Argentina vs Croatia — Preview

Match Preview

Argentina were stunned by Cameroon in their first game of the 1990 World Cup but recovered to reach the Final. 32 years on, La Albiceleste found themselves on the wrong end of a loss to 25/1 chances, Saudi Arabia, in their opening match. The 2-1 loss doesn’t tell the full story, as Argentina had three goals disallowed for offside, and Expected Goals favoured the South Americans by a margin of 2.30 to 0.15. It was the first time Argentina had lost a World Cup Finals match in 90 minutes after scoring first, since 1958. In the four games since, Argentina has scored the first goal each time and has managed to avoid defeat, despite squandering a two-goal advantage in the Quarter-final. On Matchday 2, against Mexico, the teams were deadlocked for over an hour, until a moment of Lionel Messi magic unlocked the Mexican defence, and Enzo Fernández added a second. Two-second half goals accounted for Poland, guaranteeing Argentina the top spot in Group C, with Messi again on target.

Lionel Scaloni’s men always looked in control against Australia in the Round of 16, taking a 2-0 lead, though a long-range deflected shot pulled one back for Australia. A confrontation with another of Football’s superpowers, the Netherlands, was always likely to represent a step up in class. Argentina looked to be cruising at 2-0 but two Wout Weghorst goals forced the game into extra time. The second came from a well-worked free kick, 11 minutes into stoppage time — the latest goal scored in regulation time in World Cup history. Argentina have averaged 62% possession in the tournament so far, and have registered 30 shots on target while allowing only six.

The form of Croatia’s 0-0 draw against Morocco has been given a boost, with the North Africans progressing further through the tournament than ever before. In truth, Croatia’s opening fixture was one with few chances — with both sides combining to produce just four shots on target — but such has been the style of Morocco’s World Cup games. Things opened up on Matchday 2, with Croatia falling behind after just 68 seconds to an Alphonso Davies goal, before putting four past Canada. Needing a point against top seeds, Belgium to reach the knockout phase, Croatia held out for a 0-0 draw, with Romelu Lukaku unable to convert a series of late chances for the Red Devils.

Croatia’s first two knockout games followed a familiar pattern. Having fallen behind against Japan to a goal just before half-time, the Blazers had an Ivan Perisic header to thank for taking the game into extra time, after which goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic became the hero. The Dinamo Zagreb ‘keeper saved three spot-kicks as Croatia eliminated Samurai Blue. Again, they trailed against Brazil — this time to a superb individual goal by Neymar. But Croatia showed their trademark resilience and equalised in the 117th minute, forcing the game into another penalty competition, despite Brazil having 11 shots on goal to Croatia’s one. Croatia converted all four of their penalties, Livakovic pulled off another save, and Marquinhos’ effort hit the post, to send the Croats to a third World Cup Semi-final. Across their five games, Zlatko Dalic’s side has averaged 54% possession and registered 21 shots on target, while allowing 22.

Scaloni decided to match up with the Netherlands’ formation, opting for a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation but is likely to switch back to either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 system against Croatia. He looks to have made the right call in replacing Lautaro Martinez with Julián Álvarez in attack. Croatia haven’t deviated from their 4-3-3 formation throughout the tournament. Having put out the world’s number one ranked nation, 12th placed Croatia now takes on the number three team in the world.

It’s two wins apiece with one draw over the five previous head-to-head meetings between these two teams. Four years ago, Argentina’s players confronted Manager Jorge Sampaoli after a 3-0 Group Stage loss to Croatia. Argentina won the previous World Cup encounter 1-0 in 1998, in the first phase, but Croatia advanced further through the tournament, finishing third while Argentina crashed out in the last eight. Croatia’s World Cups have fallen into two distinct categories: on three occasions they have made it to at least the semi-finals, with the other three journeys all ending in the Group Stage. Five of Croatia’s last six World Cup knockout games have gone to extra time, with four requiring penalties to decide the outcome. They have fallen behind in each of those six matches and rallied to qualify from five of those ties. They will hope to make it another long night at the Lusail Stadium, where the winner will return for the Final.

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