technique at a very high-level performance. It's the true Messi we expected to see.

"This is perhaps the end of this generation in World Cups, a couple of them have reached an age and the World Cup in 2026 – we have to wait and see what happens then.

"We've had great achievements for the Croatia national team, and a lot of players with a lot of potential.

"I believe this generation will finish their careers with Euro 2024. We have the Nations League finals, and it's an excellent generation that reached the semi-finals twice in a row. 

"It would have been great to have won the gold medal to crown this generation."

When asked if he would remain at the helm, Dalic added: "I will continue my contract until 2024 and the European Championships and, in six months, we have the Nations League [finals].

"Then, we have the qualification for the World Cup. My plan and objective is to take Croatia to Euro 2024."

 

Mateo Kovacic believes two "cardinal mistakes" from referee Daniele Orsato cost Croatia in Tuesday's World Cup semi-final defeat against Argentina.

Croatia's bid to reach a second consecutive World Cup final came to an end as Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez starred at Lusail Stadium, with the latter scoring twice in Argentina's 3-0 win.

Messi opened the scoring from the penalty spot after Alvarez collided with goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, and Kovacic was booked for dissent as several Croatia players protested the decision.

Less than a minute before Livakovic's foul, Croatia were denied a corner when Ivan Perisic's deflected shot looped onto the roof of Emiliano Martinez's net, leaving Kovacic in disbelief. 

"I can't believe it's not a corner," the Chelsea midfielder told reporters after the game. "Then the penalty... 

"I have never commented on the referees nor is it my intention to do so, but these are two cardinal mistakes, and they cost you."

Kovacic's midfield partner Luka Modric concurred, insisting Croatia were in the ascendency before the penalty was awarded.

"The first goal, it was not a penalty, that's my opinion. It stressed us a little bit. Half a minute before that it was supposed to be a corner and we were not awarded one," he said.

"I think after the penalty, it changed the whole match. Before the penalty, we were the ones controlling the game. 

"Maybe we were not so dangerous in front of their goal, but we were the ones in possession, controlling the ball. 

"Unfortunately the penalty changed everything, a penalty I'd never have called in this match. I'm so upset they called this type of penalty against us."

However, Modric did acknowledge Argentina were deserved victors, adding: "We lost the game, that happens. We just have to congratulate Argentina. They were the better team today, they for sure deserved it more than us."

Meanwhile, Kovacic credited Messi for another outstanding performance as the 35-year-old became the first player to both score and assist in four separate World Cup games.

Messi teed up Alvarez for his second goal after beating Josko Gvardiol twice in the same move, while the Manchester City forward's first strike came at the end of his own impressive solo run.

"We knew they were aggressive and good and that they had Messi," Kovacic said. "He was phenomenal and should be congratulated.

"Those two situations are incredible, we conceded two ridiculous goals."

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni has "no doubt" Lionel Messi is the greatest player of all time after inspiring La Albiceleste's progression to the World Cup final.

Messi was in irresistible form on Tuesday at Lusail Stadium, playing a key role in all three goals as Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 in Qatar 2022's first semi-final.

He opened the scoring from the spot in the first half after Julian Alvarez was fouled by Dominik Livakovic and then released his strike partner in the build-up to him making it 2-0.

But the best was yet to come.

With 21 minutes to go, Messi embarked on a tremendous run up the right flank as he darted past Josko Gvardiol before then beating the defender again on the outside and eventually cutting back to Alvarez for a simple finish.

Messi became the first player to both score and assist in four separate World Cup matches (since 1966), while his penalty saw the 35-year-old become Argentina's all-time leading scorer in the tournament with 11 goals.

For some, Messi's claim to the 'greatest player of all time' title rides on him winning the World Cup, but not for Scaloni.

He told reporters: "Whether Messi is the greatest player of all time… sometimes as Argentinians it of course looks like we say that just because we are Argentinian.

"Maybe it's selfish. I don't have any doubt saying that: he is the best in history.

"I have the privilege. I am honoured to train him and see him play. It's something exciting because every time you see him play, it's a huge source of motivation for his team-mates, the people, the whole world.

 

"So there is nothing left to say about Messi. It's indeed a privilege to have him in the squad."

