Julián Álvarez came to the World Cup as a peripheral figure for Argentina but is preparing for Sunday's final against France as their new star in attack.
The young Manchester City forward started just one of the Albiceleste's World Cup qualifiers and came to Qatar behind Inter Milan forward Lautaro Martínez in the pecking order.
The 22-year-old was unable to make a mark as a substitute as the Copa América champions started their campaign in Doha with a shock 2-1 defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia. But in retrospect that could have been his "sliding doors" moment.
Lautaro twice put the ball in the net against the Saudis but both times he was denied by an offside flag.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni stuck with Lautaro for the second game – a 2-0 win against Mexico – but Álvarez was in the starting line-up for the decisive match against Poland and has not looked back since.
The forward, nicknamed "La Araña" ("The Spider"), sealed victory with a fine finish into the top corner midway through the second half in the 2-0 win against Poland.
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.
In the semis, the marauding forward won a penalty that Messi converted and scored twice in a 3-0 win against 2018 finalists Croatia.
Álvarez now has four goals in this tournament, placing him just one behind joint top scorers Messi and France's Kylian Mbappé.
"I'm happy on a personal level and for the group," Álvarez said after the Croatia win. "We are happy with the way we are playing. We deserve to be in the final. That's what we wanted."
It was a performance that left Scaloni purring.
"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," he said.
Álvarez's rise has been meteoric.
Premier League champions City snapped up the player on January 31 this year – transfer deadline day and the player's 22nd birthday – for just 17 million euros (US$18 million).
Instead of travelling to England he stayed at River Plate on loan until the end of the season.
City's director of football Txiki Begiristain hailed a player with huge potential, saying they had long been monitoring him.
"He is capable of operating in a number of attacking roles, and we firmly believe he's one of the best young attacking players in South America," he said. "I am so happy we have managed to bring him to Manchester City. I really believe we can provide him with the right conditions to fulfil his potential and become a top player."
Álvarez has plenty of competition at the Etihad – not least from the newly arrived Erling Haaland, who is already ripping up the record books.
City boss Pep Guardiola has picked the Argentine in his starting 11 just three times in the Premier League this season, though he has scored three times in those matches.
He will know he has to bide his time at the Etihad but when he returns he can press his case, possibly with a World Cup winners' medal to show for his efforts.
by John Weaver, AFP