With surging runs and a striker’s instinct, Julián Álvarez carried Argentina into another World Cup final.
Lionel Messi and the 22-year-old Álvarez were a pair of 5-feet-6 (1.70-meter) predators in a partnership that put to rest any hopes Croatia had of reaching back-to-back finals.
The younger of the pair rose to the challenge on soccer’s biggest stage with a huge performance on Tuesday, earning a penalty kick converted by the 35-year-old Messi before scoring twice to maybe even outshine his teammate — one of the greatest players the game has ever seen — in a 3-0 victory at Lusail Stadium.
Álvarez became the youngest player to score twice in a World Cup semifinal match since a 17-year-old Pele scored a hat trick for Brazil in 1958.
No wonder Messi held Álvarez in a playful headlock after his first goal and hugged him hard after the second.
A tight-fought first half-hour was entirely turned upside down by Álvarez’s runs, barreling at speed into and through challenges in a devastating five-minute spell. When it was over, Croatia’s players had been left strewn behind him on the turf, trailing by two goals, with their hopes of another World Cup final in ruins.
Instead, Argentina gave Messi a second chance to play for a World Cup title. He and his teammates lost to Germany in the 2014 final.
Until Álvarez changed the game, Croatia controlled much of the play with its usual neat passing in and around midfield, leaving Argentina’s attack little to work with.
Álvarez was suddenly alert to creating danger when Croatia midfielder Luka Modric got in a tangle and the ball came loose for Enzo Fernández to loop a high pass over the defense.
Álvarez was quickly clear and bearing down on goalkeeper Dominik Livaković, an imposing figure at any time and yet more so rushing from his goal. Although a deft shot past Livaković did not reach the goal, Álvarez drew a foul to earn the penalty which Messi converted.
Minutes later, Álvarez sparked to life when Argentina cleared a Croatia corner, took the ball in his stride just before halfway and ran directly at the defense. The surging run seemed to surprise Croatia’s fullbacks as first Josip Juranović and then Borna Sosa fell backwards while taking swipes at the ball as Álvarez ran through them and once more at Livaković.
This time, the Croatia keeper stayed back and Álvarez lashed his shot into the net from close range with a momentum that took him over Livaković’s body.
Álvarez ran toward the corner to celebrate and Messi chased him down, grabbing him a headlock like a playful big brother.
The pair teamed up again in the 69th minute, needing only each other to pass five defenders, mostly because of Messi’s intricate dribble to the endline for a pass into Álvarez’s path for a simple finish.
Messi joined Kylian Mbappe with a tournament-leading five goals. Mbappe will get a chance for more on Wednesday when France plays Morocco in the other semifinal match.
Álvarez now has four goals — not bad for a player who didn’t even make the starting lineup until Argentina’s third game in the group stage.
He will surely be by Messi’s side again on Sunday when they return to Lusail Stadium for the final.
—Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press