Analysis: Argentina fans begin to believe as Messi wills them into World Cup semis

LUSAIL, Qatar, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Lionel Messi had to dig deep after his Argentina side blew a two-goal lead before beating Netherlands on penalties to keep his World Cup dream alive, making one goal and scoring another before setting the tone for the emotional shoot-out triumph.

Long after the vanquished Dutch had left the field, the Argentinian players danced in front of their dancing, flag-waving fans, all ignited by the belief that maybe Messi's time has come at long last.

The mercurial 35-year-old did all he could in the 90 minutes to set up a semi-final against Croatia, who beat Brazil on penalties earlier on Friday, but a late collective collapse almost saw him make an embarrassing World Cup exit.

Leading 2-0, it all went wrong for Argentina as journeyman striker Wout Weghorst pulled a goal back for the Dutch, and then added a cheeky, brilliantly worked second on the stroke of full time to make it 2-2 and drag Messi and his team into deep, deep waters.

After seeing a late shot deflected wide in extra time, Messi looked up to the heavens in exasperation, as if wondering how much longer he would have to carry a team that has done so little to make life easy for him in the five World Cups he has played in.

Aside from a solitary final appearance in 2014 where they lost 1-0 to Germany, Argentina have never made it past the quarter-finals in any of his other tournaments, an almost criminal waste of one of the greatest talents the game has ever seen.

Having earlier watched Neymar tearfully exit the Qatar World Cup without taking a penalty for Brazil, Messi took no chances in the shoot-out and stepped up first, setting the tone for what was to come.

COMPELLING PLAYER

With Neymar out and Ronaldo benched by Portugal, only France's Kylian Mbappe can rival Messi as the tournament's most compelling player.

Every time he got the ball in the first half, a trio of Dutch defenders tried to form a wall around him in an effort to make him pass as soon as possible, but like every defensive tactic thrown at him, it only works for so long.

In the 35th minute he spotted a sliver of daylight and, having spent his time hitherto shuffling from side to side before giving the ball up, he finally got the chance to make an angled run at Nathan Ake as he weighed up his options.

The one he chose couldn't have been better, sliding the ball into the no-man's-land between the Dutch defence and the goalkeeper for Molina to run onto and poke home.

When Marcos Acuna was upended in the box in the second half the raucous crowd began baying for Messi to take the penalty and he didn't disappoint, audaciously firing it home.

Called upon in the shoot-out to repeat the feat, he did so even more coolly before thrusting his arms out in a rare display of emotion, turning to his team mates as if to say: "Now it's up to you."

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez rose to the challenge, saving the first two Dutch spot kicks to set the scene for Lautaro Martinez to finish the job with the fifth kick that sparked an ear-splitting roar from the swathes of blue and white clad fans.

There was joy, but the overriding emotion etched on Messi's face as his team celebrated with the fans was relief.

Croatia await - get past them and maybe the fans that haven't always loved him will put him up there with Diego Maradona, but nothing less than victory in the World Cup final will suffice.

Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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