As the World Cup enters its final week, two days of pure drama over the weekend resulted in the semi-finalists being decided in four matches which had almost everything, and at certain points during the games, the eventual quartet could have been entirely different.
Brazil looked odds on to make it, but allowed Croatia back in; the Netherlands bravely fought from two goals down to take Argentina to penalties; Portugal missed a host of chances against Morocco; and had England scored from their second penalty seven minutes from time, they would surely have gone on to beat France, having been the better side for most parts.
It wasn’t to be and a totally unpredicted final four emerged, who will now battle it out in two more games to establish the finalists, who will then battle it out in the most important match in the football calendar.
Croatia stun the favourites
With the clock running down, Brazil were show-boating to some extent, when the Croatians pinched the ball deep in their own half and broke at speed, with the little maestro Luka Modric, not for the first time, choosing the right pass, which released Mislav Orsic and his cross was swept home, via a slight deflection, by Bruno Petkovic to take the tie to penalties.
Crucially, it had opposite effect on the two teams; Croatia were given a huge lift, whereas the Brazilians were visibly shaken, almost as if the confidence had been completely sucked out of them, as it dawned on them that they might just have thrown away a victory that they had in the bag. Sure enough, they proceeded to make a mess of their spot-kicks and the Croatian kept their nerve to seal a famous victory.
Argentina hold their nerve
A couple of hours later Argentina also appeared to be cruising to the semi-finals with a comfortable two goal lead; but out of nowhere the Dutch found a way back and grabbed an injury time equaliser
through Wout Weghorst, who latched onto an audacious free-kick, to bring the sides level at 2-2.
However, great credit should go to the Argentines, who could have folded, but instead rallied and were the stronger team in extra-time, and they took that momentum into the penalties to complete a great win.
2018 appearance in final endorsed
This sets up a meeting between Croatia and Argentina, which is probably not the game that the competition organisers were hoping for when the groups were originally drawn, with the purists preferring a touch of Brazilian flair, to dogged Balkan spirit.
However, the Croats appearance in a second successive World Cup semi-final, proves their run in the 2018 Russian tournament, which actually took them to the final, was definitely no fluke. They deserve enormous praise for eliminating the tournament favourites and in taking Brazil to extra-time they maintained an extraordinary record.
Extra-time almost guaranteed
With the game ending in a draw at the final whistle, it remarkably meant that eight of their last nine major tournament knock-out games, stretching all the way back to 2008, have gone into an additional 30 minutes. Incredibly the only one that did not was the last World Cup final in which they were defeated by the French. Of course the possibility of a re-match is still very much on the cards, with the French competing in the other semi-final.
Quality in all the key areas
The Croatian midfield trio of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Modric, have looked really good together, never more so than in that quarter-final. Modric still oozes class, even at the age of 37, and if he performs to his best then they really do have a great chance against anybody.
With excellent tournament performances coming from others such as: Josip Juranovic, Josko Gvardiol, and ace stopper Dominik Livakovic, they add up to a very impressive unit, who simply do not know when they are beaten.
Home from home
The Argentines are the only one of these two sides to have experienced the atmosphere of the spectacular 88,000 capacity Lucail Stadium during this competition; with this fixture being their third time at the venue, and they would dearly love to make it four by returning for the final. They beat the Mexicans comfortably enough on their second visit, but were on the receiving end of one of the most surprising results of the tournament on their first outing, slipping up 2-1 to Saudi Arabia.
Messi looking menacing
Naturally, everybody looks towards Lionel Messi and his performances and influence have steadily improved game by game in this tournament, and the calmness of his spot-kick against the Netherlands settled those to come after him in the shoot-out, and his celebration was one of somebody who seemed to have total belief in not just himself, but equally as important, his teammates too.
Fabulous backing lifts team to greater effort
The one thing that is guaranteed is that they will have the majority of support, as their fans have turned up in huge numbers at every game so far, and in tight contests they can give that extra couple of percent to the team, which can make all the difference. The Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni seems to have them back on track, and they now have a fabulous opportunity to lift the trophy for the first time since 1986, when they won at the tournament held in Mexico.
With this being the first of the semis, neither side will be distracted by already knowing their potential opponents in the final, so they can fully focus on the job in hand.
First for Africa and Arab nation
If Croatia’s appearance in the semis is a surprise, then Morocco’s falls into the stunning category. They have now seen off Belgium, Spain and Portugal, so they would be entitled to feel they need fear nobody.
Just making it this far is a major achievement, as they have become the first representative from not just the African continent, but also the first Arab country with a Muslim majority, to reach the last four of the biggest competition in world football. They have gone one better than three other African countries: Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010, who could not progress beyond the quarter-finals.
Definitely not without a chance
They will not be turning up to simply make up the numbers, they will be determined to put on a show, and France will pay the price if they underestimate them, or fail to show them the respect they deserve. They have conceded just once in their five games at this tournament – and that was an own goal – and are a very well organised, highly disciplined outfit, who go about their business efficiently and have a style that can frustrate and then hurt any opposition.
The unlikely re-match?
When the Moroccans played out a dour goalless draw against the Croats in the opening Group F game nearly three weeks ago, there would have been massive betting odds placed on those two contesting the final later in the competition; but this is a very real possibility now, and just goes to prove how in tournament football, it is not how you start, it is more about how you finish.
Just like Argentina, their support throughout has been phenomenal… the authorities will need two grounds for the final if they both make it! They are now unbeaten in eight games under coach Walid Regragui, who believes his team have the support of everybody, excluding the other three semi-finalists, because of their story and the way they play with passion, heart, and desire; plus more than a fair share of skill.
Luck plays a part
The French were far from at their best when they scraped through their quarter-final with the English; but by their own admission had luck on their side, which is something every World Cup winner will admit is necessary, if their team are to go on and lift the trophy.
They will undoubtedly provide the sternest of tests that Morocco have come across thus far, and it is ominous that they have reached this stage without really playing to their maximum.
Still possibility goals record could be set
When they scored their second and ultimately the winning goal against England it was the 157th in the tournament up to present, still 14 short of the record set in France in 1998 and then equalled in Brazil in 2014. With just four games to go, including the third place play-off match, there remains an outside chance of setting a new best total.
French massive favourites
France are overwhelming favourites going into the game and will be expected to win, but expectations can weigh heavy, especially once teams reach this point in a competition. They do have a formidable looking squad though, so it would be the biggest shock of the very many that there already have been in Qatar, were Morocco to get the better of them.
Messi vs Mbappe?
A French victory would set up the prospect of a France/Argentina final, which would provide the added spice of arguably the two best players on the planet: Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, coming into direct opposition.
The Moroccans and the Croats will be doing their upmost to ensure that doesn’t happen, but as the tournament nears its conclusion, there will without doubt still be more twists and turns, before the 2022 champions are crowned.