A magician. A cat with a string. A ballerina. An artiste. Pick any comparison you like, and it still won’t do Lionel Messi justice.
The best of his generation, possibly the best there’s ever been, has Argentina one game away from the World Cup title. Messi scored Argentina’s first goal, on yet another penalty, and had a sublime assist on the third, to bookend the 3-0 win over Croatia, runners-up four years ago.
When the final whistle sounded, Messi bent over, put his hands on his knees and grinned. It was the smile of a man who is both happy and yet not anywhere close to being satisfied. Messi and Argentina now play in Sunday’s final against either Morocco or France, the defending champion.
There is one hole on Messi’s glittering résumé. He has won Champions League titles, set scoring records and his seven Ballon d’Or trophies are two more than anyone else. His light blue and white No. 10 jersey has become iconic, found in every city around the world.
Yet for all his success and accolades, the World Cup has eluded him.
Argentina has made only one final with Messi, and they ran into a Germany team that was a buzzsaw in 2014. That Messi won the Golden Ball, given to the best player in the tournament, was small consolation.
With this World Cup “surely” his last, Messi openly acknowledged how badly he wanted to win.
“The truth is, there’s a little anxiety, saying: ‘Well, we’re here, what’s going to happen? It’s my last one, how’s it going to go?’ ” Messi said in an interview with ESPN before the World Cup began.
“On one hand, I can’t wait for it to arrive, but I’m also desperate for it to go well.”
Oh, it has.
Julian Alvarez drew a penalty in the 32nd minute when Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic slammed into him as Alvarez tried to chip the ball around him. Messi took the penalty and smashed it into the net in the 34th minute.
Livakovic even dove the right way, but he had no chance of stopping Messi’s rocket of a shot.
Five minutes later, Alvarez slalomed his way through three Croatian defenders and toe poked the ball past Livakovic to make it 2-0.
Croatia was effectively done, but Messi and Argentina weren’t.
In the 69th, Messi got the ball and dribbled to the edge of the box, where he danced around Josko Gvardiol. The young Croatian has been one of the best defenders of the tournament, but Messi turned him sideways, toying both with the ball and Gvardiol before clearing space for himself.
He ran into the box and crossed to Alvarez who was in front of the goal and tapped the ball in to give Argentina the 3-0 lead.
It is both fitting and poetic that Messi and Alvarez were showcased in this game. Messi has inspired young players throughout the world, and none more than those in Argentina — a young Alvarez included. When he was a boy, he had a photo taken with his idol.
Now they, and Argentina, are one win away from a World Cup title.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour
Story Credit: usatoday.com