Lionel Messi is again on the one stage that’s marred his famed career.
He’s again one step away from the only feat that’s eluded him. One step away from where his country has impatiently waited to return. One step away from his rightful place in Argentinian lore.
He left no doubt getting back, powering Argentina’s dominant 3-0 win over Croatia to advance to the World Cup final. They will face the winner of France and Morocco’s semifinal clash on Wednesday.
In what is almost assuredly his fifth-and-final World Cup, Messi smashed a penalty into the top right corner in the 34th minute to give La Albiceleste a 1-0 lead. He provided the game’s finishing touches later in the second half, undressing Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol before setting up Julian Alvarez with a stunning assist as Argentina took a 3-0 lead.
Prior to Messi’s penalty, Alvarez drew a foul in the box after beating the Croatian defense over the top. Alvarez was one-on-one with Croatian goalie Dominik Livakovic, and was cleaned out after he attempted to chip the ball over him. Messi subsequently buried the penalty, leaving Livakovic no chance to save it.
Just moments later, Alvarez continued the Argentinian onslaught, carrying the ball from inside his own half all the way to the Croatian box. After a brief deflection, Alvarez recollected the ball and calmly slotted it past Livakovic to give Argentina a 2-0 lead in the 39th minute.
Argentina was overwhelming in the second half, continuing to pin Croatia deep in their half looking to put their opponents away. They perhaps learned their lesson from their quarterfinal game against the Netherlands, when they blew a 2-0 second-half lead before recovering and winning in penalties.
So far in Messi’s Argentinian career, the final has provided a precipice for heartbreak. He infamously came up short in 2014 World Cup, falling to Germany in extra time in the final.
In 2017, Messi briefly announced his retirement from the national team, uttering “I tried my hardest, the team has ended for me, a decision made,” after Argentina’s loss to Chile in the Copa America final that year. It marked Messi’s third straight loss in a major international tournament with Argentina, and fourth overall, and he had agonizingly missed a penalty as the game went to shootout. Messi returned for the 2018 World Cup.
As he returns to another final, Messi will play his his World Cup record 26th career match. In his iconic career, he’s never played a bigger one.
This story originally appeared on NYPost