Lionel Messi will have the chance to crown his remarkable career by winning the World Cup after he inspired Argentina to a comfortable 3-0 win against Croatia in the semi-final on Tuesday.
Messi scored a penalty before Julián Álvarez doubled the lead shortly before half-time. The little genius reserved the best for last when he twisted and turned away from his Croatian marker to set up Alvarez for his second goal.
For Croatia, it proved one match too many as their uncharacteristically poor defending put paid to any hopes they had of returning to the final for the second successive World Cup.
Luka Modrić, still Croatia's creative spark at the age of 37, was powerless to stop the defeat.
Either holders France or surprise package Morocco, who face each other in Wednesday's second semi-final, stand in the way of 35-year-old Messi's last chance to win football's biggest prize after the bitter disappointment of defeat to Germany in the 2014 final.
For Argentina, a campaign in Qatar that began with a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening game has led to the final again.
Tuesday's match at Lusail Stadium was a tight affair for half an hour before a simple lofted pass from Enzo Fernández was latched onto by Álvarez, who touched the ball past advancing Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković, who collided with the striker.
The referee gave a penalty, which Messi stroked past Livaković in the 34th minute – the goalkeeper was unable to recreate his spot-kick heroics from earlier in the tournament.
Álvarez doubled Argentina's lead five minutes later when he latched onto Messi's header just inside the Croatian half and, assisted by fortunate bounces off Josip Juranović and Borna Sosa, then poked the ball past Livaković.
Messi crowned a dominant performance by befuddling 20-year-old Croatia defender Joško Gvardiol with a sublime dribble before pulling the ball back for Álvarez to score his second in the 69th minute.
"Argentina are, once again, in the World Cup final. Enjoy it!" Messi said. "We've been through tough situations, other very good ones. Today we're experiencing something spectacular."
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić bemoaned his team's lack of a genuine goalscorer.
"We have prepared everything but we missed a real, genuine attacker," he said. "We lost the match. I have nothing to complain about regarding the boys. They gave their best during this whole tournament.... It is a deserved defeat."
Caught the imagination
Attention now turns to Wednesday, when France are strong favourites to beat Morocco and take a step closer to defending their title.
The odds are stacked against Morocco but the African team's history-making run has caught the imagination of a continent and they have been backed by legions of fans in Qatar.
The game will have added spice – France was Morocco's colonial power and hundreds of thousands of people with Moroccan roots live and work in the country.
France captain Hugo Lloris said the champions were guarding against complacency and were braced for a pro-Morocco crowd.
"We can only have respect and admiration for what they have done, but nothing happens by chance at this level," he said. "They will be formidable opponents, and on top of that there will be a hostile atmosphere in the stadium."
France coach Didier Deschamps said: "There is a popular fervour behind them. It will be very noisy and my players have been warned about that. They know what to expect."
Morocco's coach, Walid Regragui, said his side, also the first Arab side to reach the last four of a World Cup, were desperate to progress.
"If you get to the semi-finals and you are not hungry then there is a problem," he said. "The best team in the tournament, Brazil, is already out. We are an ambitious team and we are hungry but I don't know if that will be enough."
Away from Qatar, the German Football Association announced a think tank of former internationals including Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Matthias Sammer to help restore the nation's fortunes after another dismal World Cup.
by John Weaver, AFP