THERE was talk about suffering, about resilience and about the emotions both Argentina and Croatia attach with football; a prelude for the battle in store. They’ve given every ounce of their being to be here in Qatar, among the final four teams at the World Cup. Now, the fight is about being among the last two standing; to have the chance of lifting the biggest prize in world football once this all comes to a close.
But for now, the fixation is on the game at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday; the side that prevails to return to the same venue for the tournament’s climax in five days’ time.
“We want more,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic at the news conference on the eve of the game, his side aiming to go one better than four years ago in Russia where they were beaten finalists. Argentina are looking to go one step further than 2014, when they ended on the losing side in the final in Brazil.
“We go into it with the same approach as our previous matches,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni. “This is a crucial game.”
It’s a game that will end the World Cup ambitions of one of the two legends of the modern game: the 35-year-old Lionel Messi, looking to win the title for the first time in his storied career and deliver a third World Cup for Argentina, and the 37-year-old Luka Modric, seeking a first international title for Croatia in his last tournament with the national side.
“Modric has worked in all areas of the pitch [during the tournament],” noted Alberto Zaccheroni, who counts Italian giants AC Milan and Juventus among the teams he’s managed and took Japan to the World Cup in 2014.
“Croatia have come this far thanks to the great quality of their midfield although that’s not everything because they also have resistance and stamina,” added the 69-year-old during the press conference of FIFA’s Technical Study Group on Monday afternoon.
Croatian stamina has once again shined brightly at the World Cup. Both of their knockout games have gone the full distance; their goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic emerging the hero on both occasions against Japan and Brazil.
Now, they’re setting focus on eliminating Brazil’s eternal rivals.
“If we manage to win tomorrow, it will make it the greatest triumph in Croatia’s football history,” noted Dalic on Monday. “We’ve analysed what Argentina do and Messi is in great shape for them.”
Messi has been a totemic presence for his side yet again, dragging them from the depths of despair after their shock loss to Saudi Arabia in the opening game. They’ve won every game since; Messi scoring in three of their four games since — including the penalty shootout win against the Netherlands. “Obviously, they try to get the best out of Messi,” noted Zaccheroni, “and he makes the difference.”
Their tense victory over the Dutch brought out a side of Messi that has been never seen. Messi, always the one to keep his emotions in check, was seen shouting at rival players and had a heated exchange with Netherlands striker Wout Weghorst after the game. There was also an altercation with Louis Van Gaal in which he accused the Dutch gaffer of not showing respect.
“He’s always been a winner, he’s so keen to play the game,” said Scaloni on Monday.
Argentina left-back Nicolas Tagliafico, speaking ahead of Scaloni at Argentina’s pre-game presser, said there was nothing new about Messi’s aggression. “For us, he’s our captain, our leader. He pushes us, motivates us. When we are on the pitch, we know we have Messi and we all know what he brings.”
Scaloni, though, tried to draw a line between the game against the Dutch and the upcoming one against the Croats. “In football, things like that can happen,” he said. “The emotions do tend to come out. But we need to put an end to this idea of thinking Argentina is just that. We lost to Saudi Arabia and we didn’t say anything. We need to put an end to this idea of not being good winners or losers.”
Emotions, though, are expected to rise once again in what promises to be a tempestuous clash between a battling Croatian team and an industrious Argentina. It’s in the programming of these two sides. And perhaps, it can be drawn from the fact that Diego Maradona, the eternal legend who Messi is trying to emulate by delivering long-awaited glory for Argentina, had Croatian lineage through his maternal side. Maradona had a fiery, tenacious side to his play; one that both these teams show.
Croatia showed that against Brazil; their ability to withstand the pressure thrown at them and still rise above it.
“We expect a tough match against a really good team … one that plays as a team and they will make things challenging for us,” said Scaloni.
Tagliafico, slated to start on Tuesday with Marcos Acuna suspended, noted the quality Croatia have in the middle of the pitch with Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. “We have to pay attention to detail but we also have our weapons”.
The two sides were quick in dispelling the notion that their group-stage meeting at the last World Cup — won 3-0 by the Croats — would have a bearing on this encounter.
“I think it will be a different match as they have different players with different characteristics,” exclaimed Tagliafico, who featured in that match. Dalic stated that the upcoming match was a “high-stakes” contest. “That was a group stage game, it was not decisive.”
If Croatia go through, there could possibly be a repeat of the final from four years ago with France facing Morocco in the other last-four game. Croatia met Morocco, who’ve made history by becoming the first side from Africa to reach the quarter-finals at the World Cup, in the group stage with both sides playing out a goalless draw.
“It’s our run at the last World Cup that has given smaller sides a chance to dream,” said Dalic. “There are teams inspired by that and Morocco are no exception. They’ve great support and look at their run in which they’ve beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal. They have every right to dream but we have the same dream.”
It’s now about turning dreams into reality.
The game could come down to being decided by which team has more legs for the battle.
Argentina’s problem at the World Cup has been their inability to close out games. They had to fight for their lives in the round-of-16 after Australia pulled a goal back to make it 2-1. They then succumbed to incessant Dutch pressure and saw a 2-0 lead slip with Weghorst scoring twice, including with the final kick of the game in normal time.
“The best recovery is winning,” said Scaloni, when asked about the physical condition of his players.
Croatia, though, thrive when matches go the distance. Their run has echoes of the one four years ago when they overcame Denmark and Russia in shootouts to reach the semi-finals where England were beaten in extra-time.
But winger Ivan Perisic, sitting alongside Dalic on Monday, noted that rest and recovery had been easier in Qatar due to the compactness of the World Cup. “The path was much more difficult in Russia,” he said. “There we had to travel between cities, change hotels. Here, we’re at the same hotel for the duration of the campaign. Training grounds are a drive away so there is more time to rest and recover.”
Rested or not, Messi and Modric would be primed for the battle. Their last dance means they will be giving it all and for all those playing for them, would be too.
“Croatia have repeated what they’ve been doing for the last 30 years,” said Juergen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner with Germany in 1990, at the Technical Study Group presser. “It’s spectacular, it’s a young country with high quality players, they thirst for titles and have a lot of resistance.”
Klinsmann, though, hinted that the semi-final will be the game where Argentina show their mettle as a team. “Argentina have been fighting game by game but they haven’t reached their full potential,” he said. “But I think against Croatia, they will finally be able to achieve that.”
If Klinsmann’s theory comes true, it would set a date for Messi with what many believe is his destiny in Qatar: the World Cup title.
Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2022