QATAR 2022

Croatia in the way of Argentina’s dream of a World Cup final spot

Croatia in the way of Argentina’s dream of a World Cup final spot
Lionel Messi and teammates celebrate after beating the Netherlands on penalties at Lusail Stadium on 9 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohamed Messara)

Lionel Messi’s dream of winning the World Cup is still alive but the resilient and courageous Croatia stand in his and Argentina’s way.

Argentina, led by superstar Lionel Messi, came into the World Cup as one of the favourites, but they face a big roadblock in the semifinal on Tuesday with 2018 runners-up Croatia, who proved too much for the other title contenders, Brazil.

The Croats stunned the tournament favourites in the quarterfinals with a vintage performance, after going a goal down in extra time but digging deep to bounce back and force a penalty shootout that they ended up winning.

While their elimination of the five-time world champions was largely unexpected given Brazil’s form, it was still a classic Croatian achievement.

With a never-say-die attitude, even when the odds were stacked heavily against them, disciplined Croatia are now deservedly in their second straight World Cup semifinal, and underestimating them would come at Argentina’s risk.

Lautaro Martinez (second from right) celebrates with his Argentina teammates after scoring the decisive penalty against the Netherlands. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohamed Messara)

Playmaker Luka Modric has been their driving force at the age of 37, a motivation for everyone else in the squad.

With no players suspended and no injury concerns following the return of defender Borna Sosa, Zlatko Dalic’s team is brimming with confidence and ready for more.

Super-sub Bruno Petkovic, who scored the equaliser against Brazil, could earn back his starting spot over Andrej Kramaric, while Mario Pasalic is expected to keep his in attack.

The Argentinians, looking for their first World Cup title since Diego Maradona’s 1986 team, have their work cut out.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Kylian Mbappé: a player as talented as he is enigmatic

Defenders Marcos Acuna, a starter, and Gonzalo Montiel are suspended because of bookings, limiting coach Lionel Scaloni’s options at the back.

Nicolas Tagliafico could come on to replace the former but it will be a less-attacking formation, with wingback Acuna having added more spark to the team.

Missing title

A question mark also hangs over veteran Angel Di Maria and his fitness, with the 34-year-old having largely been used as a substitute in the tournament despite recovering from injury.

Messi, at 35, playing what is likely to be his last World Cup, is desperate to land the one major title missing from his extensive collection, but he is also carrying the weight of the nation on his shoulders.

The comparison with Maradona for the title of the greatest Argentinian player of all time cannot be complete without a world title, which the late Maradona won almost single-handedly 36 years ago.

They almost did not make the semifinals after the Dutch came from 2-0 down to score twice late in the game and force extra time and penalties in a bad-tempered encounter.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

A repeat of a shootout, this time against mentally tough Croatia, must be a terrifying prospect for Scaloni’s men, even though keeper Emiliano Martinez rose to the occasion against the Netherlands, saving two spot kicks.

Croatia came through two shootouts and extra time to reach the 2018 final before losing to France and have gone to penalties in both their knockout-stage matches in Qatar to boast a 4-0 perfect record. Based on that statistic, another one against Argentina would most likely carry them into the final.

Happily tired

Croatia can be hugely proud of eliminating tournament favourites Brazil on penalties to reach the World Cup last four, but they are now in a state of limbo, Dalic said on Saturday.

Croatia, runners-up in 2018, stunned Brazil by coming back with a late equaliser in the second half of extra time on Friday before knocking them out in the penalty shootout after two Brazilians failed to convert their spot kicks.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Can Morocco actually go all the way to win the World Cup?

“When you kick out of the World Cup a team like Brazil which surely were the biggest favourites, then you must be both happy and proud,” Dalic told reporters after receiving applause from Croatian media representatives when he entered the news conference room.

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and teammates celebrate after winning the penalty shootout against Brazil. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Georgi Licovski)

“I am tired but happily tired and… one should enjoy this moment, but not too much as today we already have to start to prepare for Argentina.”

Croatia, with a population of just more than 3.5 million, have been punching above their weight on the international stage for years but Friday’s result was among the biggest upsets in the tournament given Brazil’s recent form and Dalic’s ageing squad that had also needed penalties to beat Japan in the last 16.

“At this moment, we are not anywhere, neither here nor there,” Dalic said. “If we crashed out of the group stage, we would have gotten over it, if we were eliminated in the quarterfinals we would have gotten over it too.

“But we have come to this stage and now what? Neither here nor there. That is why we have to do all we can to achieve something more because it would be a great shame if after all these worries, efforts and the sacrifices we have made we don’t go a step further.”

The Croats had also required two penalty shootouts and an extra-time win to reach the final in 2018 before losing to France, so fatigue at a tournament is not new to them.

“Fatigue will not be an issue at all, and we will not mention it at all,” Dalic said. “They (Argentina) are also very motivated, they are awaiting the title and they are happy because Brazil fell out and they celebrate it.”

Nikola Vlasic (centre) celebrates after Croatia’s quarterfinal victory over Brazil. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Friedemann Vogel)

The coach had heaped praise on Brazil before their quarterfinal, calling them “terrifying”, and he was equally respectful of their Messi-led semifinal opponents.

Messi has scored four goals so far as he looks for his first World Cup trophy in his fifth attempt.

“I think that a very, very tough job is awaiting us now,” Dalic said. “They will have huge support now in the semifinals as Messi is still their main player and someone they can rely on, he plays splendidly.

“I really cannot yet review Argentina just yet. All will depend on us. If we do not play right, if we are not serious and motivated, it will be in vain even if they perform poorly. I think at this time they are excellent as they reached the semifinals.” Reuters/DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.