World Cup semi-finals talking points: Lionel Messi’s last shot, France’s defence and the Moroccan miracle | Football News

Lionel Messi’s date with destiny, France’s defence of their crown, Morocco’s miraculous run and Croatia’s crusade for a second consecutive World Cup final. England may be out but the semi-finals in Qatar promise to thrill.

Messi takes Argentina into the last four aiming to take his final shot at World Cup glory all the way as he bids to cement his legacy as the greatest player ever. But standing in their way is the evergreen Luka Modric and a stubborn Croatia side hell-bent on going one step further than they did in Russia four years ago.

World Cup semi-final schedule

  • Argentina vs Croatia – Lusail Iconic Stadium on Tuesday; kick-off 7pm
  • France vs Morocco – Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday; kick-off 7pm

France, meanwhile, are looking to become the first side since Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back World Cups. They do, though, come up against a history-making Moroccan side fighting to become the first African nation to reach the final.

The final four of the World Cup in Qatar is bursting with storylines. Here Sky Sports gives you a comprehensive run down…

Messi to end the GOAT debate?

Lionel Messi celebrates Argentina's penalty shootout win over Netherlands
Lionel Messi celebrates Argentina’s penalty shootout win over Netherlands

When Argentina beat Brazil in their own backyard to win the Copa America at the Maracana Stadium in the summer of 2021, Messi fell to his knees at the final whistle and the entire team ran to their captain.

This was his first-ever trophy on the international stage, the only question mark over an otherwise glittering career. The World Cup is the final piece of the jigsaw.

Argentina’s key stats

  • Argentina have won just one of their last seven World Cup games against European sides (D3 L3), beating Poland 2-0 in the group stages this year. However, two of those three draws have resulted in penalty shootout victories.
  • Spanish referee Mateu Lahoz dished out 18 yellow cards and one red in Argentina’s quarter-final against the Netherlands – more than in any other World Cup match.
  • If Lionel Messi plays, he will equal Lothar Matthaus for the most appearances in World Cup history (25).
  • Argentina have not won the World Cup since Diego Mardaona led them to victory in 1986.

Having seen Cristiano Ronaldo accept defeat in his quest for this most evasive of prizes, the stakes have never been higher for Messi. Before his Copa America success, Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 victory had him marginally ahead in the now 14-year long fight to be the best of a generation – maybe ever.

Now Messi has the chance to end the debate once and for all.

The celebrations of two summers ago show just how much winning this World Cup would mean to these Argentina players. They’re not just doing it for their country, they’re doing it for Messi.

Gary Neville’s view on Argentina

“They’re a bit barbaric in their approach and some of their behaviour was disgraceful [against the Netherlands],” he told the Gary Neville podcast.

“I thought they went over the top. They have a spirit here with their fans, a nastiness and there’s a feeling that they have it in them.

“They feel it for their country like you wouldn’t believe. There’s a hurt inside them and they’ve brought it to this tournament even on the bench.

“They’ve got this beauty amongst the beast in Lionel Messi, who delivers these spectacular moments of brilliance.

“Combined with the tenacity and horribleness of some of their play and defending, it looks like it could be a winning combination.

“Messi winning the World Cup to become the defining player in the tournament would even further cement his star status and what he is.”

The diminutive forward has lived up to his billing so far and almost carried his nation to the last four. His four goals and two assists see only his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe ahead of him in the race for the Golden Boot in Qatar.

Previously derided back home in Argentina for prioritising Barcelona over international football, Messi has put those concerns to bed in the past few years and timed his form perfectly for the latter stages in Qatar. He’s scored against Australia and the Netherlands in each of the knockout games on the way to the final four.

This is his chance to do what he couldn’t in the final against Germany in Brazil in 2014. To equal the achievement of Diego Maradona. To bring the World Cup back to Argentina.

France’s defence of their World Cup

Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring
Olivier Giroud scored the winner for France in Saturday’s quarter-final against England

France might not be quite the side they were in 2018, but four years on from their triumph in Russia, and they are firmly in the hunt to defend their World Cup title.

Injuries to Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Christopher Nkunku and Presnel Kimpembe threatened to derail their campaign, but head coach Didier Deschamps has assembled another group united in its quest to go all the way.

France’s key stats

  • France have never lost against Morocco, with all five of their previous meetings coming in friendlies (W3 D2).
  • Les Bleus are playing in their seventh World Cup semi-final – winning all three of their previous matches at this stage.
  • France’s Antoine Griezmann has been involved in eight goals in his last eight World Cup starts (3 goals, 5 assists).
  • Olivier Giroud has scored four goals so far in Qatar, and would be the oldest player to score five in a single edition of the tournament .

The togetherness of 2018 that was lost at the Euros has been rediscovered in Qatar. Deschamps knows how detrimental disharmony can be to a group at a major tournament. “You won’t win games because you have a happy camp, but you can lose games if you don’t have one.”

One thing that has helped Deschamps’ France win games is having Mbappe, the tournament’s top scorer.

Kylian Mbappe celebrates after scoring France's second goal against Poland
Kylian Mbappe is the top scorer in Qatar with five goals

The 23-year-old has continued his impressive World Cup scoring record in Qatar, with his five goals this time out taking him to nine goals in 12 tournament appearances. Germany’s Miroslav Klose holds the all-time record with 16.

England saw to keeping him quiet on Saturday, doubling and sometimes tripling up on him. But the fear his presence instils in opposition teams creates space for those around him. Antoine Griemzann, in particular.

French Football expert Jonathan Johnson believes he is even more important to Deschamps’ side than Mbappe.

“He is absolutely vital, he was in Russia,” Johnson told Sky Sports News. “Didier Deschamps has always been very loyal to him perhaps too loyal given how his form suffered at Barcelona and then with Atletico Madrid.

Gary Neville’s view on France

“In the first half against England, they felt very dangerous – like a tiger ready to pounce,” he told the Gary Neville podcast.

“They got the early goal and then sat back. I felt they were then dangerous if Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembele got the ball. But it never materialised.

“I knew they would concede chances defensively and I thought they were so rash thinking of Dayot Upamecano, Theo Hernandez and Aurelien Tchouameni in the penalty incident.

“I thought they made some really poor decisions in the defensive third. That will cost them against Argentina or Croatia if they play them in the final and it could cost them against Morocco.

“The lack of composure in their defending will worry Didier Deschamps. In terms of depth, Kingsley Coman comes on for Dembele, but that’s about it. There’s nothing really else.

“I know France have missed Karim Benzema but there is a better collective spirit and they work better as a team with Giroud up there.”

“But Griezmann is now by far and away France’s most key player. I think he is a very strong candidate to potentially be player of the tournament, especially because France should be able to reach the final.”

Should France overcome their defensive shortcomings and leave Qatar victorious, they would be in esteemed company. The only other nations to win consecutive World Cups are Italy (1934, 1938) and Brazil (1958, 1962).

Will the Moroccan miracle continue?

Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air by players after the 1-0 win over Portugal in their World Cup quarter final
Morocco’s head coach Walid Regragui was appointed less than three months before the World Cup

Whatever happens against France, this Morocco side will be remembered as heroes. They’re the first African nation to ever reach the World Cup semi-finals.

It is a story that has defied all the odds.

Morocco head coach Walid Regragui had been in the job for just 100 days before Saturday’s quarter-final against Portugal. Only three African nations had ever reached that stage before.

Morocco’s key stats

  • Morocco are unbeaten in their last six World Cup matches (W3 D3), the longest unbeaten run by an African nation in the tournament’s history.
  • The Atlas Lions have kept four clean sheets so far at this tournament, with the last two sides to record five in a single edition going on to lift the trophy (Spain 2010, Italy 2006).
  • Morocco have made more clearances (137) and more tackles (104) than any other side at the World Cup.
  • Youssef En-Nesyri (2) could become just the fourth African to score 3+ goals in a single edition of the World Cup.

One of the secrets to his success has been incorporating the players’ families into the camp. Achraf Hakimi’s ritual of celebrating with his mother in the crowd immediately after each game has illustrated what a clever move that was.

“I think the coach had a fantastic idea to bring all the mums, because the mums are part of our culture,” former Morocco and Fulham defender Abdes Ouaddou told Sky Sports News. “Their mums bring them power and energy.”

Next up for Regragui and Morocco? Reigning world champions France. But don’t write them off just yet. They’ve already toppled Ronaldo and Portugal, Spain and Belgium. Calling them ‘Giant Killers’ may be premature at this stage, but a win over France would certainly ensure they’re worthy of the title.

The Atlas Lions have a few stars of their own. PSG’s Achraf Hakimi, Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui the most noteworthy. Others have emerged in Qatar.

Gary Neville’s view on Morocco

“It’s remarkable what they’ve achieved against Spain and Portugal,” he told the Gary Neville podcast.

“I was thinking about how we used to defend deep with England at times, but when I’ve seen Morocco sit in, they’ve also tried to play out of the tight areas in the defensive third.

“It takes real courage to try to do that and then they also try to counter-attack. Generally, it’s the story of the tournament and it wouldn’t surprise you if they went and beat France.

“That said, Mbappe is the difference. I’m not sure Morocco will be able to handle him. They’ve got injuries as well and tough games but it’s been one of the great stories of the tournament.”

Sofyan Amrabat has been the most impressive holding midfielder at this World Cup while Azzedine Ounahi has gone from relative unknown to revelation. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou was the hero for the last-16 penalty shoot-out win over Spain and Youssef En-Nesyri the match-winner against Portugal.

Could Morocco be undone by injuries?

