Lionel Messi still has a chance of bowing out of what will be his final World Cup with the trophy in his hands after Argentina knocked out the Netherlands in a pulsating quarter-final tie.
La Albiceleste had the game wrapped up with under 20 minutes of the initial 90 left to play when Messi, who had produced one of the best passes you’re ever likely to see to assist the opening goal for Nahuel Molina, converted from the penalty spot.
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It needn’t have been as difficult as it turned out to be after Argentina let it slip in the closing stages of the game, with Wout Weghorst forcing extra-time through route one Dutch tactics. That period of the contest bypassed Messi completely as the ball was constantly being launched into the air.
But the 35-year-old reappeared for Argentina to finish extra-time the stronger and then stepped up first for his country in the shootout, something club-mate Neymar didn’t do for Brazil a few hours earlier – guess who is now heading home a loser?
Messi described himself and Argentina as ‘relieved’ when speaking to reporters immediately after the final whistle. “It wasn't a game for penalties, it wasn't even going to extra-time,” he admitted.
“Game by game, we are showing that we know how to play football,” Messi added.
Next up is 2018 finalists Croatia in the final four.
It ended up being more a case of getting the job done for Argentina in the circumstances. That overriding pragmatism underpinned by moments of genius from Messi is ultimately what has served them best throughout this tournament since recovering from a shock opening defeat.
The victories over Mexico, Poland, Australia and now the Netherlands have put Messi into the second World Cup semi-final of his career and only Argentina’s second last-four appearance since 1990 when the late great Diego Maradona was captain and talisman.
For all that Messi has achieved in his club career in Europe, World Cup glory on the biggest stage of all is still what separates him and Maradona. El Diego did it in 1986. Leo has just two more games left to try and match him or forever be second best.
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