Maradona is watching us from above and pushing us, says Messi

LUSAIL, Qatar, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Lionel Messi said Argentina have felt the presence of the late, great Diego Maradona throughout their World Cup campaign, including on Friday when they beat the Netherlands on penalties to reach the semi-finals.

Messi looked to have inspired Argentina into a last four meeting with Brazil's conquerors Croatia after he set up Nahuel Molina's opener before the break and added the second from the penalty spot.

But Argentina blew a two-goal lead deep into stoppage time before goalkeeper Emi Martinez kept his cool to save the first two Dutch penalties and Lautaro Martinez scored the decisive spot kick to send them through.

"Diego is watching us from heaven. He is pushing us and I really hope this stays the same until the end," Messi told reporters.

"When Lautaro scored and we qualified there was a huge joy. It was a weight off our chest," Messi added. "It was a very hard match. From the beginning it was a really tough match, we knew it would be this way.

"We leave that on the pitch with our people. We were really happy and we enjoyed that moment and that's what we can see here and also in Argentina because people are really happy, they are really excited and they are full of enthusiasm.

"The Dutch team made trouble for us with long balls and a lot of players in the area. In the end they drew and we suffered. But we were able to seal our passage to the semi-finals, which is what we wanted."

Argentina will take on Croatia for a place in the final, after the 2018 runners-up beat Brazil on penalties earlier.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said despite their second-half collapse, his team had no problem finding players willing to take penalties.

"Sometimes it's difficult in these situations, they shy away. This time we had too many volunteers. ... We only had to decide the order of our penalty takers," Scaloni said.

"It is true that we would have deserved to avoid the penalty shootout but still we fought until the end... This was a very strange second half. Everything was controlled by us but then we know what happens with football.

"It is a beautiful game, when you think that everything is over, you are surprised. This team had experience, pride, young players, and this is key, because we want to fight."

Defenders Marcos Acuna and Gonzalo Montiel will miss the match against Croatia after picking up their second yellow cards of the tournament on Friday.

Reporting by Hritika Sharma, editing by Pritha Sarkar

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