There are fears that injuries, especially at the back, could harm Morocco’s chances against France. Morocco’s impressive run has been defined by their defensive resilience.

No opposition player has scored against them, with Nayef Aguerd’s own-goal in their 2-1 win over Canada the only goal Bono has conceded at the tournament so far. No one boasts a better record.

That will be tested against France with West Ham’s Aguerd, Mazraoui and former Wolves defender Roman Saiss doubts for the semi-final on Wednesday night. Wide-man Ziyech is also carrying a knock.

“If they are injured it is a problem”, according to Abdes Ouaddou.

Morocco will have the entire continent of Africa and the Arab-speaking world behind them, willing them to go where no other African nation has gone before.

Can Croatia go one step further than 2018?

Croatia's Luka Modric celebrates after the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Croatia and Brazil, at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Croatia’s Luka Modric has led his nation to another shot at World Cup glory

Sky Sports News senior reporter Geraint Hughes:

Last Friday we knew before a ball was kicked that there would be a little bit of angst between Argentina and the Netherlands, however when Croatia face Argentina the dynamic will be completely different.

Croatia’s key stats

  • Croatia have not won a World Cup knockout game in 90 minutes since 1998.
  • They were losing finalists in 2018, and could become the fourth European nation to reach consecutive World Cup finals after Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
  • Croatia have won all four of their penalty shootouts at the World Cup – the only nation to win more is Argentina (5).
  • Modric has started all five of Croatia’s matches and could become only the fourth player to start six matches at a World Cup aged 37+, after Brazil’s Nilton Santos in 1962, Italy’s Dino Zoff in 1982 and England’s Peter Shilton in 1990.

Croatia don’t do hype. They don’t look to whip up controversy. They prefer to portray a calm, often steely demeanour at tournaments. If there’s a national stereotype of a ‘Croatian’, it puts events such as football and even the immense achievement of successive World Cup semi-finals into context against a backdrop of a young nation born from conflict.

Both Celtic’s Josip Juranovic and Dinamo Zagreb’s Bruno Petkovic were asked why the team don’t seem to be affected by pressure, alluding to their extra-time comeback against Brazil in which they beat the pre-tournament favourites on penalties.

Gary Neville’s view on Croatia

“Croatia will dominate the midfield as they’re better than Argentina in that area,” he told the Gary Neville podcast.

“It’s just whether they have the killer instinct up front. I have a feeling they could dominate large parts of the game. They have a midfield that dominates the ball and who know how to play with each other.

“Ian Wright said to me around 10 days ago that he felt Croatia could win it and I thought never. I felt they weren’t anywhere near as good as they were four years ago, and here we are.

“Can they beat Argentina? Yes, they can. Luka Modric is a star. He was a fantastic player at Tottenham but he’s gone on to achieve at Real Madrid is unbelievable. He dominates extra time and every pass he makes is beautiful. There’s perfection even in the way he plays the simple pass.”

It’s nothing to do with football and all to do with their upbringing. Croatia only declared independence in 1991 after the fall of communist rule throughout the region including the break-up of Yugoslavia and a harsh, bloody & tragic war that effectively ran until 1995.

The players in this Croatia squad were either born just before independence, just after or during the early, formative years of a young democratic Croatia. Juranovic and Petkovic spoke about the influence of the parents of all the players in their outlook on life and football.

Dominik Livakovic starts the celebrations as Croatia beat Brazil on penalties
Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic has been the hero in successive shoot-out victories

Their schooling as well has played a huge part in the psychological make-up of the players. They didn’t speak about their early football experiences, their first kick-about, their first match. It was about the grounding they received from parents and school teachers who had lived through the difficult end of Yugoslavia and a war where there were casualties on all sides in the conflict. It’s an upbringing that few in the UK could imagine.

So overt excitement, panic and succumbing to pressure on the football field just don’t seem to be factors Croatia have to spend much time dealing with. It has served their great generation well.

The likes of Modric and Ivan Perisic have shown their class for years, but the old guard have been helped by a few younger players who have added quality and energy. This isn’t just the class of 2018 on another good run.

Can magician Modric make it all the way?

Messi isn’t the only man in the semi-finals taking his last shot at the World Cup.

Modric, too, is out of time after this tournament. The 37-year-old has been instrumental in orchestrating Croatia’s midfield in Qatar.

For a side that has not won a World Cup knockout game in regulation time since 1998, Modric’s ability to keep hold of possession and dictate play has been vital to frustrate and tire opposition teams.

Modric, like Messi, has won nearly everything and the World Cup would be the perfect finale for the Real Madrid man.

Croatia will need all their mental steeliness and powers of concentration to overcome not just Messi and his mates, but the fervent support for Argentina that will await them at the enormous Lusail Stadium.

You can expect Croatia to deal with the occasion in a way only few could. They’ll drown out the noise, because this is just a football match.

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