FLOW Qatar Spotlight | The bridesmaids’ tales
Argentina have no more room for error
Argentina and Croatia's last world cup meeting four years ago would shape the destinies of both countries in that tournament. Croatia’s commanding 3-0 group stage win would fuel their run to the final. The loss would send an already under-pressure Argentina with an underfire manager into chaos and ultimately, elimination in the round of 16 at the hands of eventual champions France.
Four years on, Argentina and Croatia are in different places, but there are some constants. The Albeceleste have a strong young supporting cast backing Lionel Messi which showed their mettle against Holland. Despite surrendering a two-goal lead late, they are here. And unlike the 2018 tournament, Argentina have a coach they have confidence in. Lionel Scaloni is bolstered by a staff that includes former internationals Walter Samuel, Pablo Aimar and Robert Ayala.
Croatia getting to back-to-back World Cup semi-finals is no small feat. The tireless wonder of Luka Modric at age 37 is still as dangerous as ever, but Mateo Kovacic has also been excellent in a midfield that has been infused with some youth and just continued to wear teams down over the course of a game. It would not be a surprise if this goes the distance but for Argentina's sake, they have to finish this in normal time if they want to make it back to the final. The defensive mistakes that ultimately didn’t cost them against Holland cannot be repeated, or Croatia could be the first team since Johan Cruff's dutch sqaud (1974, 1978) to make it to back-to-back finals.
Many believe that it may be Messi's time at last after their emotionally charged quarterfinal win on penalties. If this world cup has taught us anything, teams like Croatia don’t care much for fairytales.
Modric, Messi, who will blink first?
At 37 years old, Luka Modric is aging like fine wine. In fact, everyone in this Croatian team has a clearly defined role, except Modric.
He seems to be everywhere the ball is, which says to me the maestro intends to make sure of Croatia’s success at this tournament. Another Croat who has excelled at this FIFA World Cup is the tournament’s leading shot-stopper Dominik Livakovic. The equation is simple for Croatia, Livakovic and Josip Juranovic lead the defence, and Modric leads the midfield where he is well supported by Mateo Kovacic and the always-running Marcelo Brozovic, that equals never losing.
However, the Croatian team faces an Argentina that includes the man I call ‘Ball Jesus’, Lionel Messi. This is how a star should put a team on his back and say “Let’s go!” Messi is leading the Argentine group and despite the mountain of pressure on him, the aging superstar in front our very own eyes, is rising to the occasion.
Semi-final one is upon us, Modric vs Messi. Someone will be left crying, remember what Johnny Depp said: “People cry, not because they’re weak, it’s because they’ve been strong for too long.” Who will such words apply to?
Underdogs? What underdogs?
Tuesday's World Cup semifinal encounter between 'favourites' Argentina and 'underdogs' Croatia will put arguably the best player of the last decade in Lionel Messi and arguably the best midfielder over the period in Luca Modric.
The two captains have been pivotal to their teams’ progress. With Messi leading the offensive thrust for Argentina. Modric, even without a goal or assist, has been ultra influential from midfield for his team.
Argentina gets the edge going into the contest but Croatia are a battle-hardened team that knows how to get results.
It should be intriguing.
Messi vs the Dalic project
I was watching Croatia play Canada and the latter scored early. Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s coach, never bat an eyelid. Croatia just went on and did what they needed to win. Against Brazil, the same thing. Well, he did bat an eyelid this time, but no frenetics.
So well-drilled are this Croatia unit since Dalic took over in 2017 that he rarely needs to tell the players anything on match day, no matter the circumstances. What this means, is the adjustments Croatia makes mid-game are almost imperceptible. It also means, like everybody now knows, no game is over once they are on one side of the equation.
This means Argentina, who seem to be getting better game by game, have no more room for mistakes. They have to be ruthless, unlike they were against the Dutch when they let a comfortable two-goal lead slip.
Now while the Argentines have weaknesses, the Croatians only seem to have strengths. They were supposed to struggle as an aging team, they haven’t. In fact, they’ve shown the importance of experience more than anything else.
One of the weaknesses of Argentina is their small backline, something Louis van Gaal took advantage of in their last outing. The vastly experienced Croatians would have seen that. Argentina better find a way to counteract their aerial deficiencies or else. Argentina, the 2014 finalists, and Croatia, the 2018 finalists, the semi-final battle of the bridesmaids promises to be epic.