We are in the decisive week of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The semi-final stage began tonight with a clash between Argentina and Croatia, which did not prove to be as close in terms of the scoreline as many thought, but still gave us a lot to unpack.
Semi-Final: Argentina 3-0 Croatia
In what looks set to be his last World Cup campaign, Lionel Messi played in his second-ever semi-final with Argentina. Their aim, of course, was to win the tournament, but to have a chance of doing that, they would have to beat 2018 finalists Croatia first.
In our tactical preview of the match, we outlined a few reasons why a back-four would suit Argentina in this match, and they used just that. Ahead of the defence, though, they deployed four players that are central midfielders by trade behind Lionel Messi and Julián Álvarez.
Consequently, their midfield was quite narrow in possession, but they used a flat 4-4-2 to defend. That proved a smart choice as the two midfielders that went out wide found themselves tracking the Croatian full-backs a fair deal, something that a three-player midfield would not have been able to do quite as well.
Throughout the tournament, Argentina have relied on some moments of individual brilliance to deal their damage in attack, and that is not the worst strategy to have with a squad as talented as theirs.
Having posed next to no goal threat for over half an hour, they took a two-goal lead into the break. Enzo Fernández found Julián Álvarez with a great ball in behind in the 32nd minute, but the Manchester City striker was brought down by the keeper as he tried to round him. Lionel Messi stepped up to take the penalty and dispatched it more emphatically than ever.
Five minutes later, a counter-attack after a corner saw Álvarez pick the ball up in his own half and run in a straight line at full speed.
A clever off-ball run from Nahuel Molina caused the two Croatian defenders ahead of him to be a little disoriented when they faced the ball carrier, leading to Álvarez getting a little lucky with a couple of deflections in the penalty area that saw the ball fall right back to him, after which he poked the ball home from close range.
Early in the second half, Croatia switched to a 4-4-2 formation, and Argentina reacted by sending on an extra centre-back and switching to a 5-3-2 shape. The last time they were in such a situation with a two-goal lead, the Netherlands staged an incredible comeback, but Messi had other ideas for this game.
He rolled back the years and made a vintage run down the right wing with the ball at his feet, running rings around the very impressive Joško Gvardiol on multiple occasions.
Eventually, the Argentine great decided to head to the byline, from where he pulled the ball back across the box for Álvarez, who did not let his hero down.
Argentina comfortably held on to their three-goal lead after that, so Croatia’s World Cup campaign was over. This very much felt like an end of an era, as we will almost certainly never see Luka Modrić at the biggest stage again, while Ivan Perišić, Marcelo Brozović and Dejan Lovren could well tail off by the time we visit North America in 2026.
As we previously alluded to, Messi has already announced that this is his last World Cup, so this absolutely is an end of an era for Argentina.
The final chapter can now go one of two ways — have the most romantic of conclusions or deliver unimaginably painful heartbreak.
👀 Looking Ahead
Stats courtesy Opta via FotMob.
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