Messi’s dream alive as Argentina reach semis on penalties, Croatia break Brazil hearts

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Argentina’s Lionel Messi (left) and Leandro Paredes celebrate their quarter-final victory. CREDIT: AP

Lusail, Qatar: Lionel Messi’s quest to win the World Cup moves into the semi-finals after Argentina beat the Netherlands 4-3 in a penalty shootout Friday.

Messi converted his penalty in the shootout and Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saved two attempts. Lautaro Martinez scored the clinching penalty.

The match finished 2-2 after extra time, with Messi scoring one goal and setting up another. The Netherlands equalised in the 11th minute of second-half stoppage time.

Argentina will play Croatia in the semi-finals on Tuesday after the 2018 runner-up beat Brazil earlier.

It is only the second time Argentina have reached the last four since 1990. In 2014, Messi was part of the team that lost to Germany in the final. He looks in the mood to get there again in a tournament that he is turning into his own personal highlight reel.

When Lautaro Martinez’s penalty hit the net, Messi didn’t head to the striker — unlike the rest of the team — but sprinted to his goalkeeper and jumped into his arms.

Messi had produced a mesmerising piece of skill to set up the opening goal for Nahuel Molina in the 35th minute and then converted a penalty in the 73rd to make it 2-0 with his fourth goal of this year’s World Cup.

It took him to 10 goals in the World Cup, tied with Gabriel Batistuta for the most for Argentina, and 94 goals in total in his 169 international games.

The game was taken to extra time after a goal deep in second-half stoppage time by Wout Weghorst, who entered as a substitute in the 78th and made it 2-1 five minutes later.

It was the latest second-half goal scored in a knockout stage game at a World Cup and was cleverly worked, with Teun Koopmeiners feinting to curl a free kick into the area only to play it short and deceive the Argentine defence. Weghorst took a touch, held off his marker and slotted home a finish on the stretch.

The game featured 17 yellow cards, including one for Messi, who had blood coming from his upper lip at one stage.

Enzo Fernandes hit the post near the end of extra time, and was the only Argentina player to fail to score in the shootout.

The loss ended 71-year-old Louis van Gaal’s third stint in charge of the Netherlands.

Earlier on, Croatia battled past tournament favourites Brazil 4-2 on penalties to reach the semi-finals following a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes.

The 2018 runners-up came through their second consecutive shootout after beating Japan also on penalties in the last 16.

Brazil’s Neymar, left, and Croatia’s Luka Modric vie for the ball. CREDIT:AP

In an evening filled with tension and drama, Brazil superstar Neymar thought he had won the game when he rifled in an extra-time goal for the five-time world champions.

Croatia substitute Bruno Petkovic’s left-footed equaliser three minutes from the end of extra time drew his side level, breaking Brazilian hearts in Doha’s Education City Stadium.

The Croats kept their composure from the penalty spot as Brazil’s Marquinhos and Rodrygo failed to convert.

Croatia initially refused to be intimidated by their more illustrious opponents and in the first half successfully stifled most Brazil moves early.

Apart from a weak Vinicius jnr shot, Brazil had little else to offer in terms of attack with Neymar off the pace and shut out by a hard-working backline.

Luka Modric celebrates

It was Croatia who looked sharper, more skilled in their passing game and with a precise game plan, and by the end of the first half they had the upper hand in terms of possession.

A Neymar free kick just before the break did not trouble Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic as the Brazilians, whose last win over a European opponent in the knockout phase came in their 2002 final victory over Germany, struggled to find any space.

Brazil’s Neymar, center, and his team mates react after the penalty shootout. CREDIT:AP

Brazil’s Neymar, center, and his team mates react after the penalty shootout.
Brazil’s Neymar, center, and his team mates react after the penalty shootout.CREDIT:AP

They did, however, almost take the lead three minutes after the restart when Josko Gvardiol tried to clear the ball but almost turned it into his own goal.

Seconds later, claims for a handball by defender Josip Juranovic were shot down following a VAR review before Neymar was sent through by Richarlison in the 55th minute only to have his close-range effort blocked by Livakovic.

The Brazilians, who have now lost four of their last five World Cup quarter-finals, all to European opposition, enjoyed a much better start to the second half and came close again in the 66th when Lucas Paqueta was denied by Livakovic.

The Croatia keeper was kept busy and stopped Neymar in the 76th and by that time had more saves in the match (seven) than his Brazil counterpart, Alisson, had in the entire tournament (five).

Croatia players react at the end of the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match. CREDIT:AP

Livakovic parried another Paqueta shot five minutes later as the few hundred Brazil fans in the stands grew louder and more impatient and the game trickled over to extra time with Brazil coach Tite visibly nervous.

In stoppage time of the first period, Neymar, largely lacklustre until then, launched an attack outside the box, played two consecutive one-twos to bamboozle the tired Croatian defence and then rounded the keeper to equal Brazil great Pele’s record of 77 international goals.

But the Croats refused to surrender with Petkovic’s equaliser forcing penalties and coming out on top in the shootout with Livakovic saving Rodrygo’s spot kick and Marquinos hitting the post.

AP, Reuters

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