Masterful. Dominant. Ruthless. And in the end, for a most welcome change, wholly comfortable. Argentina are back in the World Cup final, and at this late stage who would bet against them fulfilling the dreams of 45 million citizens and bringing the trophy home?
If there were ever a yardstick against which to measure the Albiceleste's progress these past four years it was Tuesday's semi-final. Lest we forget, Croatia inflicted a humiliating 3-0 defeat on Lionel Messi's demoralised troops in the 2018 competition which threw the administration of Jorge Sampaoli into disarray, leading to early elimination at the hands of France and the coach's swift dismissal days after returning back to home soil.
Would Sampaoli have been so roundly vilified without that crushing defeat? And would the unlikely chain of events that led to Lionel Scaloni, one of his few assistants that remained on the AFA payroll following the Russia debacle, getting the top job have unrolled in quite the same way if the match had turned out differently?
Counter-factuals are entertaining, but ultimately futile. What we do know is that against all expectations Scaloni turned out to be an inspired choice, carrying out Argentina's much-needed regeneration with minimal pain and forging a team abundant in both individual talent and collective spirit. The crescendo of these past four years of trial and error, team-building, triumphs and defeats arrived with a spectacular dismantling of one of international football's most stubborn defences, an explosive victory that was a mirror image of that dark day in Russia and which left an entire nation on top of the world.
Two players above all typified the synergy between the old and the new that is the hallmark of this team. At 35, Lionel Messi is 13 years the senior of strike partner Julián Álvarez, who was just six when the captain took his first steps in a World Cup. Yet, after Álvarez's incredible emergence at this tournament, the pair have become the most lethal partnership in Qatar, combining for nine goals and all three against Croatia to drive Argentina to the verge of glory. It was Álvarez who latched onto a sublime pass from Enzo Fernández (another revelation and barely out of his twenties) and forced goalkeeper Dominik Livaković to clatter into him and concede a penalty when the Albiceleste were on the back foot. Messi then stepped up to convert the kick, changing the course of the game in the matter of a few seconds.
The ex-River man then netted one of the more unusual goals ever seen in a World Cup semi-final. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, he just ran. From the halfway line, resisting all Croatian efforts to rid him of possession, the ball seemingly refusing to stray from his magnetic field, before stroking the ball past Livaković to double the advantage. Then, after half-time, Messi returned the favour. Joško Gvardiol has been a titan in defence all tournament but on Tuesday he became the latest victim of the veteran wizard, turned inside-out before watching the ball fall to Álvarez for the simplest of finishes. Game over, and proof if any were needed that even on one leg – he was holding his left hamstring for much of the game – Lionel is still almost impossible to stop. The magic just needs to hold for just one more game, one more final, to make what seemed at the start an impossible dream reality.