Messi, 27, scored with his penalty kick yesterday as Argentina beat the Netherlands 4-2 in a shootout after a goalless game in Sao Paulo to advance to the World Cup final against Germany, which trounced Brazil 7-1 two days ago.
Messi has been a European champion three times with Spain’s Barcelona and was named FIFA’s World Player of the Year on a record four occasions. Adding the World Cup would place him alongside Maradona, who led Argentina to the 1986 title, in his country’s soccer lore.
Argentina might need Messi to deliver in the final after the team managed two goals in three games. Germany is the 8-11 favorite at U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes to become the first European team to win the World Cup in South America, with Messi’s squad rated an 11-10 chance.
“Messi gives us water in the desert, sometimes when the terrain is dry,” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said after his team eliminated Belgium in the quarterfinals. “He gives us air every time he gets the ball and it’s terribly valuable.”
The July 13 final at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro will be the third between the two countries. Maradona’s Argentina beat Germany 3-2 in 1986 for its second world title, and the Germans captained by Lothar Matthaeus avenged the defeat with a 1-0 win in 1990 for a third title.
Messi scored four of Argentina’s six goals in the three group games and set up Angel di Maria to get the winner as its round-of-16 game against Switzerland headed toward a penalty shootout.
On a rain-swept evening yesterday, Messi was limited to one shot on goal: a first-half free kick that Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen gathered up without much trouble.
While Argentina’s attack sputtered, its defense had a third straight shutout. The defenders came in for criticism for not having the same talent as the forward line from Belgium coach Marc Wilmots.
“We’ve kept the critics a little bit quiet,” Argentina defender Ezequiel Garay said. “We’ve shown we are not just a team of four or five players.”
At the end of regulation time, Messi sat on a cooler box as coaching staff patted him on the back and appeared to ask him how he was feeling. Other players stood around and discussed tactics.
In the penalty shootout, Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero made saves from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder.
“We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” Sabella said. “We’ve made it to the end.”
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