Lionel Messi And Co Hit The Training Pitch Ahead Of Argentina’s Semi-Final Clash With Croatia

For Lionel Messi and Argentina, it seems this World Cup will now go one of two ways.

If the greatest player of his generation finally lifts the trophy in Lusail on Sunday, then perhaps a life’s work will be considered complete.

If he does not, then there will be other contrasting images gathered over these last three weeks that may prove harder to shake.

A penalty dubiously won and then missed against Poland in an early group game. Perhaps the pass of the tournament to provide Nahuel Molina with the opening goal of last Friday’s quarter-final against Holland.

And then, most vivid of all, Messi’s role in the thuggery and skullduggery that tainted the closing stages of that game, eventually settled on penalties.

At home in Argentina and among the thousands of his countrymen and women that continue to gather here in Doha, there is only celebration of the way Messi and his team-mates overcame the Dutch in that brutal and undignified denouement in the same Lusail Stadium to which they return to face Croatia on Tuesday night.

But as for the rest of the world – a world that wishes deeply to view Messi as somehow resting above some of the dirtier aspects of our sport – we know what we saw. As such it was left to Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni to somehow offer a defence of his players when he spoke on Monday.

‘I just want to be finished with this topic,’ Scaloni said. ‘The previous game was played the way we had to play it. That goes for both teams. In some games things can happen. There can be arguments and challenging times, but that’s all.

‘That’s why we have a referee. To make justice. We need to put an end to this idea that Argentina is just a team that has that type of behaviour. We lost to Saudi Arabia in game one and didn’t say anything. We won the Copa America in Brazil last year and experienced the most sporting behaviour with Messi and Neymar sitting together in the tunnel in the Maracana.

‘So I am not convinced of this idea that we are just about unsporting behaviour. We show our pride and we just played that game against Netherlands the way we had to play it.

‘Messi has always been a winner. He remains keen and motivated to win. We’re very happy about that.’

At a World Cup short of a really great team, Messi’s uncertain but compelling progress towards a second final – Argentina lost to Germany in Rio de Janeiro in 2014 – remains its most significant storyline.

With his demeanour on the pitch often oscillating between determination and naked desperation, this tournament has seen a different side to the 35-year-old. As such, his team-mate Nicolas Tagliafico was asked on Monday if he was simply becoming too aggressive.

‘Messi is our captain and leader and he has always been like this,’ said the Lyon defender. ‘He is the one pushing us, motivating us. We have him and that’s a great source of motivation and help.

‘We are so happy to have him as our captain. We want to achieve our dreams and the most beautiful way is to do it with Messi at our side. In terms of the Netherlands game, those are situations that happen. We feel the emotions running high.’

With Croatia reaching a successive World Cup semi-final virtue of back-to-back penalty shootout victories, Argentina have understandably been installed as favourites ahead of Tuesday night’s game.

As far as Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic is concerned though, a life’s dream has already been realised. Four years ago the Croatia coach took his country to a World Cup final and he didn’t think it would happen again.

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