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Messi's dream lives on as Argentina defeats Croatia to reach the World Cup final

Argentina forward Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team's first goal from the penalty spot during the World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and Croatia in Qatar on December 13, 2022.
Juan Mabromata
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AFP via Getty Images
Argentina forward Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team's first goal from the penalty spot during the World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and Croatia in Qatar on December 13, 2022.

AL DAAYEN, Qatar — Argentina and Lionel Messi have done it yet again. The South American powerhouse will play in the World Cup final after defeating Croatia 3-0.

It was the fifth time Argentina has played in a World Cup semifinal (defeating the USA in 1930, Belgium in 1986, Italy in 1990 and the Netherlands in 2014). And it is the sixth time it has advanced to a final. The last time Argentina won the World Cup was in 1986.

It was a cautious start to the match as both Argentina and Croatia played conservatively - not wanting to make an early mistake. But Argentina took control after a half hour and never looked back.

In the 32nd minute, Julián Álvarez went one-on-one with Croatian keeper Dominik Livaković who brought Álvarez down - winning a penalty kick. Argentina star Lionel Messi then stepped up to do what he seemingly always does. Calmly and coolly, he punched the ball high and to the right giving his side a 1-0 lead.

Álvarez wasn't done. In the 39th minute, he led a counterattack and dribbled all the way from midfield, sprinted through three Croatian defenders, and lofted the ball past Livaković to give Argentina a 2-0 lead at the half.

Livaković had shined in goal this tournament. But an unrelenting Argentina offense and some Croatian defensive lapses proved to be too much.

The beautiful tandem of Messi and Álvarez had one more sparkling moment against Croatia. In the 69th minute, Messi had a flash of unbelievable ballhandling against Croatia defender Joško Gvardiol on the right side of the goal. Messi then found Álvarez who powered it in for the 3-0 lead. Of Croatia's twelve shots on goal, only two were on target.

Luka Modric of Croatia reacts the World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and Croatia.
Buda Mendes / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Luka Modrić of Croatia reacts during the World Cup semifinal match loss to Argentina 3-0.

Argentina entered this match having lost only one of their last 41 international games (28 wins, 12 draws). While Croatia, runners-up in the 2018 tournament, had lost just one of their last 12 World Cup matches.

It was Messi's fifth goal of the tournament (and his third assist), moving him just ahead of France's Kylian Mbappé (five goals and two assists) for the tournament lead in the Golden Boot competition. Messi is set to break another record in the finals. This was his 25th World Cup match and he joins Lothar Matthäus for all-time FIFA appearances.

Argentina will play the winner of Wednesday's semifinal between France and Morocco on Sunday. Croatia's World Cup tournament is not done yet. It will play in the third place match on Saturday against the loser of tomorrow's semifinal.

Remembering the fallen journalists

Amid the excitement of the match, the return to Lusail Stadium has been bittersweet for the journalists. This is where American soccer sportswriter Grant Wahl died on Saturday covering the Argentina-Netherlands quarterfinal. He collapsed in the press tribune as the game was underway.

At the media center inside Lusail Stadium, FIFA has set-up condolence books and pictures of the three journalists (Khalid al-Misslam, Roger Pearce and Grant Wahl) who have died in Qatar while covering the World Cup.
Tom Goldman / NPR
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NPR
At the media center inside Lusail Stadium, FIFA has set-up condolence books and pictures of the three journalists (Khalid al-Misslam, Roger Pearce and Grant Wahl) who have died in Qatar while covering the World Cup.

It was the third death of a journalist at this World Cup. ITV sports director Roger Pearce died last month. A photojournalist with Al Kass TV, Khalid al-Misslam, 'died suddenly' this past weekend.

FIFA set up a trio of condolence books with the pictures of each journalist at the media center at Lusail Stadium. NPR's Tom Goldman was among those who took the time to honor those who died, "This media center is teeming. But it's empty."

Tom Goldman contributed reporting from Al Dayyen, Qatar, and Russell Lewis reported from Birmingham, Ala.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 12, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
We originally reported it's the fifth final for Argentina. It will be the sixth.
As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.