While Messi is of course the headline act and the focus for many, Alvarez more than played his part on Tuesday.

His goals will lead to praise, but Scaloni was keen to highlight how important his general work rate and industriousness were for the team effort.

"The match of Julian was excellent, not just because of his two goals, but because he was extremely helpful with the midfielders," Scaloni explained.

"Sometimes we had two midfielders because the others had to cover other players, they had to cover the flanks, and he showcased excellent football [intelligence].

"With his age, [his work ethic] is normal because he wants to give everything on the pitch. What you say to him, he shows it on the pitch.

"We are very happy with him because he was able to score goals, which is something great especially for a striker like him."

Scaloni will emulate some legendary figures of Argentinian football in Cesar Luis Menotti, Carlos Bilardo and Alejandro Sabella by coaching the Albiceleste in the World Cup final.

But he still does not feel worthy of being considered on their level.

"Yes, to reach the final is amazing, but I can't make comparisons with these three names because they are history in the national team," he added.

"They've defended these colours. They made Argentina a great nation. Yes, it's a great source of pride for me to be able to play a final and represent my country.

"But I can't rise to this perch because they made history in the world of football, not only in Argentina.

"For me, just to coach this final is a huge privilege."

Argentina will play the final on Sunday against either France or Morocco, who will tussle at Al Bayt Stadium in the second semi-final on Wednesday.

Lionel Messi hailed Argentina's resilience after his majestic display against Croatia ensured a World Cup that began with defeat to Saudi Arabia could end in glory.

Messi recorded a goal and an assist as Argentina posted a 3-0 win over Croatia at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday to reach their sixth World Cup final – a tally only bettered by Germany (eight).

Having opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the first half, Messi rolled back the years with a remarkable assist as Julian Alvarez completed his brace after the break, beating Josko Gvardiol twice before teeing up a simple finish for the Manchester City forward.

Messi now has the chance to cap his incredible career by lifting football's biggest prize, a prospect that appeared unlikely when Argentina lost their Group C opener three weeks ago.

The 35-year-old reflected on that surprise defeat after Tuesday's victory, saying Argentina channelled their disappointment to rescue their tournament.

"I'd say the first game was a hard blow for all of us because we had been unbeaten in 36 matches. To start it like that was a hard blow," Messi said in a post-match press conference.

"We didn't think we'd lose to Saudi. It was an acid test, but we've shown how strong we are.

"It was very difficult what we did, because every match has been a final and this brings a mental load. We were aware if we didn't win then everything would be more complicated. 

"We've played five finals and, luckily enough, been able to win them. I hope this will be the same for the final. Internally we were confident we'd make it as we know what we are capable of. 

"Yes, we lost the first match because of fine details, but that helped us to be stronger and to grow in the tournament and internally as a squad."

 

Croatia bested Argentina's rivals Brazil in a tense penalty shoot-out in the previous round, but Messi felt the Albiceleste's intelligence and willingness to "suffer" was the key against experienced opponents.

"I would say this squad, beyond the collective strengths, is very intelligent and wise, we know how to read the game and every moment," Messi said.

"It's something the coach said before, it's a very intelligent squad. We know when to suffer, when to press. We know how to read the games, we know what to do in every moment, how to win." 

Messi has now recorded eight goal involvements (five goals, three assists) in Qatar, moving ahead of Kylian Mbappe (five goals, two assists) prior to France's semi-final meeting with Morocco, and he is enjoying every minute of the campaign.

"Well, what I can say is I'm enjoying this a lot, I'm feeling really good, I feel strong enough to face every match," Messi added.

"The previous game was a big sacrifice, it went to extra time, that wasn't easy. Today we're tired, but we pooled our strengths to earn this victory.  

"Personally, I can say I feel very happy in this whole World Cup, I'm enjoying it a lot, and luckily I am able to help the whole squad make things happen."

Lionel Messi revealed "I don't know if it's my best World Cup" after his inspirational performance against Croatia helped Argentina reach another final.

Messi opened the scoring from the penalty spot before providing a remarkable assist for Julian Alvarez's second goal at Lusail Stadium, where Lionel Scaloni's side will face France or Morocco in the showpiece on Sunday.

The Argentina captain has now found the net five times in Qatar – moving him level with Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe in the race for the Golden Boot.

The 35-year-old surpassed his tally of four when he guided his nation to the final in 2014, where he won the Golden Ball for the tournament's best player despite narrowly missing out on glory following a 1-0 defeat to Germany.

"I feel a lot of things, it's very exciting to see all this," said Messi, who also became the World Cup's joint-leading appearance maker in history (25 – level with Lothar Matthaus).

"Seeing the people, the family throughout the World Cup was incredible. We're going for the last game, which was what we wanted.

"I don't know if it's my best World Cup or not. I've been enjoying this for a while. We were confident that this group was going to pull it off. We know who we are, and we asked people to believe in us.

"We have been through tough situations, others very good. Today, we live something spectacular. I am enjoying with all these people and with all the Argentines who are in our country. I imagine it must be crazy.

"We knew we weren't the top candidates, but we weren't going to give anything to anyone. We were demonstrating it game-by-game. Argentina is, once again, in the final of the world. Enjoy!"

Lionel Messi revealed "I don't know if it's my best World Cup" after his inspirational performance against Croatia helped Argentina reach another final.

Messi opened the scoring from the penalty spot before providing a remarkable assist for Julian Alvarez's second goal at Lusail Stadium, where Lionel Scaloni's side will face France or Morocco in the showpiece on Sunday.

The Argentina captain has now found the net five times in Qatar – moving him level with Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe in the race for the Golden Boot.

The 35-year-old surpassed his tally of four when he guided his nation to the final in 2014, where he won the Golden Ball for the tournament's best player despite narrowly missing out on glory following a 1-0 defeat to Germany.

"I feel a lot of things, it's very exciting to see all this," said Messi, who also became the World Cup's joint-leading appearance maker in history (25 – level with Lothar Matthaus).

"Seeing the people, the family throughout the World Cup was incredible. We're going for the last game, which was what we wanted.

"I don't know if it's my best World Cup or not. I've been enjoying this for a while. We were confident that this group was going to pull it off. We know who we are, and we asked people to believe in us.

"We have been through tough situations, others very good. Today, we live something spectacular. I am enjoying with all these people and with all the Argentines who are in our country. I imagine it must be crazy.

"We knew we weren't the top candidates, but we weren't going to give anything to anyone. We were demonstrating it game-by-game. Argentina is, once again, in the final of the world. Enjoy!"

"Now is all."

That is the peculiar slogan at Qatar 2022. It is a phrase plastered around the streets of Doha, on banners at every stadium, hanging down from the ceiling at the huge media hub at Qatar National Convention Centre. Nobody seems to know who exactly came up with it or what exactly it means.

Nobody, perhaps, but Lionel Messi. Because for Lionel Messi, playing at his final World Cup at the age of 35, now really is all, and he is playing like it. Maybe those marketing gurus were onto something after all?

Messi and Argentina are into the final. They swatted aside Croatia – who themselves had scuppered the chance of an all-South American semi-final by beating Brazil on penalties – 3-0 at Lusail Stadium.

To say Argentina have been entirely convincing in Qatar would be an overstatement, but they turned in their best performance of the tournament by far on Tuesday. 

And of course, it's always about Messi. Even when it isn't all about him.

Even when Julian Alvarez – winner of the penalty from which Messi opened the scoring in the 34th minute – trundled through on goal for Argentina's second, Croatia's defence crumbling one by one in comical fashion before the Manchester City striker finally prodded home, it was Messi who had supplied a deft touch to start the youngster's break.

Perhaps the greatest quality of this Argentina team, who came into the tournament on a 36-match unbeaten run and as Copa America champions, only to lose to Saudi Arabia in their Group C opener, is that everything is serviced to Messi. Not in the way that, say, Portugal for many years have had to service Cristiano Ronaldo's thirst for goals, but how Lionel Scaloni's squad know their only real route to success is through that magician in the number 10 shirt.

Not that they had it all their own way. Argentina had been made to work for each prior victory at this tournament and, as Scaloni pointed out in his pre-match press conference, all of their matches since losing to Saudi Arabia have been must-win. Tuesday's tie was no different.

Croatia, 3-0 winners over La Albiceleste at Russia 2018, dominated the opening stages, albeit without offering much threat. Indeed, Dejan Lovren's wayward header was the only effort either side mustered in the first 20 minutes.

Messi, whose warm-up had mainly consisted of dead-ball practice and a few jogs, had only five touches in the first 10 minutes – and four of those were passes (he completed all of them, of course).

There will have been concern on Scaloni's bench when Messi felt and then stretched out his left thigh. Any uneasiness might well have grown when he was caught on the ball and Mateo Kovacic led a counter-attack that resulted in a Croatia free-kick.

Seven minutes later, though, Argentina had Messi where they wanted him. Standing over the ball on the penalty spot. One lofted ball had done for Croatia's defence and the superb Alvarez had drawn a rash tackle from goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

A penalty-saving expert in shoot-outs, Livakovic could not get near this spot-kick, rifled high into the left side of his net by that remarkable left foot. That dead-ball practice came in handy.

 

It's a goal that made Messi his nation's record scorer in the World Cup, overtaking Gabriel Batistuta, who was in attendance to see it happen. He is also the first Argentina player to score in three different knockout rounds at a World Cup – he hadn't scored a single knockout-stage goal before this edition.

The one-two blow to Croatia's hopes was complete five minutes after that, when Alvarez found his way through a defence that parted like the Red Sea. Only a toe on the ball as Alvarez bundled through meant it did not count as Messi's assist.

Alvarez has now scored in six of his eight starts for Argentina, and the energy of youth is one of the foundations Scaloni is building to facilitate Messi, who by the end of the first half was toying with Croatia's defence.

Only a smart stop from Livakovic denied Messi a second early in the second half after a quick exchange of passes with Enzo Fernandez, another of Argentina's next generation.

But there was more for Messi to do. Croatia were applying some pressure, so the game wasn't truly up. Until Messi decided it was with 21 minutes remaining.

Josko Gvardiol has been one of the best defenders at the tournament and has been linked with Europe's elite, but the 20-year-old was twisted one way and then the other by Argentina's captain, who coolly laid on Alvarez to round things off.

Messi now leads the way for goal involvements in Qatar, with eight. He is joint-top of the scoring charts with club-mate Kylian Mbappe and that assist took him level with that other legendary Argentine number 10, Diego Maradona, on eight at the World Cup finals, which is the record since the 1966 edition.

His 19 goal involvements at the World Cup overall equals the best such tally for a player in the 56 years for which data is available. He's the only player to score and assist in four separate matches at the tournament, too. When he plays in the final, he will become the player with the most World Cup appearances in history.

It has been 36 and a half years since Maradona dragged Argentina to glory in Mexico, but now Messi has the chance to do the same and finally claim the only trophy missing from his vast collection.

Maradona's brilliance cannot be discounted, of course, but it's worth noting that he was 25, 10 years younger than Messi is now, when he won Argentina their second and most recent World Cup.

Argentina have finished runners-up twice since then, most recently to Germany in 2014, when Messi was in his prime.

Now, they'll face France or Morocco on Sunday, back in Lusail.

Now, Messi will have his second and final shot at becoming a world champion.

Now, of course, is all.

Lionel Messi's quest for an elusive World Cup triumph is just one step from completion after he inspired Argentina to a 3-0 win over Croatia on Tuesday that secured their place in the final.

Croatia had proven stern opposition when eliminating Brazil in the previous round, but they crashed out at Lusail Stadium as Argentina continued their impressive record of never losing a World Cup semi-final.

Messi was key, putting Argentina ahead from the penalty spot to become his country's all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with 11, then playing a role in Julian Alvarez's somewhat fortuitous second.

There was nothing lucky about Argentina's third goal in the second half, as Messi's brilliant solo run teed up Alvarez to put the game beyond doubt.

Neither side looked willing commit many bodies forward early on, but a rare defensive lapse handed Argentina the initiative just past the half-hour mark.

Dejan Lovren played Alvarez onside before Dominik Livakovic collided with the striker to concede a penalty, which Messi slammed into the top-right corner.

It was 2-0 five minutes later following some poor Croatia defending.

Messi's pass released Alvarez on the counter-attack, and he stabbed home from close range after running half the length of the pitch and profiting from three ricochets in the Croatia box.

Argentina sat back more after the break and Croatia struggled to find a way through, with goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez largely untroubled.

Any hope of a Croatia comeback was emphatically ended 21 minutes from time.

Messi darted past Josko Gvardiol on the right, checked back, and then beat him again around the outside before cutting back to the grateful Alvarez, who applied the finish.

Lionel Messi set a new record for the most Argentina goals scored at World Cups after netting his 11th in Tuesday's semi-final against Croatia.

Messi went into the game level on 10 with Albiceleste great Gabriel Batistuta, having already netted four times en route to the semis.

His fifth of the campaign, drawing level with Kylian Mbappe in the Golden Boot race, came from the penalty spot at Lusail Stadium.

Messi scored the opening goal of the game against Croatia 11 minutes before half-time, blasting into the top-right corner after Julian Alvarez was fouled by Dominik Livakovic.

Batistuta only needed 12 games to reach his tally, while Messi was making his 25th World Cup appearance on Tuesday – that saw him equal Lothar Matthaus' all-time record for most outings at the tournament.

Nevertheless, Messi's strike highlights the Paris Saint-Germain star's remarkable longevity.

Qatar 2022 is the fifth World Cup Messi has played in, a feat no one has ever bettered.

His first World Cup goal came in 2006 against Serbia and Montenegro. At 18 years and 357 days, it made him Argentina's youngest ever scorer in the competition.

He would need to play again in the 2026 World Cup – during which he will turn 39 – to become Argentina's oldest scorer at the tournament, however, with Martin Palermo (36 years, 227 days) holding that particular record.

The 2022 World Cup is widely expected to be Messi's last.

Lionel Messi will match Lothar Matthaus' World Cup record of 25 appearances after the Argentina captain was, as expected, named in the starting XI to face Croatia.

Messi, whose six goal involvements in Qatar have only been bettered by France's Kylian Mbappe (seven), will hope to lead Argentina into the final by overcoming the 2018 runners-up at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.

The 35-year-old is Argentina's joint-highest goalscorer in the competition with 10 goals and is one assist away from equalling Diego Maradona's record of eight at World Cup tournaments (since 1966).

He has both scored and assisted a goal in three different World Cup matches, including two at this tournament (vs Mexico and the Netherlands). Since 1966, no player has ever done so in four separate games.

Coach Lionel Scaloni made two changes to the team that featured from the off against the Netherlands.

With Marcos Acuna suspended, Nicolas Tagliafico was selected at left-back, while Leandro Paredes came into the midfield with defender Lisandro Martinez dropping out.

Zlatko Dalic, meanwhile, stuck with the side that started against Brazil on Friday.

That means Luka Modric will become only the fourth player aged 37 or over to start six matches at a World Cup, after Brazil's Nilton Santos in 1962, Italy's Dino Zoff in 1982 and England's Peter Shilton in 1990.

Modric was named in midfield alongside Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. Andrej Kramaric retained his place up front, with Bruno Petkovic, who netted against Brazil, on the bench.

This is the third World Cup meeting between Argentina and Croatia, and the first in the knockout stages.

Argentina won 1-0 in 1998, before Croatia's 3-0 win in the 2018 edition in Russia.

Croatia are the only side capable of stopping Lionel Messi and Argentina in their tracks at this World Cup, according to former Germany international Holger Badstuber.

The two nations collide at Lusail Stadium in what promises to be a mouth-watering semi-final encounter on Tuesday, with France or Morocco awaiting the winners in Sunday's showpiece.

Croatia, who battled their way to the 2018 final before losing 4-2 to France, are one win away from matching that performance four years on following a similarly determined run in Qatar.

Zlatko Dalic's side came from behind against Japan and Brazil in the knockout stages, before successfully prevailing in a penalty shoot-out on both occasions.

Badstuber, who was part of the Germany side that finished third at the 2010 World Cup, is a huge admirer of the Vatreni.

