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After Brazil, Croatia aspires to end Messi’s dream

Croatia has already ended the World Cup dream of Brazilian Neymar; now they hope to do the same with the Argentine Lionel Messi.

But the Croatian team will not try to stop the Argentine superstar by marking him, instead focusing on pinning the entire squad in their World Cup semi-final on Tuesday, team members said.

“We still don’t have a specific plan to stop Messi and usually we don’t focus on stopping one player but the whole team,” Croatia striker Bruno Petkovic told a news conference on Sunday.

“We are going to try to stop them as a team and not with markings. Argentina is not just Messi, it has a series of great players. We have to stop the entire Argentine team, ”he said.

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Croatia are bidding to reach the final for the second consecutive World Cup after losing in the 2018 exhibition game to France, and with no players suspended and no injury worries, the Croatian team is full of confidence.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Quarter Final - Croatia v Brazil - Education City Stadium, Doha, Qatar - December 9, 2022 Croatia's Luka Modric and Brazil's Neymar REUTERS/Annegret Hilse TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Luka Modric of Croatia and Neymar of Brazil during their quarterfinal match on December 9, 2022 [Annegret Hilse/Reuters]

They stunned tournament favorites Brazil in the quarterfinals after losing a goal in extra time, but they worked hard to bounce back with a late equalizer and forced a penalty shootout which they ended up winning.

Brazil’s star striker Neymar was left in tears after the game as Croatia emerged victorious 4-2 on penalties.

Croatia is now on a mission to do the same to Messi’s team and prevent them from winning the one major trophy that has eluded them: a World Cup.

Croatia’s midfield, made up of captain Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, will be key in setting the pace, as they did against Brazil, and Croatia defender Josip Juranovic said on Sunday that all three were absolutely reliable.

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“Mateo, Luka and Marcelo are the best Croatian midfield in history. I don’t think it can be repeated. When you pass the ball to them it’s safer than having your money in the bank,” Juranovic said.

“I don’t think we should fear anyone. We need to look at ourselves to play our best game,” she said.

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“I would say that the secret of our success is our union, our unity. The fact that we act and play as a family.”

Brazilian striker Neymar sitting on the pitch crying after his team lost the Qatar 2022 World Cup quarter-final football match between Croatia and Brazil.
Brazilian striker Neymar after his team lost their Qatar 2022 World Cup quarter-final match against Croatia at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha, on December 9, 2022. [Adrian Dennis/AFP]

Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, has so far been the driving force for Argentina, which also required penalties after blowing a two-goal lead against the Dutch in their quarterfinal match.

Messi has drawn inspiration during Argentina’s run to the semi-finals of the tournament, scoring four goals in five games, and seems to have taken it upon himself to lead his country to a World Cup triumph.

Argentina last reached the final in 2014, losing 1-0 to Germany at the Maracana Stadium in Brazil. That was the closest Messi came to lifting soccer’s biggest trophy and he’s just one game away from getting another shot at it.

With Messi in the lead, Argentina entered the World Cup as one of the favourites, but they face a major hurdle in the form of Croatia.

With a never-give-up attitude, even when the odds are stacked against them, the disciplined Croatian side are now deservedly through to their second successive World Cup semi-final, and underestimating them would put Argentina at risk.

The Argentines, seeking their first World Cup title since Diego Maradona’s team won in 1986, have their work cut out for them.

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Defenders Marcos Acuña and Gonzalo Montiel are suspended for booking, limiting coach Lionel Scaloni’s options at the back. Nicolás Tagliafico could come on to replace the former, but it will be a less attacking formation, with full-back Acuña adding more spark to the team.

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A question mark also hangs over veteran Ángel Di María and his fitness, as the 34-year-old was mainly used as a substitute in the tournament despite recovering from injury.

Messi, at 35, is probably playing in his last World Cup and also carries the weight of the nation on his shoulders. Messi’s comparisons to Maradona for the title of the greatest Argentine player of all time cannot be complete without a world title, which the late Maradona won almost single-handedly 36 years ago.

Lionel Messi of Argentina during the match against the Netherlands.
Lionel Messi of Argentina in action during the Netherlands vs Argentina match at Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar on December 9, 2022 [Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters]

The pressure swirling around the upcoming game is intense, particularly over the prospect of a shootout.

Argentina nearly missed out on reaching the semi-finals after the Netherlands came from 2-0 down to score twice late in the match and force extra time and penalties in a moody encounter. A replay of a penalty shootout, this time against a mentally tough Croatia, must be a terrifying prospect for the Argentines even though their goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez rose to the occasion against the Netherlands, saving two kicks from the penalty spot. .

Croatia overcame two penalty shoot-outs and extra time to reach the 2018 final before losing to France, and have gone to penalties in both of their knockout games in Qatar, against Japan and Brazil, to boast a perfect record. and being dubbed the “World Cup Shootout King” by the Wall Street Journal.

Based on those stats, another penalty shootout against Argentina would likely see them through to the final.

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