When Argentina were stunned in their first game at the 2022 Qatar World Cup by Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t easy to picture them in the final.
That is exactly where they will be on Sunday though following a Lionel Messi-inspired 3-0 win over Croatia in the semi-final.
While Argentina reaching the final after that opening day humiliation is something we perhaps didn’t expect to see, it’s a very different case with the words ‘Messi-inspired win’. The Paris Saint-Germain superstar is playing in what will surely be his last World Cup and he looks determined to make it the crowning glory of a stunning career.
He has needed to be that good, too. Of all the pre-World Cup favourites, there can be no question that Argentina have been the least impressive.
They have never once put in as dynamic a performance as England did against Iran. They also haven’t been as dominant as Spain were in the demolition of Costa Rica, or as swashbuckling as France in the 4-1 win over Australia.
You’d also have to say they have not even come close to the style with which Brazil swatted aside South Korea, or the fluidity that Portugal showed against Switzerland.
In fact, you could say they have been almost impressively unimpressive, but perhaps that just means consistent. They have just set themselves up in a solid shape, done all the basics very well, and trusted Messi to produce some magic. Julian Alvarez has helped too, of course.
It has not been even remotely sophisticated, but nor has it needed to be. In fact, it has been a real throwback to when no one was really bothered about tactics all that much. That is not intended as an insult or criticism either, by the way. Quite the opposite in fact.
Lionel Scaloni has masterfully avoided the cardinal sin of overthinking anything. Over-complication has been the enemy of many a Messi-era Argentina head coach. Scaloni, though, knows he has arguably the best player of all time in his team who is almost guaranteed to produce something every game, and he’s been clever enough to know the only thing he needs to provide is a solid enough platform to ensure those contributions are decisive.
The quarter-final against the Netherlands provided a glimpse into what could go wrong, and what usually has for Argentina in Messi’s career. He was magic, but the defence buckled and they found themselves, and their World Cup hopes, at the mercy of a penalty shootout.
They got away with one there, and I think they knew it. Their reaction at full time certainly suggested as much.
But the reality for Argentina is that they don’t have to play the best, most eye-catching football. The players and Lionel Scaloni don’t even have to win the World Cup for Argentina. Lionel Messi can do that for them. All they have to do is not lose it. It’s far from a guarantee, but it’s their best chance and we’ve seen more than enough to suggest they know it.
Keep things ugly and believe in Messi to bring the beauty. It’s far from the worst plan that Argentina have ever had.