When all roads led to THAT bit


that, in a bit.

Perhaps remembering the 0-3 disaster at the 2018 Russia World Cup group stage game against Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod, or perhaps simply recalling the earlier games here in Qatar, Lionel Scaloni decided what Argentina would
not do on Tuesday night: break into a sweat.

Fortress Croatia had not let a single goal in during regulation time. They had fed on Luka Modric sudden play, but gathered with a solid defence line, led from the back by Josko Gvardiol, putting a stop to anything that wasn’t Croat. So, the first 15 minutes of the game at Lusail was held in balance. The question was whether Argentina would fall for the trap. Waiting for things to happen can frustrate even quality sides –
especially – quality sides.

But then, in the 32nd min, the 22-year-old Julian Alvarez enters our vision properly for the first time. While trying to chip over Dominik Livakovic from a Fernandez pass, he is brought down by the keeper – or his independent body if you’re a VARshipper. Messi scores from the spot. But has the Croatian def hex been broken?
At 38:14, Messi receives a bouncy ball via a head tap clearance. He taps it with outstretched left foot that’s by now too far to take after he fails to go past Marcelo Brozovic. Messi goes down, only to get up again, By this time the ball has – and all eyes have – reached the flying figure of Alvarez, who at 38:18 reaches the spot he was brought down for a penalty five minutes earlier. It’s a return to a crime scene.

Clambering up his right is Brozovic, who has done well to catch up with the breakaway enfant Alvarez. With Josip Juranovic and Gvardiol getting into pincer position, Alvarez swerves like a T-84 Oplot-M battle tank. But not before bouncing the ball off Juranovic’s right foot.

The ball even reaches leftback Borna Sosa. But he isn’t able to clear it properly. Alvarez simply ploughs through, scooping the ball up with his thigh that climbs up his chest almost asking for safe passage, and finally, when finally does come, with a praying mantis right foot flick puts the dear ball past Livakovic forever and ever.

All Croatian defence systems look obsolete by now. But they’ve been here before – going into the dressing room 2-0 up against Holland a few days back. A 62nd min Croatia freekick that is poorly cleared could well have brought back the butterflies in Albicelestian bellies. But then, in the 68th min,
that starts.

Messi runs down the right flank hugging so close to the sidelines that if this was tennis, the ball would have been called out. He is manfully pursued by Gvardiol in his batman facegear with Dejan Lovren flanking to cut him off. He’s still a long way from Tipperary, but then starts the stop-starts, a glorious hiccup that breaks Gvardiol’s electronic guidance system. By this time, Messi has entered Croat penalty box aerospace

Still skirting the chalk of the box, Messi drags the ball back, turns around as if in a show of modesty to pull up his zipper out of Gvardiol’s view, then turns the opposite direction as if he forgot to tip someone, goes past the by-now hapless defender who is now hunkering just behind the Argentine shaman, eyes on the ball strung to Messi’s feet. Then, as if enough is enough, Messi pulls it back to a waiting Alvarez. It’s magnificent and it’s over. We almost feel gutted that ends in a goal.

On Tuesday, Messi was at the heights of his mischievous mastery. Argentina found a new fusion energy source – and in Alvarez a new artist.

As for whether we’ll see
that again on Sunday, we’ll know in a bit.



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