The World Cup has been fantastic with plenty of shock results and exciting games to finish off the group stages, followed by many upsets in the knockouts, and even a handful of penalty shoot-outs have graced our screens.
As we head into the final four games of the World Cup we have both of the reigning finalists, a group of thugs, and Africa’s first-ever World Cup semi-finalist.
Here’s a look at the fixtures and what to expect
Argentina vs Croatia
Argentina is playing in their second World Cup semi-final in three tournaments. Their last appearance was a 2014 defeat to an extra-time winner from Germany’s Mario Gotze. This time around, they are up against 2018 runners-up Croatia.
This is likely to be both Lionel Messi and Luka Modric’s last chances at winning a World Cup as the latter will be retiring from international football for sure, and the prior hinted at a similar retirement, too.
Against the Netherlands, Argentina played a very professional game until Wout Wieghorst came on to overpower the Latin Americans with two clinical finishes. Eventually, the South Americans went through but it was the referee that became the talking point.
Mateu Lahoz handed out a whopping 18 yellow cards during the quarter-final which subsequently got him sent home. However, it feels as though the unfair criticism of the Argentine camp might have had some influence on the decision, too.
Messi said: “I don’t want to speak about referees because after they will sanction you. But people saw what happened.
“I think FIFA must take care of this, it cannot put a referee like that for a match of such magnitude, of such importance. The referee cannot fail to be up to the task.”
Messi is right about one thing, we all saw what happened and Argentina was lucky to keep 10 men on the field.
After such a decision, there are plenty of people questioning the already questionable intentions of FIFA in trying to make sure Messi wins the World Cup. It is no secret that the previous FIFA Chairman and executives looked favorably at Messi, especially when they awarded him the Golden Ball award in 2014 – which Blatter later accepted was a mistake – instead of Arjen Robben who was unquestionably the best player at the tournament.
I know plenty of people would like to see Messi cap off a brilliant career with the one trophy both he and Cristiano Ronaldo dreamed of, but it is very difficult to get behind an Argentine team full of thugs. Especially when you consider that seeing Modric lift the trophy would also make a lot of people happy.
The Croatian captain is arguably one of the all-time great midfielders, a reigning World Cup finalist, and a Golden Ball winner. The Balkan nation knocked out favorites Brazil in the last round and will be looking to do the same to their neighbor. The likelihood is that for the Croats to win they will need extra time or penalties again.
The Croatians haven’t won a single knockout game in the last two World Cups within 90 minutes. In Russia, they needed penalties against Denmark and Russia, and an extra-time winner against England before losing to France in the final. This time round, they won on penalties against both Japan and Brazil.
The game will likely be a tight affair which could lead to plenty of yellow cards and even a red, especially if Argentina isn’t winning. The Argentines are so fixated on winning the World Cup for Messi that they resorted to cynical fouling and unsportsmanlike actions. Referee Daniele Orsato is not one to allow for too many obvious fouls without brandishing his cards.
Prediction: Croatia (Extra-time victory)
France vs Morocco
Morocco has become the first African team to make a World Cup Semi-Final by beating Portugal after becoming the 4th African team – 42nd nation in history – to make the previous round by beating Portugal’s Iberian neighbor Spain on penalties.
If you think you can name all 42 nations to make a World Cup quarter-final you should try out the BBC quiz on their website – I managed to get 39.
However, their appearance is more than deserved when you look at the numbers!
Morocco’s defence has only been breached once by Canada (and that was an own goal), but more telling is the teams that haven’t managed to score past them. Reigning World Cup finalists and one of the three other remaining nations Croatia, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal drew a blank. And therein lies the road to success for an African team.
Since 1986, African teams have started making the knockout rounds, with Morocco being the first in history. The ’90s saw Cameroon and Nigeria take over the reins. The likes of Ghana and Ivory Coast were expected to make it to glory but faltered. What Morocco has, that previous African teams were lacking, is a top-class goalkeeper.
Yassine Buono is well-known to La Liga fans and now the rest of the world thanks to his performances. Against Spain, Buono kept his third clean sheet of the tournament – most by an African keeper in World Cup history – with the North African team progressing after penalties.
If truth be told, once the game went to penalties, it was pretty much all over for the Spanish who have an atrocious record. The defeat against Morocco was the 4th time they’ve been eliminated via spot kicks out of five shootouts they have had at the World Cup. Buono saved all three of Spain’s kicks, despite Spain practicing 1000 penalties during training.
Buono then kept his fourth clean sheet against a Portugal side that scored half-a-dozen past Switzerland in the previous round. And the keeper will need another flawless performance if Morocco is to be the first-ever team outside of Europe or South America to make the World Cup Final.
The only previous nations to get close were the USA (1930), Turkey (2002), and South Korea (2002).
All that stands in the way of Morocco is the reigning World Champion France.
France has been fantastic throughout the tournament despite missing key starters such as Kimpembe, Pogba, Matuidi, Kante, and Benzema. The lack of options in midfield has arguably made coach Didier Deschamp’s job a lot easier to maintain peace within the camp. The major disturbances were between Kylian Mbappe and Adrien Rabiot’s parents mainly due to the latter being overlooked. This time around, Rabiot has managed to play every game which wouldn’t have been the case if the squad was full strength.
In the last round, France was able to beat England in a tightly contested affair despite being outplayed for around two-thirds of the match. Ultimately, England was the better team, the referee directly affected the score, but it’s the same old story for the three lions. What is baffling though is that the match referee Wilton Sampaio was still considered for the World Cup final until earlier today.
The French and Deschamps are hoping to write their name in the history records as back-to-back winners. France will be the third nation to achieve the feat and Deschamps will be the second coach.
An intriguing game awaits us, but one that may be a step too far for the North Africans who are likely to fall at the last hurdle like the three previous nations outside of the top two footballing continents to ever get this far.
Prediction: France 3 Morocco 1