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Lionel Messi is unstoppable at World Cup: Other teams have a plan, but it’s no match for Argentina captain’s magic

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Obviously, Croatia will enter with a plan.

Defend and counter?

Muscle the little guys and hope the ref is judicious with the cards?

Maybe take it all the way to penalties?

Lionel Messi has seen all of this, as recently as the quarterfinals, when Louis van Gaal and the Netherlands tried every means that can be transacted without hardware to stop Messi and Argentina. The Albiceleste celebrated, anyway.

As Mike Tyson once said, sort of: Everyone has a plan until Messi whips up something magical.

MORE: Lionel Messi rips referee in Netherlands-Argentina quarterfinal

He will not enter Tuesday’s FIFA World Cup semifinal knowing exactly what the opposition’s scheme might be. That would require powers even Messi does not possess. Once the game kicks off, though, it shall not take him long to discern what Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic has in mind and to begin processing the best ways to combat it.

Against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, Messi produced every answer imaginable save for bouncing around and heading away all the desperate long balls the opposition played in an attempt to recover from the 2-0 deficit in which Messi had stashed them.

And when that tactic worked to create two late goals for Dutch sub Wout Weghorst, and when neither side could score in extra time though Argentina dominated possession and created a few opportunities, Messi stepped forward to take Argentina’s first kick in the shootout — just after Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk’s attempt had been stuffed — and slipped his into the net with all the confidence to which the world’s greatest player is entitled.

“A lot of joy and relief,” Messi said, according to Roy Nemer of Mundo Albiceleste. “It shouldn’t have gone to penalty kicks. We suffered too much for how it all happened. But it’s the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Going through is the most beautiful and impressive thing.”

MORE: All the details regarding Argentina vs. Croatia semifinal

It is tempting to view Argentina’s path to the final as clear with archrival Brazil out of the way. Remember, though, that Croatia had to silence a battalion of elite Brazilian attacking players to finish extra time in a 1-1 draw and then advance on penalties. Brazil threw Vinicius Jr., Richarlison, Antony and Rodrygo at them, although all of them spent too much of the game relying upon Neymar to deliver the decisive moment.

Argentina does not have such a variety of assets. Against the Netherlands, though, it did demonstrate a more complete approach. The first goal was created by Messi’s perfect no-look pass, directly into the path of right wingback Nahuel Molina, who executed an ideal finish for a 1-0 lead in the 35th minute. The second goal was scored by Messi from the spot, but only after left wingback Marcos Acuna drove toward the left side of the box and was clipped on the edge of the area by Denzel Dumfries.

Messi obviously was frustrated with Van Gaal’s approach to this game. Players for the Netherlands committed 30 fouls, one every four minutes.

Although he celebrated passionately with goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez immediately after the shootout was clinched, and later approached one of the large segments of Argentina fans at Lusail Stadium with his right fist raised, he did not depart without some words for the Dutch bench. That ended up with Messi exchanging words with Van Gaal and assistant coach Edgar Davids: It was a legend in one corner and an all-time great in the other, and they did not appear to be making plans to get a post-match beer and talk about their glory days.

“And I’ll say it again: Van Gaal says he plays good football and then he sends long balls,” Messi said, probably less angry about that than the eight fouls committed against him.

MORE: Argentina avoid Brazil’s penalty shootout mistake and send out best shooters first

Appearing in his fifth World Cup, Messi only made it past the quarterfinal once before. The knockout rounds have not been friendly to his squads: a loss on penalties in 2006, a 4-0 blowout in 2010, a one-goal loss to eventual champion France in the 2018 Round of 16. Perhaps he was owed one.

“We got lucky on penalties,” Messi said. “I thought we deserved to advance for what you saw in the game. We probably didn’t play a great game, but we played the way we needed to play and then the referee sent it to extra time.

“We said it from the start when many wanted to knock us down after the first game we lost … that this team was going to leave it all on the field – and that when it needs to play, it will. And when it doesn’t, it finds another way like we did today. We’re very happy. It was our objective to play seven games [semifinal and then final or third-place match]. Now we have a tough semifinal and we’ll start to prepare for it.” 

At 35, Messi has achieved everything possible in soccer save one. He has Champions League titles, La Liga titles, a Ligue 1 title, a Copa America, and seven times the Ballon d’Or. He even earned, with Argentina youth teams, an Olympic gold medal and Under-20 World Cup.

There’s just the World Cup left. He is two games away.


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