LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi has praised Argentina for passing an “acid test” in bouncing back from losing against Saudi Arabia in their opening match to reach the World Cup final.
The Sunday showpiece will see Argentina face either France or Morocco after Messi inspired Lionel Scaloni’s side to a 3-0 win over Croatia at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.
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Messi, 35, opened the scoring through a 34th-minute penalty before Julian Alvarez‘s brace either side of half-time — including a superb solo run for his first goal — settled the contest against a jaded Croatia side with midfielder Luka Modric almost certainly playing in his final World Cup match.
Argentina’s revival is a far cry from their Group C start at the same stadium, suffering a stunning 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia, ranked 51st in the world.
Only one team — Spain in 2010 — has ever lost their opening game at a World Cup and gone on to lift the trophy.
And after making his 25th World Cup appearance, tying the record with Germany’s Lothar Matthaus, and scoring his 11th World Cup goal to surpass Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina record, Messi said: “I would say that the first match was a hard blow for all of us because we had been unbeaten in 36 matches.
“To start in such a way in a World Cup was a blow, we did not think we would lose to Saudi Arabia. It was an acid test for this whole squad but this squad proved how strong we are.
“We won the other matches. It was very difficult what we did because every match was a final and we were aware if we did not win things would be complicated for us.
“This is a mental load because we knew things would be more complicated for us. We managed to win five finals and I hope it will be this way for the final game.
“Internally we were confident that we would make it because we know what we are capable of as a squad. We lost in the first match due to fine details but it helped us to be stronger.
“Let’s enjoy this moment. It’s great to see the joy in our fans here and in Argentina. We are going to give all that we have in the final but also need to enjoy what we achieved.
“I am enjoying this moment a lot. We feel strong before the game even after a very long last game, the previous one wasn’t easy at all. We were tired but the group brought its energy on the pitch to face this game.”
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Messi confirmed on Tuesday that he will play his last World Cup game when Argentina take on France or Morocco in Sunday’s final in Qatar.
“I feel very happy, to be able to achieve this, to finish my World Cup journey by playing my last game in a final. It’s many years for the next one and I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. And to finish like this, it’s the best,” said the Argentina captain.
Messi’s performance on Tuesday was also lauded by Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.
“He is the best player in the world, he was dangerous and he has quality,” Dalic said. “He has technique and put in a high-level performance, it was the true Messi we expected to see.”
Messi was awarded the official man of the match award but the Paris Saint-Germain star reserved special praise for Alvarez, who became only the second Argentina player to score four goals at the same World Cup while aged 22 or under after Gonzalo Higuain.
“Our best quality is the way we play as a team but tonight Julian was our standout player,” Messi said.
“He had an extraordinary game. He ran more than anyone, he generated a lot of goal chances. He was our most important player and he deserves the best player award.”
Argentina reached their first final since 2014 and could end a 36-year wait to lift the World Cup this weekend.
Scaloni said: “I try not to be too emotional. It is very difficult to put this into words. This is what I had always dreamed as an Argentinean.
“Everyone would act the way I act when you are representing your country, your nation but it is impossible not to do what my players do. It is thrilling, it is emotional.
“You can win or lose but what I can say is it is really exciting. Our people were supporting us, we could feel their support and that is something unforgettable. We are making history and this is a reason to be happy.”
Reuters contributed to this report.