Messi reveals what drove Argentina to World Cup final


The star number 10 will have one last chance at glory in Qatar

Lionel Messi says Argentina’s shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening World Cup match in Qatar made his team “stronger” and helped propel them towards the final.

Messi inspired Argentina to a 3-0 win over Croatia at a raucous Lusail Stadium in their semifinal on Tuesday night, setting up a meeting with either defending champions France or African sensations Morocco in Sunday’s final at the same venue.

The comprehensive victory against the 2018 finalists proved just how far Lionel Scaloni’s team have come since their World Cup dream appeared in danger of turning into a nightmare when they were stunned 2-1 by the Saudis in their first group-stage game.

Captain Messi has credited that shock to the system as helping to drive La Albiceleste into a sixth World Cup final in their history, as they bid to win the tournament for the first time since 1986.

“The first match was a hard blow for all of us because we had been unbeaten in 36 matches,” Messi said following the win against Croatia, as quoted by ESPN.

“We did not think we would lose to Saudi Arabia. It was an acid test for this whole squad but this squad proved how strong we are.”

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After the major upset against the Saudis, Argentina have bounced back with wins over Mexico, Poland, Australia, the Netherlands – via penalties – and now a highly respected Croatian team.

Messi, 35, said that the “mental load” placed on the team after the Saudi match made their time in Qatar “more complicated” – but meant that every game which followed was treated as a “final.”

“Internally we were confident that we would make it because we know what we are capable of as a squad. We lost in the first match due to fine details but it helped us to be stronger,” said Messi.

Messi enjoyed another landmark night against Croatia, joining German great Lothar Matthaus as the World Cup’s all-time leading appearance-maker on 25 matches.

Messi’s first-half penalty goal was his third from the spot in Qatar, excluding shootouts, and took him level with France’s Kylian Mbappe in the Golden Boot race with five strikes.

It was also a national record for Messi, who overtook Gabriel Batistuta to become Argentina’s all-time leading scorer at the World Cup with 11 goals.

Messi said before the tournament that Qatar would be his last chance of emulating the late Diego Maradona and capturing a title that has eluded him thus far in his career – having fallen at the final hurdle in Brazil eight years ago.

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Sunday’s game at the Lusail Stadium will be the sixth World Cup final for Argentina, who triumphed in 1978 and 1986, but fell short in 1930, 1990 and 2014.

Only one team have lost their opening World Cup game before recovering to win the tournament, with Spain bouncing back from a loss to Switzerland to lift the trophy in 2010.

Messi is now within touching distance of World Cup glory.

“I feel very happy to be able to achieve this, to finish my World Cup journey by playing my last game in a final,” Messi said.

“It’s many years for the next one and I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. And to finish like this, it’s the best.”

Argentina will await the winners of Wednesday’s second semifinal between France and Morocco, which is being played at the Al Bayt Stadium.

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