Lionel Messi's masterful approach leads Argentina into World Cup semifinal vs. Croatia

Argentina's Lionel Messi has played so well at this men's World Cup. He has been the best version of his late-career self, joyous and sublime, taking only what the game has given him, but taking all of it.

35-year-old superstar has been the best version of his late-career self

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team's second goal in their quarter-final win over the Netherlands. (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

This men's World Cup, the soccer itself, has bordered on unbelievable. All four quarter-finals were thrilling and desperate, two decided by penalties, two by a single goal. Given a thousand moments of drama and grace, one still stands out. It was a pass.

Louis van Gaal, the head coach for the Netherlands, 71 years old and plain spoken, had been pressed the day before his team faced Argentina — more specifically, before his team faced Lionel Messi — on his plans to shut down one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

"We're not going to reveal that to you," Van Gaal told the unfortunate reporter who'd asked. "I'm not going to reveal our tactics to you, which would be pretty stupid."

Van Gaal then had a change of heart. "It's not that difficult to come up with an answer," he said. "You could have come up with an answer yourself. You may want to block and close the passing lanes."

Essentially, Van Gaal conceded that his defence could not stop Messi. The only hope was to prevent him from getting the ball in the first place.

Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal's game plan was unable to thwart Messi's influence in his team's quarter-final loss. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

It was fascinating to watch Van Gaal's scheme unfold over the first third of the match. Rather than mark Messi closely, a Dutch player took up position in the space between him and each of his teammates. Messi looked like the sun on the Argentine flag, encircled by a half-dozen Dutch in bright orange, impersonating its rays.

Playing in what he has said will be his last World Cup, the 35-year-old rarely touched the ball. When he did, he was compelled to get rid of it quickly. His one early shot, in the 22nd minute, came from well outside the box and flew high and wide. The Dutch were never going to give him his moment.

Then: In the 35th minute, Nahuel Molina delivered a pass to Messi in the Dutch half, not far from the centre circle. It was too short to intercept. Messi turned and began one of his signature runs, making feints that were so delicate and precise, his markers seemed to be tripped by invisible men.

With three flailing Dutch defenders in front of him, Messi chose not to shoot when he approached the box. Not this time. He surprised everyone by passing instead — a beautiful, sharp-angled, no-look pass to Molina, sprinting ahead of Messi, to his right.

Seeing that ball arrive on Molina's charging feet was like watching the soccer equivalent of a master thief cracking an otherwise unbreakable safe.

Molina was set free. He fought off some belated Dutch pressure to slide a soft but accurate shot inside the post. Lusail Stadium shook.

Messi is surrounded by Netherlands defenders before setting up teammate Nahuel Molina (out of frame) for Argentina's first goal on Friday. (AFP via Getty Images)

The crowd roared again when Messi converted an Argentine penalty in the 73rd minute. He hadn't earned it, but the Dutch couldn't stop him from taking it, and he took it perfectly.

A late press by the Netherlands, including an almost sinister set piece in the final seconds of regulation, leveled the game, sending it into extra time. Penalties followed. Had the Argentines lost the shootout, Messi's pass risked being remembered only for its gorgeous futility.

Virgil van Dijk missed his opener. Then Messi, as though wanting to rescue the memory of his assist along with his team's fortunes, stepped up to take his country's first shot.

Hours earlier, Croatia had shocked the soccer world by beating Brazil in their own shootout.

Neymar, one of Messi's few semi-rivals, had scored a wonder goal in extra time to break a scoreless deadlock. He must have thought he'd won the game.

That was before the Croatians scored on a deflection in the 117th minute and went on to triumph on penalties, their national pastime. Neymar, shooting fifth and for glory, didn't even get the chance. Instead, he found himself on his knees on the grass, in floods of tears. 

Messi, knowing better the importance of tone-setting, scored his opening penalty by passing the ball again, this time into the empty half of the net. Argentina was on its way.

At Van Gaal's pre-match press conference, he had been asked another question, one he had liked better than the query about his soon-to-be-foiled plans.

Messi scores in the shootout of the eventual Argentine win. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Van Gaal, who survived prostate cancer this year, was asked how time has changed him. He has remained his dry and ornery self — Messi got in his face after, citing claims of disrespect — but he had seemed more reflective than usual in Qatar.

"I think that I have more patience now than I used to have," Van Gaal said. "The more experience you have, the older you get, the better and the smoother things go, of course... Patience is a wonderful thing. We say that in Dutch. And I think that I am a more patient man than I used to be."

Unfortunately for Van Gaal, time has done the same favour for Lionel Messi. He has played so well here. He has been the best version of his late-career self, joyous and sublime, taking only what the game has given him, but taking all of it.

On a night when the plan was for him never to receive a pass, he became the passer instead, and now on Tuesday he will lead his team in a World Cup semifinal, against Croatia rather than stymied Brazil.


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now