HomeMiddle EastAfter Brazil, tough contenders Croatia aim to end Messi’s dream

After Brazil, tough contenders Croatia aim to end Messi’s dream

Croatia has already ended the World Cup dream of Brazil’s Neymar; now they hope to do the same to Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

But, the Croat side will not attempt to stop the Argentina superstar by man-marking him, instead they will focus on immobilising the entire team in their World Cup semifinal on Tuesday, members of the team said.

“We don’t have a specific plan yet for stopping Messi and usually we don’t concentrate on stopping one player but the entire team,” Croatia’s striker Bruno Petkovic told a news conference on Sunday.

“We will try to stop them as a team and not with man-marking. Argentina are not only Messi, they have a number of great players. We have to stop the entire Argentina team,” he said.

Croatia are bidding to make it to the final for the second World Cup in a row after losing in the 2018 showcase match to France, and with no players suspended and no injury concerns, the Croatian side is brimming with confidence.

Croatia’s Luka Modric and Brazil’s Neymar during their quarterfinal match on December 9, 2022 [Annegret Hilse/Reuters]

They stunned tournament favourites Brazil in the quarterfinals after going a goal down in extra time but dug deep to bounce back with a late equaliser and forced a penalty shootout that they ended up winning.

Brazil’s star striker Neymar was left in tears after the game when Croatia emerged victorious 4-2 on penalties.

Croatia is now on a mission to do the same with Messi’s team and prevent him from winning the one major trophy that has eluded him — a World Cup.

Croatia’s midfield comprising captain Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic will be key to dictating the pace, as they did against Brazil, and Croatia defender Josip Juranovic said on Sunday that the three were utterly dependable.

“Mateo, Luka and Marcelo are the best Croatia midfield in history. I don’t think it can be repeated. When you pass them the ball it is safer than having your money in the bank,” Juranovic said.

“I don’t think we need to fear anybody. We need to look at ourselves to play our best game,” he said.

“I would say the secret of our success is our togetherness, our unity. The fact that we act and play as a family.”

Brazil's forward Neymar sitting on the pitch in tears after his team lost the Qatar 2022 World Cup quarterfinal football match between Croatia and Brazil.
Brazil’s forward Neymar after his team lost their Qatar 2022 World Cup quarterfinal match against Croatia at Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha, on December 9, 2022 [Adrian Dennis/AFP]

Seven-time Ballon D’Or winner Messi has so far been the driving force for Argentina, who also needed penalties after squandering a two-goal lead against the Dutch in their quarterfinal match.

Messi has been inspired during Argentina’s run to the tournament semifinals, scoring four goals in five games, and it appears he has taken it upon himself to lead his country to a World Cup triumph.

Argentina last reached the final in 2014 — losing 1-0 to Germany at the Maracana Stadium in Brazil. That was as close as Messi has come to lifting football’s biggest trophy and he is just one game away from having another shot at it.

With Messi at the helm, Argentina came into the World Cup as one of the favourites but they face a big roadblock in the form of Croatia.

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

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

Defenders Marcos Acuna 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.

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

Messi, at 35, is playing likely his last World Cup and is also carrying the weight of the nation on his shoulders. Comparisons of Messi 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.

Argentina's Lionel Messi during the match against the Netherlands.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi in action during the Netherlands vs Argentina match at Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar, on December 9, 2022 [Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters]

Pressure swirling around the forthcoming encounter is intense, particularly about the prospect of a penalty showdown.

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

Croatia came through two penalty 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 — against Japan and Brazil — to boast a perfect record and to be dubbed the “World Cup’s penalty shootout king” by the Wall Street Journal.

Based on those statistics, another shootout against Argentina would most likely carry them into the final.

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