Croatia dares to dream
Having already sent one South American behemoth home from the World Cup, Croatia will be aiming to reach back-to-back finals when they lock horns with Argentina in Tuesday’s semi-final at Lusail Iconic Stadium.
The penalty prowess of both sides settled nervy quarter-final contests, as Zlatko Dalic’s men dumped Brazil out on spot kicks a few hours before La Albiceleste beat the Netherlands from 12 yards.
If there was one game to characterize the chaotic, feisty and unpredictable nature of the 2022 World Cup, Argentina’s quarter-final with the Netherlands followed the script to a tee.
A Lionel Messi-inspired Albiceleste had one foot firmly in the semi-finals through Nahuel Molina and the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s calm penalty, but a late brace from Wout Weghorst - including a 100th-minute equaliser - forced the unlikeliest of extra-time periods.
Battle of nerves
Yet another penalty shootout would be needed to decide the destiny of the two teams, and in the wake of mass brawls, gamesmanship galore and a staggering 17 yellow cards, Argentina held their nerve from the spot to prevail and advance to the final four.
The footballing gods would have surely delivered an all-South American semi-final between Brazil and Argentina, and while that will not be the case for Lionel Scaloni’s crop, the Copa America winners’ record in World Cup semi-finals makes for very pleasant reading indeed. Argentina have never been eliminated from the World Cup in the final four and have progressed to the final every time that they have got this far - the fifth and most recent of which came in the 2014 tournament before their heartbreaking defeat to Germany.
Scaloni’s gallant goalscorers enter the semi-finals having made the net ripple twice in each of their last four matches in all tournaments - scoring in each of their last 14 in total - but facing the staunch rearguard action of Croatia is a challenge that Messi and co must prepare for with due diligence.
Upon Dominik Livakovic’s return to his homeland, the first question that the Croatia goalkeeper may be asked will surely be about the location of his statue, as the Dinamo Zagreb number one denied Brazil time and time again before the Checkered Ones’ penchant for penalties came to the fore.
While Brazil were struggling to find a way through the notoriously dogged Croatia defence, Neymar took it upon himself to break the deadlock in the 106th minute with a wonderful goal, but Bruno Petkovic’s 117th-minute effort found its way into the corner via a deflection to force a 12-yard battle of nerves.
Livakovic kept Brazil out 11 times before also saving from Rodrygo in the shootout, and the Selecao dream was dashed when Marquinhos’s effort crashed against the post, allowing delirium to take over for those in red and white as they celebrated a second successive World Cup semi-final.