Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal between Argentina and Lionel Messi and Croatia pits South American flare against the cunning of Luka Modric and a great will to win.
The first African team to ever make it to the World Cup final four will face reigning champions France in the second semifinal on Wednesday. Morocco is known for taking down giants.
But first, all eyes will be on the enormous Lusail Stadium, where Messi, at 35, will try to lead Argentina into the final for the second time in eight years against the losers of the 2018 final.
Messi, who lost to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final, is eager to emulate another Argentine hero, the late Diego Maradona, and cap off an exceptional career by eventually winning the World Cup.
The forward played a key role in Friday’s dramatic quarterfinal victory over the Netherlands, which saw a tournament record 18 yellow cards issued and players from both teams engage in a scuffle as the referee battled to regain control.
After winning the penalty shootout, Argentina players appeared to insult their upset Dutch opponents before running off to celebrate.
Even Messi, who is typically polite, got caught up in the animosity and yelled insults at Dutch players as he was being interviewed after the game.
In a pre-game press conference on Monday, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni defended his players’ actions and insisted they had nothing to apologize for.
“The game the other day was played in the right way by both teams. That is football,” said the 44-year-old Argentina coach.
“I don’t buy this idea that we don’t know how to win. The game was played in the right way.”
CROATIA SURPRISING AGAIN
Croatia hasn’t won a knockout game in regular time at a major tournament since they finished third at the 1998 World Cup, when they defeated pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Japan in penalty shootouts to advance.
Four years ago, a nation of 3.9 million people shocked the football world by making it to the final, where France shattered their hopes with a 4-2 victory.
Croatia has once again beaten the odds to stand on the verge of a second straight final, with Real Madrid playmaker Modric still serving as the team’s captain at the age of 37.
The nation should look back on Tuesday’s game as the “best game,” according to coach Zlatko Dalic.
Being among the top four national teams at back-to-back World Cups is an exceptional accomplishment for Croatia, according to Dalic.
“At back-to-back World Cups to be among the four best national teams, that’s an extraordinary success for Croatia,” said Dalic.
“However, we want more,” he added. “I’m optimistic and have full confidence in my players. They’ve shown their great quality and strength of character, and deserve to be in the final.”
Despite the marathon games in the last two rounds, Dalic claimed that lack of energy in Qatar would not be a problem.
“We are still strong, with energy and enthusiasm, without a doubt,” he said. “We are going to give it our all, just as we have done in previous games.
“Against Argentina we will do the same, we will give our all. We don’t have any injury problems. They don’t feel tired.”
CAUGHT THE IMAGINATION
On Wednesday, France is the overwhelming favorite to defeat Morocco and advance toward retaining their crown.
However, the African team’s historic journey to the semifinals has captured the attention of an entire continent, and they have a huge following in Qatar.
Since France was Morocco’s former colonial power and many of individuals with Moroccan ancestry reside and work there, the game will have extra spice.
Due to the overwhelming demand, Royal Air Maroc has said it will schedule 30 more round-trip flights to transport ecstatic supporters to the Gulf state.
Raphael Varane, a defender for France, insisted that the World Cup champions will not get complacent.
“We know Morocco are not here by chance,” he said. “It is up to us experienced players to make sure everyone is prepared for another battle.”
Ronaldo, a World Cup champion himself from Brazil, predicted that France would go on to win consecutive world championships.
At a media roundtable that included AFP, Ronaldo, who scored both goals as his nation defeated Germany to win the 2002 World Cup, said, “France are backing up their standing as favorites round after match, and I still consider them as the big favorites.”
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