Luka Modric wasn’t hanging around. He walked swiftly to the sidelines, slung off the elastic around that had kept his hair in place and joined the Croatian bench. Nine minutes remained but this was not his night.

No, this was a night, a town and a time for the other No.10. Modric had his shot in Russia four years ago. Lionel Messi will march right back here to the cavernous, cacophonous confines of the Lusail Stadium on Sunday night and try to fill the last hole that remains in his wondrous journey.

On Tuesday night he turned a semi-final that shaped as a treacherous tussle of two styles, two narratives and two talismen into a one-man show. Well, one and a half. Messi has found a most perfect foil in the shape of Julian Alvarez and so the striker took a little corner of the stage as his own. But only because his captain carved it out for him and then swung the spotlight briefly his way too.

Argentina were 21 minutes away and two goals to the good. But they’d been in the exact same situation against the Netherlands, also here, four days ago and contrived to through it away. They almost threw it away against the Aussies too. This time Messi cut out the messing. He picked up the ball on the sideline, a couple of yards inside Croatian territory.

Lining him up was Josko Gvardiol, the most highly regarded defensive talent in the game and by most experts’ view the best defender at this World Cup. Ahead of the semi-final, Messi himself had identified Gvardiol as Croatia’s most imposing challenge. He would make a mockery of himself and Gvardiol then as he teased him down the wing, twisted back and then forward and left a man wearing a protective facemark look as though he was blindfolded. As a final insult he nutmegged Gvardiol as he cut it back for Alvarez to slam home the third.

What a treasure, at 35, to show another generation that you are still the one, still the 5’7” alpha. Alvarez, who had earlier scored a quite hilarious solo goal having won a penalty that Messi rifled home for Argentina’s opener, ran towards his captain and they were all wrapped in an Albiceleste embrace, the blue and white disciples gathered in their greatest concentration just in front of where Messi’s maziest of runs had ended. The 90-odd thousand inside here hit every decibel. It was deafening but had been plenty loud from early in the night too.

The Herald: Lionel Messi shakes hands with Luka ModricLionel Messi shakes hands with Luka Modric (Image: Getty)

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In such an atmosphere, it’s almost impressive to come across unmoved, even a little bored with it all. Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic can be a morose presence, especially atop the press conference stage. His team have fought their way through some incredible World Cup nights these past four years but you go downstairs to get Dalic’s take and quickly feel that questions are about as welcome as a fart in a space suit. There’s an exception though: when you ask him about his captain.

“Luka is a true gentleman in football boots,” Dalic said recently, reaching for poetry when at all other times he is pedestrian. “Love for football keeps finding its way back to him. It would be hard to find another 37-year-old playing at this level… but here we are.”

Here we were indeed: this hulking golden bowl down by the Doha bay was serving to square the circle of two remarkable international lives. It would ultimately come all the way around for Modric first, Messi’s masterclass seeing him pushed down to a mere footnote on his final World Cup night. What a journey it has been.

From the mud and gloves of St Jakob-Park in Basel in 2006 to this warm winter’s night in Lusail Stadium on the deserts edge. Sixteen years’ worth of sands have passed through between times. It was there in Switzerland where Messi, at 18, had scored his first international goal the same night that Modric had made his Croatian debut at 20. The penalty he pulverized past Dominik Livakovic after the half hour here would be his 96th international goal.

You look back at the footage and see two lithe little frames in 2006 scrapping for messy ball around the middle, giants of eras past watching on. Igor Tudor, now in his ninth season as a manager, was captaining Croatia, Walter Samuel, now a grizzled assistant to this Argentine team, up the other end. On the bench was Scaloni. Sixteen years…closer to 17 now. The clock feels like it has ticked around fast but probably not for them. Messi and Modric, boys then, men now, yet still bending time and space to their will. This night would belong to the younger maestro. It can go that way.

They came in here with fittingly smooth and rounded numbers, 170 career caps for Messi, 160 for Modric. Name a bad game among them? Not too bloody many. Yet one stood out — their last meeting in Russia four years ago when the roof fell in on Argentina. Four years later, and with a hell of a lot more on the line, the question for Lionels Scaloni and Messi was had enough changed? We’d find out before half-time.

Modric, of course, has never changed. An ageless elfin metronome of the middle, another whistle sounded through the deafening din of Argentine lungs and he got back to doing what he does. It felt like Croatia’s passing accuracy in the first 15 minutes was around 300% as Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic started sketching some pretty patterns right from the get-go. Messi was struggling to get a feel for things. He tried to sell a foul on the edge of the box but Daniele Orsato and Italian who all but demands the word suave precede his nationality, wasn’t buying.

The Herald: Lionel Messi celebratesLionel Messi celebrates (Image: Getty)

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Messi would have to do a bit more. He’d do plenty, don’t you worry. Before the heroics he served up some heart palpitations though, grabbing his hamstring and stretching it out to leave Argentines here and everywhere else sweating. What a tease.

When Livakovic hurtled into the advancing Alvarez, the captain would have his fourth spot-kick of Qatar. He rifled it in and we were off to the races. It would very soon prove to be a one-horse race.

Five minutes later Alvarez

latched on to a quick break and scored a solo goal that was Maradona 86 but on a Commodore 64, Croatian defenders Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa becoming 8-bit block men with brick feet as the ball ricocheted chaotically around but ever-closer to Croatia’s goal until Alvarez lashed it in.

It was 2-0 and Modric paced slower now back to the centre circle and fixed that elastic band again. This was all too much of a stretch though. Croatia of 2022 aren’t the team of 2018, devoid of a top-class finisher and a little more besides.

Now it’s all up to the other No.10. They embraced at the final whistle but nothing long or lingering. Sixteen years of crossed paths and magical nights like this. But it is Messi who is still on the path to finishing his journey in the most fitting way.