LUSAIL – Lionel Messi bent over, clutched his left hamstring and appeared to grimace, immediately spreading panic through the soccer world but especially among all Argentines.
Was their superstar — their idol — injured? Was he going to have to come off early in the World Cup semifinals?
No such luck for Croatia.
Before long, Messi was producing perhaps the best performance of his record-tying 25 appearances at the World Cup, leading Argentina to a 3-0 victory over Croatia on Tuesday that set up a meeting with either France or Morocco in Sunday’s final.
Messi is back in soccer's biggest match on his mission to win the game's greatest prize for the first time. At 35, he could hardly be playing any better.
Messi converted a penalty and played a part in the other two goals by Julián Álvarez — one with an outrageous piece of skill that brought roars of approval from Argentina's huge following — to turn an initially tense occasion into a procession.
“A lot is going through my head — it’s very emotional seeing all of this,” Messi said in a post-match interview on the field as he looked up at Argentina’s celebrating, scarf-waving supporters. “To see the fans — ‘the family’ — during the whole tournament was so incredible. We’re going to the final, which is what we wanted.”
It will be Messi’s second World Cup final — Argentina lost the other one to Germany in 2014 — in what might be his last appearance at the tournament.
The stage is set for a player widely regarded as one of the game’s best, if not the absolute best, to go out on the ultimate high.
He is thrilling his legion of fans along the way.
His swivel and driving run to set up the third goal for Álvarez in the 69th minute left Josko Gvardiol — one of the best defenders at the World Cup — grasping at thin air and epitomized Messi's confidence and swagger.
He is embracing the responsibility of leading Argentina to its third World Cup title, scoring in five of his six games in Qatar.
He even had a penalty saved in the one game in which he didn’t score.
“I am honored to train him and see him play,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who was in tears in the post-match celebrations. “Every time you see him play, it’s a huge source of motivation for his teammates, fans and the whole world.”
Croatia failed in its bid to reach a second straight World Cup final after conceding two goals in a five-minute span from the 34th, just when the team was looking comfortable at Lusail Stadium and Messi was raising concerns by rubbing his hamstring.
Maybe it was a ruse. Messi was soon toying with his opponents in a way only he can and put Argentina ahead by lifting his penalty into the top corner after Álvarez was taken out by Dominik Livakovic after clipping the ball past the Croatia goalkeeper.
Álvarez scored himself in the 39th after a surging run from halfway, which started after he collected Messi's short pass. Then came the crowning moment, Álvarez's second goal, after Messi took Gvardiol for a ride in the right corner.
It was one game too far for Croatia, which had beaten Japan and Brazil on penalties in the knockout stage, and star midfielder Luka Modric, who — at 37 — has likely played his final World Cup match.
Summing up a frustrating game for the little midfield magician, he was substituted in the 81st minute and had a bright red nose after the ball slammed into his face moments earlier.
“The first goal took the match in a different direction,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said. “It’s the true Messi we all expected to see.”
Argentina maintained its record of never having lost in the World Cup semifinals and has reached the final for the sixth time.
Those dark days after losing to Saudi Arabia in its opening group match seem so long ago now for Argentina, which will be hard to stop in the final with Messi playing this well.
“Even though we lost our first match, we were confident that this group was going to push forward,” Messi said. "We know what we are, and we called on the fans to believe in us.”
Messi became Argentina’s record scorer at World Cups with his third penalty of the tournament taking him to 11 goals in total — one more than Gabriel Batistuta. He also tied the record for most appearances at the World Cup by playing for the 25th time, the same number as Lothar Matthäus of Germany.
The 22-year-old Álvarez didn’t start the tournament as Argentina’s striker. He only took the place of Lautaro Martinez in the third group game and now has four goals, one behind Messi and Mbappé. He is the youngest player to score twice in a World Cup semifinal match since a 17-year-old Pele scored a hat trick in 1958.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports