Lionel Messi is just two matches away from World Cup glory but his Argentina side must first find a way past Croatia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.
The European side has, once again, upset the odds to reach yet another World Cup semifinal after beating tournament favorite Brazil in the previous round and, make no mistake, Argentina will have its work cut out if its to reach the final.
The Croats took a dazzling Brazil team into the trenches on Friday after scoring a last-gasp equalizer to force extra-time and eventually a penalty shootout, which it won thanks to more heroics from goalkeeper Dominik Livaković.
The Brazilians, who lit up the tournament with its attacking dynamism, were prevented from playing their entertaining style of football by a well-drilled Croatian team with a resolute defense.
Argentina and Messi will have to be ready for such a challenge but the team has already demonstrated its willingness to dig deep to find a way to win at Qatar 2022.
Messi and co. were also forced into penalties before winning its quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Friday in a full-bloodied match which showed the South Americans will be no pushovers.
However, the fiery encounter came at a cost with defenders Marcos Acuna and Gonzalo Montiel both suspended after picking up cautions in the quarterfinals.
There are also still question marks around Angel Di Maria’s fitness meaning Messi will have even more pressure on his shoulders to inspire his side to his first World Cup final since 2014.
The magician has been in fine form during the tournament, already scoring four goals, but it’s also been his playmaking ability which has been so devastating.
The 35-year-old may not have the lightning speed he once possessed but his passing and vision have been nothing short of remarkable at the tournament.
His no-look assist for Argentina’s opening goal against the Netherlands, for example, was a moment of pure genius.
Despite the threat he poses, Croatia won’t become obsessed with stopping just one player, striker Bruno Petkovic says.
“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,” Petkovic told reporters 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.”
Croatia, meanwhile, will hope its veteran captain Luka Modrić can inspire the team to another final after it finished runner-up to France in 2018.
The 37-year-old has rolled back the years in Qatar and has kept alive his team’s hopes of another soccer miracle with a string of classy performances.
He’s been helped out by fellow midfielders, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić, which, as a unit, will test Argentina on Tuesday.
“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,” said defender Josip Juranović, per Reuters.
According to data company Gracenote Sports, Argentina is now the favorite to lift the World Cup trophy.
“The team’s [Argentina] chance of emerging victorious is 41%. France’s chance of successfully defending their 2018 World Cup title is 26%,” said Gracenote.
“Surprise semi-finalists Morocco and Croatia have 17% and 16% chance respectively of becoming world champions.
“The most likely World Cup final out of the four remaining possibilities is Argentina v France which has a 37.5% chance of happening,” added Gracenote.
Argentina vs. Croatia: 2pm ET
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Brazil: Sport TV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC