(AP) — Lionel Messi is back in the World Cup final with Argentina on his mission to win soccer’s biggest prize for the first time.
And, at 35, he could hardly be playing any better.
Messi converted a penalty and had a hand in the other two goals by Julián Álvarez, leading Argentina to a 3-0 win over Croatia on Tuesday that set up a meeting with either France or Morocco in Sunday’s title match.
It will be Messi’s second World Cup final — Argentina lost the other one to Germany in 2014 — in what might be his last appearance at the tournament.
It could yet be the perfect way to go out for a player widely regarded as one of the game’s best players, if not the best.
“A lot is going through my head — it’s very emotional seeing all of this,” Messi said in a post-match interview on the field as he looked up at Argentina’s celebrating, scarf-waving supporters. “To see the fans — ‘the family’ — during the whole tournament was so incredible. We’re going to the final, which is what we wanted.”
Messi is thrilling his legion of fans along the way, with his swivel and driving run to set up the third goal for Álvarez in the 69th minute epitomizing his confidence and swagger. He is embracing the responsibility of leading Argentina to its third World Cup title, scoring in five of his six games in Qatar.
He even had a penalty saved in the game in which he didn’t score.
Croatia failed in its bid to reach a second straight World Cup final after conceding two goals in a five-minute span from the 34th, just when the team was looking comfortable at Lusail Stadium.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni was in tears after the final whistle, even though the celebrations in general were much calmer than after previous games. Messi was in the middle of them all as he continues perhaps his best ever World Cup.
Yet there was a moment midway through the first half that must have struck fear into all Argentines, when Messi appeared clutch his left hamstring and rub it.
Was Argentina’s superstar going to have to come off? No such luck for Croatia.
Messi was soon toying with his opponents in a way only he can and put Argentina ahead by lifting his penalty into the top corner after Álvarez was taken out by Dominik Livakovic after clipping the ball past Croatia’s goalkeeper.
Álvarez poked home his first goal at the end of a surging run from halfway, starting with Messi’s short pass. He put in the third following more outrageous skill from his teammate near the right corner that left Josko Gvardiol — one of the best defenders at the World Cup — grasping at thin air.
It was one game too far for Croatia, which had beaten Japan and Brazil on penalties in the knockout stage, and star midfielder Luka Modric, who — at 37 — has likely played his final World Cup match.
Summing up a frustrating game for the little midfield magician, he was substituted in the 81st minute and had a bright red nose after the ball slammed in his face moments earlier.
Argentina maintained its record of never having lost in the World Cup semifinals and has reached the final for the sixth time.
Those dark days after losing to Saudi Arabia in its opening group match seem so long ago now for Argentina, which will be hard to stop in the final with Messi playing this well.
“Even though we lost our first match, we were confident that this group was going to push forward,” Messi said. “We know what we are, and we called on the fans to believe in us.”
Messi became Argentina’s record scorer at World Cups with his third penalty of the tournament taking him to 11 goals in total — one more than Gabriel Batistuta. He also tied the record for most appearances at the World Cup by playing for the 25th time, the same number as Lothar Matthäus of Germany.
The 22-year-old Álvarez didn’t start the tournament as Argentina’s striker. He only took the place of Lautaro Martinez in the third group game and now has four goals, one behind Messi and Mbappé. He is the youngest player to score twice in a World Cup semifinal match since a 17-year-old Pele scored a hat trick in 1958.