Thirty-two teams set out on their respective World Cup journeys three weeks ago and now we are down to the last four. Croatia v Argentina and Morocco v France are certainly not the semi-finals most football fans or pundits would have predicted but both games throw up some hugely interesting subplots and possibilities.
ARGENTINA v CROATIA – Tuesday, 7.00
Having lost their opening game to Saudi Arabia, an early World Cup exit looked a real possibility for Argentina but just when his country needed him the most, Lionel Messi has stood up to the plate and dragged Argentina through this tournament. Having provided four goals and two assists so far, Messi has arguably been the best player at this World Cup but Argentina will need their number ten to be at his best again with a gritty Croatia lying in wait.
This was supposed to be the tournament that was a step too far for Croatia’s aging stars such as Luka Modric but the Real Madrid midfielder has once again ran the show in the engine room as evidence by his stunning 120 minute display against Tournament favourites Brazil in the quarter-finals despite now being 37 years old.
The midfield battle may well decide this semi-final with Argentina well aware they can not allow Modric to get into his rhythm which means the fitness of Atletico Madrid man Rodrigo De Paul is vitally important. De Paul has been nursing an ankle injury but is expected to start and given the Argentine broke the record for the most accurate passes in a World Cup match during the tournament (137), his influence could be key.
Given the age profile of the Croatian squad, genuine pace in wide areas must be a concern and with Angel Di Maria expected to return from injury the former Manchester United man could make the difference in what is likely to be a tightly fought encounter.
With Croatia’s last three matches at this tournament ending in draws after 90 minutes, extra-time and penalties must come into the equation when predicting who will line out in Sunday’s final. Emi Martinez was already considered a penalty specialist prior to the dramatic shootout win against the Netherlands and he further enhanced that reputation with more heroics against the Dutch. However, his counterpart Livakovic is enjoying the tournament of his life for Croatia who have never lost a penalty shootout at the World Cup (4/4).
As a result, Argentina will be desperate to avoid such a scenario and given they have scored two goals in every game bar the opener against Saudi Arabia, they may just have that sharper cutting edge in the final third. Manchester City striker Julian Alvarez has proven why Pep Guardiola rates him so highly while Lautaro Martinez is another wonderful option up front.
PREDICTION: Argentina to qualify (2/5)
FRANCE v MORROCO – Wednesday, 7.00
Talk about a history defining semi-final as France bid to continue their quest to become only the third nation to retain the World Cup trophy while Morroco are aiming to become Africa’s first ever World Cup finalists. Let’s be clear about it, France were far from at their best during Saturday’s dramatic quarter-final win against England. The World champions looked comfortable in the first half and deservedly took a 1-0 lead into the break but in the second-half they were on the backfoot throughout as England applied major pressure and managed to cut off the supply to France’s wide men in Mbappe and Dembele. However, Antoine Griezmann was one man the English midfield couldn’t silence and it was his sublime cross into Oliver Giroud that made the difference in the end (as well as Harry Kane’s shocking penalty miss). Extra-time would have been a fair outcome but instead France got the job done in normal time and now face a very different opponent in the form of Morocco.
The North African’s have yet to concede a goal scored by the opposition at this World Cup while the raw pace of Hakiki, Boufal, and Ziyech give Morocco a real cutting edge on the counter attack. On occasions the defence has been breached, goalkeeper Bono has been up to the task and he is quickly turning into a World Cup cult hero as a result. If Morocco can keep a clean sheet on Wednesday, it will be their fifth of the tournament, the last two sides to achieve that figure went on to win the tournament (Italy 2006, Spain 2010).
Just as impressively, Morocco restricted Spain to having NO SHOTS ON TARGET in their last 16 clash while Portugal were limited to just three shots on target last time out. If Morocco can find a way to replicate what England did to France in terms of keeping Mbappe and Dembele quiet, they have a real chance of shutting the French out.
Given they knocked Spain out on penalties, Morocco have that experience under their belts should they have to face into spot kicks again which means France will be keen to get this semi-final wrapped up inside the 90 minutes.
Morocco have been rank outsiders throughout this tournament but they’ve shown in games against Croatia, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal that they have a game plan to deal with these bigger nations so playing the draw at 3/1 looks worth a poke.
PREDICTION: Draw 90 minutes (3/1)
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