Lionel Messi and Luka Modric would again be adversaries; both have waged a war for eternity – the engine of Barcelona (Messi is no longer in Catalunya to the dismay of many) and Real Madrid in one of football’s greatest club rivalries. Now, they face off in another bitter battle at the grand settings of the Lusail Stadium, the hopes of their nations to make it to yet another World Cup final.
Both have come close but faltered in the end – Messi in 2014 and Modric the heartbreak (2018) is more recent. They have aged since, and their games are now different.
Modric, perhaps troubled by the years of those niggles, can hardly last a full game but still runs the Croatian play with a perfect partnership with Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic in the middle. The 37-year-old completed 103 of his 115 attempted passes (the most by a player in the quarterfinal against Brazil), while the trio regained possession 21 times, acting as a wall ahead of its defence to stop the Brazilians from creating trouble in the crucial final third.
“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,” defender Josip Juranovic said. “I don’t think we need to fear anybody. We need to look at ourselves to play our best game. I would say the secret of our success is our togetherness, our unity. The fact that we act and play as a family.”
Messi, too, has changed and waits for his moments as his boys’ sprint, tackle and jostle to give their captain an extra sliver of space. At 35, he is finally having a World Cup of his dreams. His decisive interventions – the pass to Nahuel Molina against the Dutch or the goal through the legs of Australia’s Harry Souttar – have elevated a group of middling stars much like Diego Maradona did to Argentina of 1986.
“Leo is our leader, who is pushing and motivating us, and he gives us that special advantage. We know we have Messi on the pitch and that inspires us. And all of us try to work in the same direction and do it with Messi by our side,” said Nicolas Tagliafico, who will take the place of Marcos Acuna, suspended after receiving two bookings.
Croatia, a country of four million, has already achieved the remarkable and the emergence of RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol, carrying a price tag of GBP 70 million, has further strengthened its defence. Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic made 11 saves against Brazil and stopped the Rodrygo’s penalty that took Croatia to consecutive semifinals in the quadrennial event. They will make Argentina’s life miserable, offering a staunch rear-guard that will be hard to break. Zlatko Dalic’s side reached the 2018 World Cup final without winning any of its knockout games in regulation time and will look to repeat the performance again.
Argentina, though, has looked more cohesive in attack since introducing Julian Alvarez upfront, and Enzo Fernandez, too, has made an impact and had the most forward movements (51) in the win over the Netherlands.
The availability of a fit-again Rodrigo De Paul and Angel Di Maria would offer more options to coach Lionel Scaloni, who is expected to opt for a back four after using a 5-3-2 system against the Dutch. “Both the players are fit and have trained. and we will need to see how many minutes they can play,” he said.
Dalic might be tempted to introduce Bruno Petkovic from the start in place of Andrej Kramaric after his dramatic equaliser against Brazil, but Croatia’s modus operandi would always be to take this game deep and rely on Livakovic’s heroics.
It will continue to play the role of the underdog and rely on the collective to take a step closer to redemption and stop Messi’s quest for the same.
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