Messi scored his fifth goal in Qatar with a first-half penalty after Julian Alvarez was brought down by Dominik Livakovic, before Alvarez made it 2-0 with a run and finish that started in his own half. Any doubts about Argentina's participation in Sunday's final against either France or Morocco were put to bed midway through the second half when Messi's mazy run down the right was finished off by Alvarez.
1. Messi gives himself another chance at World Cup trophy
Messi is collecting records in Qatar. The next thing on the list is the World Cup trophy.
On the night he joined Lothar Matthaus as the joint record appearance maker in men's World Cup history, he also scored his 11th World Cup goal to pass Gabriel Batistuta for the most in Argentina history. None of that will matter, though, if this tournament doesn't end with a World Cup winners' medal on his CV.
He has done his bit to drag Argentina to their sixth final, scoring in each knockout round so far, and now he has the chance to join the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona on the list of great players who have won the game's biggest prize. He has already put together a career that puts him alongside those players in the debate about the best of all time, but winning the World Cup would, arguably, take it to another level.
He's not there yet, and as one of only two players remaining from Argentina's World Cup final defeat to Germany in 2014, he will know close is not close enough. On Sunday, he'll have the opportunity to win the one trophy that has so far eluded him.
His assist for Alvarez's second goal, picking up the ball on the halfway line and squeezing past Josko Gvardiol on the touchline, was a timely reminder that even at 35, he remains one of the best players in the world.
2. Messi is nearing his end, but Alvarez is just getting started
If Messi is ready to ride off into the sunset, possibly with the World Cup tucked under his arm, then Alvarez already looks ready to take his place.
Before the tournament began, there was no doubt that Lautaro Martinez would start as manager Lionel Scaloni's first-choice centre-forward, but Alvarez took his chance when it arrived. Now, the Manchester City forward is the main man next to Messi.
He had to wait until the third group game against Poland to start, but since then, the 22-year-old has four goals in four games to make himself a certain starter against either France or Morocco in Sunday's World Cup final. His goal against Croatia, running from his own half, will be replayed again and again as one of Argentina's great World Cup moments.
Alvarez has gone under the radar at City this season -- mainly because of Erling Haaland's superhuman form -- but thrust onto football's biggest stage in Qatar, he has shown just how good he is, even at such a young age. The next question is: how good can he become? He'll do well to get anywhere near Messi's records, but as one forward prepares for his send-off, another is showing there is more to this Argentina team than their iconic No. 10.
3. Second straight final a step too far for Croatia
Croatia's run in 2018 was brought to a crashing halt when France scored four times in 65 minutes in the final. In Qatar, it was ended by Argentina scoring twice in five minutes.
Their progress in this tournament has been built on being organised at the back and keeping the ball in midfield -- they only needed one shot on target to force extra time against Brazil. A few minutes of chaos just before half-time against Argentina wasn't part of the plan.
Coach Zlatko Dalic will wonder how a straight ball from the halfway line was enough to send Alvarez through before being brought down by Dominik Livakovic for the penalty. He will be even more confused at how a Croatia corner ended up with Alvarez running from his own half to score, despite the forward giving both Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa opportunities to clear the ball.
Croatia don't score many goals. Conceding two sloppy ones, at such a pivotal point of the game, proved disastrous.
It shouldn't detract from what they've achieved at the World Cup -- reaching two consecutive semifinals is a remarkable feat for a country of less than 4 million -- but they will rue not making it a more uncomfortable night for Argentina.
Player ratings (1 = worst, 10 = best)
Argentina: Emiliano Martinez 7, Nahuel Molina 7, Nicolas Tagliafico 7, Nicolas Otamendi 7, Cristian Romero 7, Leandro Paredes 7, Rodrigo De Paul 7, Alexis Mac Allister 7, Enzo Fernandez 7, Lionel Messi 8, Julian Alvarez 8
Best and worst performers
BEST: Julian Alvarez, Argentina. Won the penalty for the first goal and scored the second with a run that started in his own half.
WORST: Borna Sosa, Croatia. Croatia's left-back looked nervous early on and was one of the defenders who let Alvarez through for Argentina's second goal.
Highlights and notable moments
More than Batistuta, more than Maradona. No Argentine man has scored more in the World Cup than Messi.
LIONEL MESSI PASSES GABRIEL BATISTUTA TO BECOME ARGENTINA'S ALL-TIME LEADING WORLD CUP GOALSCORER! 🇦🇷 pic.twitter.com/njhhcOQoJk— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 13, 2022
For Croatia, this is probably the end of an era, as 37-year-old Modric walks off the pitch in international competition for what is likely the final time.
Luka Modric comes off for what may be his last World Cup game.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 13, 2022
A standing ovation for a legend 👏 pic.twitter.com/TEL37wtBYX
After the match: What the players and managers said
Messi: "I would say the [defeat against Saudi Arabia] was a hard blow because we had been unbeaten in 36 matches. To start in such a way in a World Cup, we did not think we would lose to Saudi Arabia. It was an acid test of the whole squad but we proved how strong we are. We won the other matches and it was very difficult what we did. Every match was a final and we were aware if we did not win, things would be complicated for us.
"We have won five finals and I hope this is the case for the final on Sunday. We lost in the first match due to fine details but it helped us to be stronger."
Dalic on his future as Croatia manager: "My plan and my objective is to take Croatia to Euro 2024."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
- Messi's 11th career World Cup goal passes Batistuta for the most in Argentina men's history.
- At 35 years of age, Messi is the oldest man to score five goals at a single World Cup.
- Messi's eighth go-ahead goal in a World Cup is the most in men's World Cup history, breaking a tie with Paolo Rossi, Luis Suarez and Gerd Muller.
- Messi has scored in each of Argentina's knockout games in Qatar. He had never scored a knockout-round goal in any of his four previous World Cups.
- At 22 years and 317 days, Alvarez is the second-youngest Argentina to score multiple World Cup knockout-round goals since Carlos Peucelle in 1930.
- Alvarez's second goal of the game gives him four goals in this World Cup, tied with Gonzalo Higuain for the most for any Argentina men's player aged 22 or younger.
- Messi has scored in three straight World Cup games, something he also did in Argentina's run to the 2014 final in Brazil. He is the first man since at least 1966 to have multiple three-game goal streaks in the World Cup.
Argentina: The Albiceleste move on to Sunday's final, where they'll take on the winner of France vs. Morocco at 10 a.m. ET.
Croatia: Croatia return to play in Euro 2024 qualifying on March 25, when they host Wales.