Having already sent one South American behemoth home from the World Cup, Croatia will be aiming to reach back-to-back finals when they lock horns with Argentina in Tuesday’s semi-final at Lusail Iconic Stadium.
The penalty prowess of both sides settled nervy quarter-final contests, as Zlatko Dalic’s men dumped Brazil out on spot kicks a few hours before La Albiceleste beat the Netherlands from 12 yards.
If there was one game to characterize the chaotic, feisty and unpredictable nature of the 2022 World Cup, Argentina’s quarter-final with the Netherlands followed the script to a tee.
A Lionel Messi-inspired Albiceleste had one foot firmly in the semi-finals through Nahuel Molina and the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s calm penalty, but a late brace from Wout Weghorst – including a 100th-minute equaliser – forced the unlikeliest of extra-time periods.
Yet another penalty shootout would be needed to decide the destiny of the two teams, and in the wake of mass brawls, gamesmanship galore and a staggering 17 yellow cards, Argentina held their nerve from the spot to prevail and advance to the final four.
The footballing gods would have surely delivered an all-South American semi-final between Brazil and Argentina, and while that will not be the case for Lionel Scaloni’s crop, the Copa America winners’ record in World Cup semi-finals makes for very pleasant reading indeed.
Argentina have never been eliminated from the World Cup in the final four and have progressed to the final every time that they have got this far – the fifth and most recent of which came in the 2014 tournament before their heartbreaking defeat to Germany.
Scaloni’s gallant goalscorers enter the semi-finals having made the net ripple twice in each of their last four matches in all tournaments – scoring in each of their last 14 in total – but facing the staunch rearguard action of Croatia is a challenge that Messi and co must prepare for with due diligence.
Upon Dominik Livakovic’s return to his homeland, the first question that the Croatia goalkeeper may be asked will surely be about the location of his statue, as the Dinamo Zagreb number one denied Brazil time and time again before the Checkered Ones’ penchant for penalties came to the fore.
While Brazil were struggling to find a way through the notoriously dogged Croatia defence, Neymar took it upon himself to break the deadlock in the 106th minute with a wonderful goal, but Bruno Petkovic’s 117th-minute effort found its way into the corner via a deflection to force a 12-yard battle of nerves.
Livakovic kept Brazil out 11 times before also saving from Rodrygo in the shootout, and the Selecao dream was dashed when Marquinhos’s effort crashed against the post, allowing delirium to take over for those in red and white as they celebrated a second successive World Cup semi-final.
Dalic’s side remarkably reached the 2018 World Cup final without winning any of their knockout games in normal time, and history is on the verge of repeating itself for the Checkered Ones, who are now unbeaten in 11 matches ahead of their showdown with Argentina.
Croatia would be in elite company if they can progress to the showpiece event – only Italy, the Netherlands and Germany have ever reached back-to-back finals – and Dalic’s side can take confidence in the fact that they have never failed to score in 10 World Cup knockout fixtures.
Argentina and Croatia have met twice before in the World Cup group stage, with La Albiceleste prevailing 1-0 in 1998, but the Checkered Ones secured a memorable 3-0 win over Argentina in Russia four years ago, and several members of that team are still around to try to make lightning strike twice in Lusail.
Card-happy referee Mateu Lahoz will not be making friends with the Argentina and Netherlands camps anytime soon, especially with two of his 17 bookings going to Albiceleste full-backs Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna, who are now suspended for the semi-final.
Montiel was unlikely to challenge Molina for the right-back berth, and Acuna will pass left-back responsibilities over to Nicolas Tagliafico as he takes his place on the naughty step, but Scaloni thankfully witnessed no players pick up injuries in the 120-minute quarter-final.
Alejandro Gomez is pushing to be available as he steps up his recovery from an ankle sprain, while Rodrigo De Paul and Angel Di Maria – who have both been nursing problems of their own – will expect to be fit to start the semi-final.
Scaloni opted to match the Netherlands’ setup with a five-man backline – bringing Lisandro Martinez back in from the cold – but a switch to a four-man defence could see the Manchester United man now cede his place to the fit-again Di Maria.
As for Croatia, Dalic was blessed with a fully-fit squad for the quarter-final win over Brazil and should be working with all of his troops for Tuesday after Borna Sosa and Mislav Orsic both recovered from respective illnesses.
Amid his side’s well-documented struggles for goals, Dalic brought Mario Pasalic in from the first whistle against Brazil, and the Atalanta BC man can feel confident of holding his position on the right wing.
Andrej Kramaric may be fearing for his place at the tip of the attack after Petkovic’s dramatic equaliser in the quarter-finals, but the Hoffenheim man has started every game in Qatar so far and will likely hold his place from the off.
Argentina possible starting lineup:
E. Martinez; Molina, Romero, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Fernandez, De Paul, Mac Allister; Di Maria, Messi, Alvarez
Croatia possible starting lineup:
Livakovic; Juranovic, Gvardiol, Lovren, Sosa; Modric, Brozovic, Kovacic; Pasalic, Kramaric, Perisic