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Argentina 3-0 Croatia: Lionel Messi leads Argentina to World Cup final

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• Lionel Messi put in an inspired performance as Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 in the World Cup
  • Argentina stormed into  World Cup final after easily seeing off Croatia in Lusail

Josko Gvardiol is, according to many, the best defender at this World Cup. So here’s what happened after 69 minutes when he came up against Lionel Messi.

Gvardiol was beaten. Not once, not twice, but three times in the same mesmerising run along the left flank. Gvardiol is young, 15 years Messi’s junior. Yet in that moment, the gap between the men seemed reverse.

It was as if Messi was the younger man, full of confidence, arrogance and vim, as if Gvardiol was the old warhorse, led into battle one last time, but unable to keep up with his rival.

Messi celebrates with team-mates after guiding them to the World Cup final in Lusail

• Messi celebrates with team-mates after guiding them to the World Cup final in Lusail

When the move was over – and the ball in the net – he carried on jogging across his own six yard box, helpless resignation in every step. One could almost hear the internal monologue. ‘What was I supposed to do? You all saw him. What could I possibly have done?’

He did quite a lot, as it was. The only reason he got beaten by Messi three times was that he recovered to catch him up twice. First time, Messi simply outpaced his man, ball stuck to his foot the way a magician might use Velcro.

Gvardiol came back at him, kept pace, but Messi did him again, getting the ball nearer the by-line. Again, Gvardiol made it back into position, at which point Messi turned, retraced his steps, turned back, flipped the switched on his tormented opponent and cut the ball back for Julian Alvarez at the near post. It was a tap-in. The assist of the tournament? That doesn’t do it justice.

After early Croatia pressure, Julian Alvarez won a penalty in the first half after being fouled

Messi kept his cool to power a finish high into the top corner past Dominik Livakovic

The forward's goal made him Argentina's top ever goal scorer at the World Cup finals

• The forward’s goal made him Argentina’s top ever goal scorer at the World Cup finals 

MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS

Argentina (4-4-2): E Martinez 6.5; Molina 7, Romero 7.5, Otamendi 6, Tagliafico 6.5; E Fernandez 6, De Paul 5.5 (Palaciosat 74 6), Paredes 5.5 (Li Martínez 62 6), Mac Allister 6.5 (Correa 86); Messi 8.5, Alvarez 8 (Dybala 74 6)

Manager: L Scaloni 7

Croatia (4-3-3): Livakovic 5.5; Juranovic 5, Lovren 4, Gvardiol 5.5, Sosa 4 (Orsic 45 6); Brozovic 6 (Petkovic 50), Modric 6 (Majer 81), Kovacic 5.5; Pasalic 5 Vlasic 5.5 45), Kramaric 6.5 (Livaja 72 5.5), Perisic 5.5

Manager: Z Dalic 6

Referee: Daniele Orsato 6

An assist can be the simplest square pass, just as this was a simple cut back. What Messi did was more than assist. It was a creation. It was the Big Bang of assists.

To think he had never scored a goal in a World Cup knockout game until coming to Qatar. Now he has one in a last 16 match, a quarter-final and a semi-final. He got Argentina’s first here, from the penalty spot, breaking Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 11 World Cup goals for Argentina.

What a tournament Messi is having now: five goals and four assists his part in Argentina’s 12 goals. To think this started with defeat to Saudi Arabia. It ends on Sunday back here in Lusail.

Will Messi emulate Diego Maradona, in Argentina’s sixth World Cup final – only Germany have made it to more. France may yet have a say but, make no mistake, this is Messi’s 1986. If he is going to own a World Cup, it will be this one.

Croatia don’t score first in World Cup knock-out matches. Even so, by half-time, they were left with a mountainous climb, even by their standards Trailing Argentina by two goals, they looked shell-shocked, and no wonder.

Until Argentina went ahead, Croatia had looked marginally the superior side. They had the bulk of possession and Luka Modric was having more impact on the game than his talismanic counterpart, Lionel Messi.

Nahuel Molina's run led to Alvarez prodding home Argentina's second goal before the break

• Nahuel Molina’s run led to Alvarez prodding home Argentina’s second goal before the break

Messi celebrates Argentina's second goal with Alvarez as their side took control of the game

• Messi celebrates Argentina’s second goal with Alvarez as their side took control of the game

Despite boasting more possession, Croatia struggled after falling behind - from Sofascore

Despite boasting more possession, Croatia struggled after falling behind – from Sofascore

Indeed, there was a worry Messi might be injured. He appeared to be gingerly feeling a hamstring. He was walking a lot – although that is as much his trademark these days. He’s the greatest walking footballer in the world. It sent a shiver of panic around the Lusail Stadium that he might be stricken. Messi’s World Cup destiny is one of the competition’s narratives. This may well be his tournament despite coach Lionel Scaloni’s belief he could skip around the aging process like it was another hapless defender.

So it was a relief after a brief period of uncertainty, the ball entered his vicinity and Messi sprinted after it. No problems there it seemed; or maybe he had simply had enough of watching his team, and the game, drift. Messi’s re-engagement coincided, as it so often does, with Argentina coming to life, too.

In the 25th minute, Julian Alvarez had the first real chance of the game. A shot from outside the area which Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic scrambled across to save. At the other end, Ivan Perisic tried a chip which almost caught out goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. And that was where Croatia’s problems begun,

The forward celebrates his goal that effectively ended Croatia's hopes of a comeback

The forward celebrates his goal that effectively ended Croatia’s hopes of a comeback

Alvarez and Messi put on a deadly display during the game that could be crucial in the final

They thought they should have had a corner, because Perisic’s clip took a deflection but Daniele Orsato, the Italian referee, gave a goal-kick. From that came the move that ended in the first goal.

A pass by Enzo Fernandez put Alvarez clear and he was taken out by Livakovic as he tried to take the ball past him. Some felt it harsh because, frankly, what was the goalkeeper supposed to do? Jump out of the way? Yet had Alvarez been able to meet the ball on the other side he probably would have scored – but he couldn’t because he had been felled by Livakovic.

At first, it wasn’t clear that Orsato hadn’t tried to play advantage – if so, that would have been embarrassing. In the end, justice was done. He gave the penalty, booked Livakovic for the foul and Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic for arguing about it.

No argument about Messi’s penalty, though. It was the one Harry Kane attempted, without success, against France. Hard and high, but the right side of the crossbar, leaving Livakovic no chance. From their next attack of meaning, Argentina went further ahead.

Luka Modric departs the field as a substitute to mark the end of his World Cup dreams
The veteran midfielder couldn't influence the game like he did against Brazil in previous round
The 37-year-old is sportingly greeted by Messi at the final whistle of the semi-final match

What a goal this was. Manchester City have just one player remaining at this tournament – Tottenham have three, even West Ham have two – and he doesn’t get in their team, but what a World Cup Alvarez is having.

When Marcelo Brozovic’s ball was cut out, it was Messi who put Alvarez away, and was taken out in the process. Orsato smartly played advantage, allowing Alvarez to run straight down the middle at the opposition, much as Michael Owen had against Argentina in 1998.

He got a couple of breaks, a first tackle that rebounded off him and only propelled the ball farther forward, and then a second completely missed by a panicked Borna Sosa. It left Alvarez running directly at Livakovic and he leathered the ball past the goalkeeper from close range.

Argentina were almost done, and would have been had a near post header from Nicolas Tagliafico not been superbly saved by Livakovic two minutes before half-time. (MailOnline Sport)

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Ajagba outboxes Shaw for unanimous decision win

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Efe Ajagba

Nigerian boxer, Efe Ajagba, has claimed a win against formerly unbeaten Stephan Show in the early hours of Sunday morning faring better than the last time he fought a boxer-puncher.

Two fights after his one-sided, unanimous-decision defeat to Frank Sanchez, Ajagba won the contest against previously undefeated Shaw by unanimous decision.

Nigeria’s Ajagba was the aggressor for almost all 10 rounds, whereas Shaw seemed reluctant to engage with the hard-hitting heavyweight contender in a main event fight at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York.

Judges Eric Marlinski, John McKaie and Don Trella scored their uneventful encounter identically, 96-94 for Ajagba.

Nigeria’s Ajagba (17-1, 13 KOs), a 2016 Olympian, won a second straight fight since Sanchez beat him. Cuba’s Sanchez (21-0, 14 KOs) dropped Ajagba in the seventh round and comfortably out-pointed him on all three scorecards in a 10-rounder that was part of the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder undercard in October 2021 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Ajagba underwent surgery on both elbows following his loss to Sanchez. Healthier and more confident, he promised he would box better against Shaw than he did versus Sanchez.

St. Louis’ Shaw, meanwhile, was unable to capitalise on the biggest opportunity of his nine-year professional career.

Without hesitation, Shaw (18-1, 13 KOs, 1 NC) took this fight against Ajagba on less than one month’s notice. Ajagba was supposed to fight Colombian contender Oscar Rivas (28-1, 19 KOs), but Rivas suffered a detached retina while training last month.

