It was always going to take something special to steal the limelight from Lionel Messi on the night he matched Lothar Matthaeus’s 25-match World Cup appearance record, but youngster Julian Alvarez managed it, albeit with a bit of help from the great man.
Tuesday’s semi-final had been cagey, with Croatia having most of the possession, before Alvarez burst through to chase a long ball and was brought down by goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic for a penalty that Messi converted in the 34th minute.
Five minutes later, Alvarez again charged from the halfway line, rode his luck as two attempted tackles merely kept the ball bobbling in his path, and nudged in the second goal.
He put the game beyond reach in the 70th minute with a simple finish after 35-year-old Messi had produced a piece of magical control to hit the byline and pull the ball back for his delighted 22-year-old teammate. While Messi will now hope to bow out as an absolute superstar of the world game with the one trophy to elude him on his 172nd appearance in Sunday’s final, Alvarez is at the other end of his career.
After signing for Manchester City on his 22nd birthday he has hardly set the Premier League alight, perhaps unfortunate to be striving to make his name in the shadow of Erling Haaland, chalking up three goals in 12 less-than-memorable appearances.
On the international front, he arrived in Qatar with three goals to his name and behind Lautaro Martinez in the pecking order to play alongside Messi. Argentina’s stunning defeat by Saudi Arabia in the opener shook things up though and when he got his first start of the tournament in the third group game against Poland, he grabbed the opportunity by scoring in the 2-0 win.
He added another in the 2-1 win over Australia and on Tuesday became the youngest player to score two in a World Cup semi-final or final match since 17-year-old Pele in 1958, taking his international tally to seven and virtually securing him a starting berth in Sunday’s final.
“Today I think Julian was a standout above all else. He played an extraordinary game,” Messi said. “He opened the way for us, he fought, he ran, he hit everyone. I think he was extremely important as he has been throughout the World Cup.”
Despite scoring two goals and earning the penalty for the other, Alvarez was bizarrely overlooked for the man of the match award, with FIFA seemingly contractually obliged to give it to Messi whenever he takes the field. He will not care a jot about that, however, as he enjoys the ride of his life.
The 22-year-old Manchester City forward now has four goals in this tournament, placing him just one behind joint top scorers Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappe. “We deserved this. We played a great game today. We’re in the final, which is what we wanted and now we need to rest and hope for a great game on Sunday. I’m happy personally and for the group Calchin (his home town), like the whole country, must be going crazy. We are happy for what we are achieving and we are going for more,” said Alvarez after his greatest night in the famous light blue and white striped shirt.
Alvarez has had to fight his way into the starting line-up at this tournament with coach Lionel Scaloni initially preferring Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez. The forward started on the bench in the shock 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia that opened Argentina’s group matches and the 2-0 win over Mexico that steadied Argentina’s campaign.
He made a first start in the 2-0 win over Poland that secured passage to the last 16– scoring the second goal – and has been in the starting line-up since.
He scored the crucial second goal in the 2-1 victory over Australia in the round of 16 and then caused the Netherlands plenty of problems in the quarter-final.
Aside from the two goals on Tuesday, both taken in ice-cool fashion, Alvarez stretched the Croatian defence with his constant running - from deep with the ball and across the line without it.
It was a performance that left Argentina coach Scaloni purring.
“Julian played very well, not just because of his goals but also because he worked so hard to help against their three midfielders,” Scaloni said.
“At his age it is normal that he wants to conquer the world. He is a boy who will do whatever you say to him.”
Diego Maradona had four-goal Jorge Valdano as his striker in the 1986 team and now Messi has found his own accomplice.
It is a role that the former River Plate forward is clearly relishing.
Argentina’s Julian Alvarez scores against Croatia in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 semi-final at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Sports / Qatar 2022
Argentina’s Alvarez takes his chance, and then some
‘I think Julian was a standout above all else. He played an extraordinary game and was extremely important for us’
Soccer Football — FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 — Semi Final — Argentina v Croatia — Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar — December 13, 2022 Argentina's Julian Alvarez scores their second goal REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY