Argentina enjoy a well-deserved celebration.Photo: Getty Images
Sometimes those covering the game need to shape a narrative into the right shape. And then Lionel Messi does that sometimes.
Argentina 3 – 0 Croatia
My goodness, maybe we should have let Brazil through after all.
Croatia is such a strange study. In the end they won one of six games in this tournament. They certainly didn’t deserve to beat Morocco or Belgium. It’s debatable whether they should have come close to going into overtime against Brazil given how many shots and chances Brazil have accumulated. Dominik Livaković has just developed into a hydra in goal, which isn’t really something you’re planning as a team, but it’s still worthy of giving your team a chance to come forward. It’s easy to point out the Croatian death triangle in midfield that Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović have become because they are such great players. And we all need an explanation of how Croatia just survived the last two World Cups despite not winning a game in regular time. But without Livaković’s exploits or Romelu Lukaku failing to find the right direction in the second half of the game against Belgium, Croatia are not here. You are not around here.
And Argentina somehow showed why they just couldn’t do it in the semifinals. Argentina coach Lionel Scoloni was aware of Croatia’s strength and planned accordingly, setting his side up in a 4-4-1-1 with essentially four central midfielders in the middle. While Croatia had the most possession in the first half and four Argentinian players, all capable of playing defensive midfielders surrounding magical troika, Croatia found every passing lane or combination locked. On this map you can see that the Croatian midfield found many passes to each other, but basically nothing beyond that:
Of course, Argentina’s defensive plan made their attack a bit shaky in the first half hour of the game. Rodrigo De Paul split on the right and Alexis Mac Allister tried to go wide on the left but that’s not really what either of these guys do. Argentina wasn’t much of a threat in the first few turns of the game. But when Dejan Lovren is around, even in a Croatia shirt, there’s always room for mischief:
Lovren, for some reason only he will know, is a full 5-10 yards behind the rest of his defensive line trying to sideline Julian Alvarez. Lovren’s charity gives Mac Allister the space to play that pass to Alvarez, resulting in the penalty that Messi viciously converted.
The one-goal lead only strengthened Argentina’s stride, and suddenly they found combinations and lanes everywhere. Their second goal had a huge helping of luck as Alvarez had not one but two Croatian tackles that saw the ball bounce right back and then in front of him, including the second which resulted in the ball staying just there, around him to end. Still, he carried the ball about 70 yards to get there.
It was a no-brainer from there as Argentina had no intention of making that two-goal lead as interesting as their last one against the Dutch. They were meaty in one-on-one combat, leading to them raging their way forward on the counter. They iced the game on one of these, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The story you’ll hear here until Sunday is how Argentina grew into this tournament after losing to Saudi Arabia. But it’s not quite as accurate. They weren’t all that bad against Saudi Arabia and only got caught by two lightning strikes that will never happen again. They were understandably nervous and reluctant against Mexico with their tournament at stake. They didn’t really have to come up with anything against Poland, who were happy to trudge away with a defeat that threw them out of the group. All three of their knockout games looked the same, and they cautiously waded in before taking the lead. The only difference here is that they safely defended that lead thanks to the third goal and the Croatians’ lack of bite.
That doesn’t mean Argentina is a false finalist, and far from it. Their midfield simply robbed Croatia of life and nobody could solve the latter.
For all the talk that Argentina has failed Messi time and time again and that Croatia can only win, this will now be Messi’s second World Cup final after the three Copa America finals he has dragged Argentina to. If Gonzalo Higuain hadn’t drawn the beta version of a Lukaku in multiple finals, the discussion would be completely different. Argentina have the same knack for progressing as Croatia. They may not look like world champions, but they keep getting better.
And now it’s a step towards completion.
goal of the day
I mean come on…
35-year-olds shouldn’t overtake 20-year-olds, let alone twice in a matter of seconds. Messi doesn’t do the one-man-band thing much anymore, preferring to combine with Neymar and Mbappe at PSG to score equally nice goals. Or the long-range bullets Mexico scrutinized in the group stage. It’s a farce that somehow this is still in his locker. And that’s not against a henchman like Lovren. Joško Gvardiol was arguably the best defender at the tournament. His soul is now paste.
Did VAR mess something up?
No, free of it. It’s probably saving its big moment for the finale.
Did Qatar/FIFA mess something up?
Did Alexi Lalas say something stupid?
Usual babble, but a word on those Tom Rinaldi video snippets that have become a parody of himself. He had two today, one via penalties and one via Messi and Modric. They could have swapped the voice over on both and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
They all start the same and continue as if there was another ellipsis every three words. It’s meant to build drama, I think, but it just sounds like he forgot how to read the script. “They’re the best players… of their generation… and now… they… score… as… rivals… again… just like they did back then… in Spain… pause for effect… oh, isn’t that epic?” Dude, just shut up.
That penalty one contained another Rinaldi staple in which something inanimate or nebulous speaks in the first person. This time, the actual penalty spot should tell the tale. Which ended with the hilarious slap-me-in-the-groin “I’m…the PK” dude, nobody the fuck call it “PK”. It used to not play defense for the Canadiens and Predators. Not everything is a tale of the run on the Death Star.
Both perfectly support Rinaldis Puff piece on Harry Kane, which somehow left Kane as an underdog, although he was an unmissable hope for Spurs fans as he could shave and scored 21 goals for them at the age of 21. The twist was that Kane was “saved” by his love for Tom Brady. Serious. Rinaldi has taken the torch from Jim Gray as a reporter who got so high on his own farts he thinks he’s now Homer (Greek, not animated).
A eulogy for the deceased – Croatia
It’s sad that this will be Modric’s last World Cup as he’s been a treat in the last two tournaments as well as last year’s Champions League run with Madrid, particularly when he failed to consistently throw them over the line against Chelsea, City, and Liverpool. But he did. If there has been a better technical midfielder on this stage I have yet to see him and his ability to play any role in midfield has been a true marvel. Especially considering he’s basically a hobbit.
That will be Modric’s story because the best midfielder in the world shouldn’t come from Croatia, and Croatia shouldn’t make such a splash at consecutive World Cups. And yet they did, mostly on the back of Modric and a lot of luck.
I still have no idea how good Croatia actually is. I can only say that they played really well against Canada. Against Japan they were ok and against Brazil they were resilient, one could argue, which was enough to end up in every penalty shootout. But they don’t ask like at a World Cup.
Still, you can only drive on the rim for so long, no matter how unlikely you would do it, as was the case in Croatia. Eventually, real quality comes to trump you. The difference between the quarterfinals and semifinals was that Brazil basically ceded the middle of the park to Croatia. Argentina got it. And now it is time for a new generation for Croatia and it is very likely that it will never match the achievements of this generation. But it’s not always true that history is only written by the winners. People still talk about the great Hungarian teams of the 1950s. Or Brazil 1982. Or Cruyff’s Holland in the 70s. Remarkably, Croatia has earned that in two tournaments. Which in itself is an achievement.