The World Cup dream of Lionel Messi and Argentina is still alive, but in Tuesday’s semifinal in Doha, an unstoppable Croatian team led by the enduring talent of Luka Modric stands in their way.
Argentina has bounced back from the disappointment of losing their opening match in Qatar to Saudi Arabia and advanced to the semifinals with an arduous triumph over the Netherlands on penalties on Friday.
After 83 minutes, they were cruising with a 2-0 lead thanks to a goal from Messi and a penalty, but they let up two goals late and had to make it through extra time before winning 4-3 in a shootout.
Messi and his colleagues are beginning to think that this really could be their year thanks to a sizable traveling support group that has brought the fervor, loudness, and color of Argentina’s home stadiums to this World Cup.
“We have balls, passion, heart and we are doing this for 45 million people,” said goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, and Argentina’s optimism now has only increased after seeing great rivals Brazil go out in the last round.
Eight years after Argentina lost to Germany in the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, Messi, who is now 35, has been hailed as having one more chance to win the tournament.
He has already scored his first two goals in any World Cup knockout round, one against Australia in the round of 16, and the other a penalty against the Dutch. He is determined to take advantage of the opportunity.
For the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, who is arguably the best club player in history, winning the World Cup would cap off an incredible career.
He helped Argentina win the Copa America last year after years of failure at the international level, but he is aware that Croatia is the most tenacious and resilient opponent.
Any relief at not having to play Brazil in the semifinals will be muted by the thought of going up against a Croatian team that eliminated the favorites on penalties and never knows when they are defeated.
“They are a great team who matched up to Brazil and at times were much better,” admitted Messi.
“They have good players across the whole midfield and they have been working with the same coach since the last World Cup, so they all know each other very well.”
SAFER THAN MONEY IN THE BANK’
In order to defend against the Netherlands, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni changed to a five-man defense and added Lisandro Martinez to his starting lineup.
With Modric still in charge of games at the age of 37 and Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic rounding up a powerful midfield trio, the midfield is crucial against Croatia.
Croatia advanced to the semifinals by defeating Brazil and Japan on penalties four years after they reached the final.
The nation of only four million people has nothing to lose as they aim for a place in the final against France or Morocco. They have gone to extra time in eight of their last nine big tournament knockout matches.
In Modric, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner who shone as Croatia defeated Argentina 3-0 in the group stage four years ago, they have a maestro.
“I think Mateo, Luka and Marcelo are the best midfield in history. When you pass them the ball, it is safer than having your money in the bank,” said Josip Juranovic, another standout at right-back.
“We are so lucky to have them in the team.”
In a friendly match between the two nations in 2006, Modric earned his international debut for Croatia at the age of 20.
Croatia won that game 3-2 despite Messi’s goal. The team led by Zlatko Dalic won’t be intimidated by Argentina or their number 10 when the teams clash one more at Lusail Stadium.
Asked about how they would handle Messi, Croatia forward Bruno Petkovic responded: “We don’t have a specific plan, at least not yet, for stopping Messi and usually we don’t concentrate on one player, but Argentina is not only Messi.”
However, defenders Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna will not play for Argentina because they are both suspended.
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