Many goals in the desert
Sometimes those who cover the game have to adapt to a narrative. And then sometimes Lionel Messi does that.
Argentina 3 – 0 Croatia
Hell, maybe we should have let Brazil pass after all.
Croatia is such a strange study. In the end, they won one out of six matches in this tournament. They certainly didn’t deserve to beat Morocco or Belgium. It’s debatable whether they should have even been close to extra time against Brazil, given the number of shots and chances Brazil have racked up. Dominik Livaković has just become a hydra in goal, which is not really something you expect as a team, but still worth giving your team a chance to advance. It’s easy to point to the Croatian midfielder’s triangle of death that Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović had become, because they are such great players. And we all need an explanation for how Croatia have continued to survive the last two World Cups despite failing to win a match in regular time. But without Livaković’s heroism or Romelu Lukaku’s inability to figure out which was the right direction to face in the second half of their game against Belgium, Croatia are not there. They are far from here.
And Argentina kind of showed why they just weren’t up to it in the semis. Argentina coach Lionel Scoloni was certainly aware of Croatia’s strength and planned accordingly, setting up his side in a 4-4-1-1 formation with essentially four central midfielders in the middle. While Croatia had most of the ball in the first half, with four Argentine players all of whom can play as defensive midfielders surrounding the magic troika, Croatia found any passing lane or combination closed. On this map you can see that the Croatian midfielder found plenty of assists but nothing more:
Of course, Argentina’s defensive plan made their attack a bit wobbly in the first half hour of the game.. Rodrigo De Paul was splitting on the right side and Alexis Mac Allister was trying to get wide on the left, but that’s not really what these two guys are doing.. Argentina weren’t much of a threat in the opening pangs of the game. But when Dejan Lovren is around, even in a Croatian shirt, there’s always the possibility of mischief:
Lovren, for some reason only he knows, is 5-10 yards behind the rest of his defensive line, who are trying to put Julian Alvarez offside. Charity from Lovren gives Mac Allister the space to play that pass to Alvarez, leading to the penalty which Messi viciously converted.
The one-goal lead only starched Argentina’s march, and suddenly they found combinations and lanes everywhere. Their second goal was hugely lucky as Alvarez had not one but two Croatian tackles from the ball bouncing just back then in front of him, including the second which caused the ball to sit there for it to finish. Still, he carried the ball around 70 yards to get there.
It was child’s play from there, as Argentina had no intention of making that two-goal lead as interesting as their last against the Dutch. They were meaty in the tackle, which led to their forward antics on the counter. They iced the game on one of them, which we’ll get to in a second.
The story you’ll hear from here until Sunday is how Argentina grew in this tournament after losing to Saudi Arabia. But not everything is so precise. They were barely that bad against Saudi Arabia, and were surprised by two thunderbolts strikes that will never strike again. They were understandably nervous and cautious against Mexico because their tournament was on the line. They didn’t really have to do anything against Poland, who were more than happy to get away with a loss that put them on the line. still eliminated from the group. Their three knockout matches looked alike, they carefully fought their way before taking the lead. The only difference here is that they looked certain to protect that lead, thanks to a third goal and Croatia’s lack of teeth.
This does not mean that Argentina are false finalists, and far from it. Their midfield just snuffed out the life of Croatia, and no one was able to solve the latter.
Despite all the talk of how Argentina consistently failed Messi, and how Croatia know how to do is win, this will now be Messi’s second World Cup final along with all three finals in the Copa America at which he coached Argentina. If Gonzalo Higuain hadn’t released the beta version of a Lukaku in multiple finals, the discussion would be totally different. Argentina has the same talent for advance that Croatia does. They may not look like world beaters in the process, but they keep getting there.
And now it’s a step towards closure.
goal of the day
I mean… come on…
35-year-olds aren’t supposed to turn 20, much less do it twice in seconds. Messi doesn’t do the solo group thing much anymore, preferring to combine with Neymar and Mbappe at PSG to score equally fine goals. Or the long-range bullets that Mexico saw in the group stage. It’s a joke that it’s still in his locker. And it’s not against a lackey like Lovren. Joško Gvardiol was arguably the best defender in this tournament. His soul is now pasty.
Did VAR screw up?
No, free from that. Probably saving his big moment for the final.
Did Qatar/FIFA screw something up?
Did Alexi Lalas say something stupid?
Usual ridiculousness, but a word about those Tom Rinaldi video clips that have become a parody of themselves. He had two today, one on penalties and one on Messi and Modric. You could have swapped the voiceover on the two and I doubt anyone noticed.
They all start the same way and continue as if every three words there is another ellipsis. It’s supposed to build drama, I guess, but it looks like he forgot how to read the script. “They are the best players…of their generation…and now…they meet…as…rivals…again…just like they did…in Spain…pause for effect…oh right epic ?” Dude, shut your mouth.
The penalty kick one contained another Rinaldi staple, where something inanimate or nebulous speaks in first person. This time the penalty spot was supposed to tell this thing. Which ended with the hilarious punch-me-in-the-groin,”I am… the PK” Man, nobody fucking call him “PK” play defense for the Canadiens and Predators. Not everything is a retelling of the race on the Death Star.
These two backup perfectly Rinaldi puff piece on Harry Kane, which made Kane the underdog even though he was a hot prospect for Spurs fans as he knew how to shave and had scored 21 goals at 21 for them. Most importantly, Kane was “saved” by his love for Tom Brady. Seriously. Rinaldi picked up the mantle from Jim Gray as a reporter who got so stoned on his own farts he thinks he’s now Homer (Greek, not animated).
A eulogy for the deceased – Croatia
It’s sad that this is Modric’s last World Cup, as he’s been a treat in the last two tournaments, as well as last year’s Champions League with Madrid, especially when he wasn’t. didn’t have to throw them over the line consistently against Chelsea, City. , and Liverpool. But he did. If there has been a better technical midfielder on this stage, I haven’t seen him, and his ability to play all midfield roles was a real marvel. Especially considering he’s basically a hobbit.
This will be Modric’s story, because the best midfielder in the world isn’t really supposed to come from Croatia, and Croatia aren’t supposed to make so much noise in back-to-back World Cups. And yet they did, mostly on Modric’s back and with great luck.
I still have no idea how good Croatia is. We can only say that they played very well against Canada. They were good against Japan, and they were resilient against Brazil, you could say, which was enough to get penalties in each. They don’t ask how in a World Cup, though.
Yet you can only surf the margins for so long, no matter how unlikely you were to do so, as Croatia were. Eventually, true quality comes to eradicate you. The difference between the quarters and the semis was that Brazil basically left the middle of the park for Croatia. Argentina packed it. And now it’s time for a new generation for Croatia, and chances are they’ll never come close to the achievements of this one. But it is not always true that history is written only by the victors. We still talk about the great Hungarian teams of the 50s. Or Brazil 1982. Or Holland of the 70s of Cruyff. Remarkably, that’s what Croatia won in two tournaments. which is quite a achievement in itself.