"I can't get what Zlatko Dalic said out of my head," Badstuber wrote in his Eurosport column. "Because it sums up things exactly at this exciting World Cup in Qatar.

"The Croatia coach said after his team's quarter-final victory in the penalty shoot-out against Brazil: 'Only Croatians can do that.' There is so much to those words; so much conviction, character and strength that I have great respect for this top football nation.

"Croatia is a top nation in world football. The 2018 final was no coincidence, and the current success is definitely no surprise. All those who still speak of Croatia as a surprise team have not looked closely enough.

"This team seems almost unbreakable because, in a way, it combines several valuable qualities: bite, self-drive, ambition, emotion and the will to devote 100 per cent to the cause.

"[The semi-final] has the potential to be an epic battle with what I would call a certain basic aggression, two strong midfield lines and fanatical fans in the stands. I don't see a favourite, the chances are 50-50.

"[Previously] I described why Messi is actually almost unstoppable. In the meantime, however, I am convinced that the Croatians can do it as a team. And probably only them."

The former Bayern Munich defender lined up alongside the likes of Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic during his time with the Bavarian giants, and is subsequently well aware of the character their compatriots bring to the table.

"Croatian players who I have played with in my career were all very good footballers, real 'gamblers' with a positive aggressiveness who embody the image of a street footballer," he explained.

"They fight back, they don't take any s*** on the pitch. This aggressiveness becomes a unit on the pitch, which is why it is so difficult to play against them.

"Niggles, even hidden fouls, make them an unpleasant opponent in the first place. The fact that they also set highlights from midfield makes them really dangerous."

Lionel Messi is channelling the spirit of Diego Maradona to drive Argentina's bid for World Cup glory, according to former Albiceleste midfielder Ossie Ardiles.

Messi provided a goal and an assist as Argentina overcame the Netherlands on penalties in the last eight, and he will hope to lead his country to their sixth World Cup final when they meet Croatia in Tuesday's semi-final.

The seven-time Ballon d'Or winner showed a different side to his personality after that game, angrily confronting Oranje boss Louis van Gaal and pausing a post-match interview to shout at Dutch striker Wout Weghorst.

Ardiles, who played for Argentina between 1975 and 1982, believes Messi's displays of passion are akin to Albiceleste icon Maradona, which is firing up supporters. 

"I know in England some people were surprised at his aggressive reaction after the Netherlands game, the confrontation with Louis van Gaal and some Dutch players," he told the Daily Mail.

"Van Gaal had tried to get Messi to react before the game, inflaming the fire by talking about how Messi didn't defend well for the team. Then, during the penalties, the Dutch players were constantly trying to disrupt the Argentinian players, playing mind games by walking up to them and celebrating by them if they missed.

"This isn't to justify what happened but to understand it. There was a lot going on, unsavoury scenes from both sides.

"But in Argentina many people loved this new image of Messi. It wasn't normal for him. It was more of a Maradona reaction, which means the people love him even more.

"The old perception was that he was cold and not passionate. Now they feel his desire to win for Argentina. We are Latin people. We react and show our emotions. Sometimes maybe we overreact."

 

The Paris Saint-Germain forward has assumed a familiar talismanic role in Qatar, with his return of six goal contributions – four goals and two assists – only bettered by Kylian Mbappe, who has five goals and two assists.

Messi has both scored and assisted in two different games at this World Cup, and in three at the tournament overall. Since 1966, no player has done so on four occasions.

The 35-year-old needs one more goal to surpass Gabriel Batistuta's tally of 10 World Cup strikes for Argentina, and Ardiles believes he is playing with less pressure since leading his country to Copa America glory last year.

"You could see in his face that the pressure had been lifted and you could feel it among the people as well," he added.

"They could see the team was rallying to him. And the whole country, even the previous critics, embraced him. He had always been the focal point, but now he is much more of a leader. And it looks as though the players in Qatar are determined to win it for him.

"Maybe there have been World Cups where he has played better, as a younger player. But there has never been a World Cup where his influence has been as important as it is now.

"He leads this team off the pitch and on the pitch, all their creative play comes through him. He is not just Argentina's most important player, but he is the most important player at the World Cup."

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