Shaw was already training to fight Italian prospect Guido Vianello (10-1-1, 9 KOs), who was stopped due to a cut by Jonnie Rice (16-6-1, 11 KOs) in the seventh round of the co-main event.

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Messi scores in first game after World Cup as PSG win

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PSG's Lionel Messi, left, celebrates with teammate Neymar after scoring their side's second goal during the French League One soccer match against Angers at the Parc des Princes in Paris Wednesday. (AP)
Lionel Messi scored in his first game for Paris St-Germain since winning the World Cup with Argentina as the Ligue 1 leaders won at home against Angers.

Messi, 35, had an extended break after netting seven times during the World Cup, which Argentina won by beating France on penalties in the final.

Hugo Ekitike hit an early opener before Messi doubled PSG’s advantage.

He finished off from Nordi Mukiele’s pass with the goal given following a video assistant referee check.

Neymar thought he has added a third goal late on but it was ruled out for offside.

PSG are six points clear at the top of Ligue 1 after second-placed Lens could only draw 2-2 at Strasbourg.

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Brazilian football legend Pele is dead

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Brazilian football icon Pele, widely regarded as the greatest player of all time and a three-time World Cup winner who masterminded the “beautiful game,” has died at the age of 82, his family said Thursday.

“Everything we are is thanks to you. We love you infinitely. Rest in peace,” daughter Kely Nascimento wrote on Instagram.

Named athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999, Pele is the only footballer in history to win three World Cups — 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Nicknamed “O Rei” (The King), he scored more than 1,000 goals in one of the most storied careers in sport, before retiring in 1977.

He had been in increasingly fragile health, battling kidney problems and colon cancer — undergoing surgery for the latter in September 2021, followed by chemotherapy.

– ‘Samba football’ –

Born October 23, 1940, in the southeastern city of Tres Coracoes, Edson Arantes do Nascimento — Pele’s real name — grew up selling peanuts on the street to help his impoverished family get by.

His parents named him for famed American inventor Thomas Edison.

But he was soon given the nickname Pele, for his mispronunciation of Bile, the name of a goalkeeper at Vasco de Sao Lourenco, where his footballer father once played.

Pele dazzled from the age of 15, when he started playing professionally with Santos. He led the club to a flurry of titles, including back-to-back Intercontinental Cups, against Benfica in 1962 and AC Milan in 1963.

Known for his genius with the ball, he epitomized the sublime style of play called “samba football” in Brazil, where he was declared a “national treasure.”

He scored an all-time record 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches for Santos (1956-74), the Brazilian national team, and the New York Cosmos (1975-77).

But beyond his records, he will be remembered for revolutionizing the sport, his ever-present number 10 on his back.

The first global football star, he played a lead role in the game’s transformation into a sporting and commercial powerhouse, tapping his preternatural athleticism despite his relatively small size — 1.70 meters (just under five-foot-seven).

He also played with heart, visible in the iconic black-and-white footage of the 17-year-old phenom bursting into tears after helping Brazil to its first World Cup title, in 1958.

Eight years earlier, seeing his father cry when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final at home to Uruguay, he had promised to bring the trophy home one day.

– Sports royalty –

Pele reached the pinnacle of his greatness at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, the first broadcast in color, where he starred on what many consider the greatest team of all time, with talents such as Rivellino, Tostao and Jairzinho.

He was often welcomed like royalty when traveling abroad with Santos or the national team. Legend has it in 1969 his arrival in Nigeria was the occasion for a 48-hour truce in the bloody Biafra war.

Pele declined offers to play in Europe, but signed for a brief, lucrative swan song with the Cosmos at the end of his career, bringing his star power to the land of “soccer.”

His reign extended beyond the pitch, with gigs as a movie star, singer and later sports minister (1995-1998) — one of the first black cabinet members in Brazil.

But he faced criticism at times in Brazil for remaining quiet on social issues and racism, and for what some saw as his haughty, vain personality.

Unlike Argentine rebel Diego Maradona, his rival for the title of greatest of all time, Pele was seen as close to those in power — including Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime.

– Final match –

Pele’s public appearances had grown increasingly rare, and he frequently used a walker or wheelchair.

He was hospitalized several times for urinary infections, then again in 2021 and 2022 for the colon cancer that marked the beginning of the end.

But he met his health problems with trademark humor.

“I will face this match with a smile on my face,” he posted on Instagram in September 2021, after surgery to remove his colon tumor.

He was deeply moved when Maradona, his longtime friend and rival, died of a heart attack in 2020 at age 60.

“The world has lost a legend,” he wrote.

“One day, I hope, we will play soccer together in the sky.”

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