Croatia vs Brazil
Croatia in its relatively short World Cup history has exceeded expectations of most by finishing third on its debut in 1998 and reached the final in Russia four years back. Coach Zlatko Dalic, on eve of its quarterfinals game against Brazil, believed the clash would be as tough as the final against France in Moscow – the only World Cup game Croatia has lost in a World Cup under him.
“I believe the match ahead of us would be most demanding and I can compare it to the final against France. I wish such a difficult match came later, Croatia is a small country, but we have tasted success in two World Cups, and we are one of those rare teams who have managed to come here [to the quarterfinals] and we would try to win,” he said.
FIFA World Cup quarterfinals schedule
Croatia has conceded twice from open play in the competition and negotiated a shootout to move past Japan in the round-of-16. In Russia, too, two of its knockout wins came through penalties, while the semifinals against England was settled by an extra-time goal from Mario Mandzukic.
READ | Croatia in penalty shootouts at FIFA World Cup: Records, stats, saves and goals
Brazil coach Tite is aware that the Croatia would be much better drilled than earlier opponents. “Croatia has high technical skills in terms of midfielders, but our rhythm is not just about combination but also marking. We know how they work, and we will try to make them work to our advantage,” Tite said.
Left back Alex Sandro, still recovering from a hip injury, might not be available for selection, forcing Juventus right-back Danilo to fill in. “We hope Alex is fit to play tomorrow as injuries are the worst things to happen to a player. But I am fit and available and I can play in any position,” Danilo said.
He, too, cautioned about the quality in the Croatian midfield and said: “Croatia reached the finals in 2018, and they have excellent players like [Luka] Modric, [Mateo] Kovacic, [Ivan] Perisic, I have played with them, and they are used to big matches, and we need to concentrate and keep momentum for entire game to win it.”
Modric, at 37, is perhaps playing in his last World Cup and has occupied a much deeper role, building play from his own half compared to the advanced positions he used to occupy in Russia. “We shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have achieved so far. We know the greatest match of the World Cup is ahead of us. Brazil is always the favourite and they have demonstrated in this World Cup why they are one of the favourites,” said Modric who was substituted in the 100th minute against Japan.
With a fit again Neymar bringing in his bag of tricks – he has tried 12 take-ons, second-most for Brazil in this World Cup – and was instrumental in Brazil’s dominating first half performance against Korea Republic.
Netherlands vs Argentina
The weight of history rests on the shoulders of today’s inheritors of the orange jersey and that of the blue-and-white striped shirts. Past players of the three-time finalist and the two-time champion have clashed in many World Cup classics, and Argentina against the Netherlands again promises to be a cracker of a game.
A wiser Louis van Gaal, back at the Dutch helm, had bolted shut the creativity of Lionel Messi, then at his peak, when they last met in the semifinals of Brazil 2014. Messi was subdued, but Argentina still went through as Wesley Sneijder and Ron Vlaar missed their penalties.
His team, van Gaal insists, is ready for all eventualities. “We support players in a scientific way to practise penalties and we hope we will have a minor advantage if we have to take penalties,” he said in his pre-match press conference.
READ: Netherlands in penalty shootouts at FIFA World Cup - Records, stats, saves and goals
The Argentines, though, had failed to win the two previous meetings – in 1998 and 2006 – Lionel Scaloni, the youngest manager here, does not want the game to go down to the uncertainties that shootouts bring. “We can’t think about penalty shootouts from now because then our focus would be lost. We should first look at 90 minutes and win the game,” he said. “The most important is how we try to damage the opponent and not get damaged ourselves. We have analysed the Dutch team and will set our team accordingly.”
A six-day break after an emotional round-of-16 win over the Aussies has helped the Argentines as the team utilised the free time to relax and rejuvenate with their families. “Moments with family members are important to unwind and enjoy the World Cup. Till the Australia game we had played four matches in 11 days, but now we are rested and ready, physically and mentally,” Alexis Mac Allister, who scored against Poland, said.
Angel Di Maria’s left-side runs and constant changing of positions was missed during the Australia game, but Scaloni expects the veteran to be available and help disrupt Holland’s plan of using Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind through the wings.
ALSO READ: Argentina vs Netherlands, FIFA World Cup Quarterfinals - Three key battles to look out for
The Dutch had been relatively untested in group-stage wins over Qatar and Senegal before facing moments of trouble against the United States. While Memphis Depay gradually improves his fitness and game, a young Cody Gakpo has been its breakout star with three goals from four games. For Argentina, Messi has benefited from the introduction of a more mobile Julian Alvarez and has already attempted 4.8 shots on goal per game – the second most at this World Cup after Kylian Mbappe’s 5.3 – and played 3.3 key passes (the most per game).
Van Gaal has been combative about the media’s notion of the Dutch under him adopting a negative game, moving away from the rampant free football of Johan Cruyff.
He was angsty again when asked about his 3-5-2 system. “My vision has evolved; I was head coach of Ajax with a very offensive DNA and in Barcelona I learnt that you can’t always pursue that. And then, I started thinking about football in a different way and in World Cup 2014, you would have seen that vision and more teams are now using that. Football is evolving and it’s not easy to play the offensive way Ajax used to play. We also press, push and do it in varied ways, and not just defend. Brazil is also doing almost the same thing as the Dutch,” he said.
The Dutch manager has an axe to grind against Di Maria as well. The Argentine winger had called his former Manchester United boss “the worst coach of my career”.
“I am very sorry that Ángel Di María once said that I am the worst coach he has ever had. Here next to me sits Memphis. He was also in Manchester. And now we kiss on the mouth,” the oldest manager at this World Cup said. “We didn’t see eye to eye then but now we work together, and I want to kiss him on the mouth, but looks like now he doesn’t want that.”
Van Gaal’s jokes may be a little stale, but his Netherlands team will hope to be fresh and ready to scuttle the ceremonial ‘Leo Messi last dance’ that this World Cup is fast becoming.
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