WITH a population of just 3.9 million people, Croatia have done remarkably well to reach the cusp of a second-consecutive World Cup final.
In 2018, Zlatko Dalic and his players shocked the world as they made it all the way to the final in Russia, beating titans such as England along the way before eventually falling to winners France at the last hurdle.
AFPStar players Lionel Messi and Luka Modric are their teams’ key men[/caption]
With an ageing squad which includes 37-year star and captain Luka Modric, Dalic has regalvanised his troops as they look to finally take home the crown this time around.
However, a hungry Argentina, spearheaded by Lionel Messi at what will likely be his last ever World Cup, stands in the way.
The Copa America champions came close to lifting the golden trophy in 2014 but missed out by a goal to Mario Götze’s Germany.
Hence, Argentina have not won a World Cup since 1986 when legend Diego Maradona dominated the football stage.
Maradona and Messi had quite a lot in common, from style of play to status among the Argentine people but one thing that separates the duo is the latter’s inability to lead his country to glory.
This is likely his last chance and beating Croatia in this semi-final fixture will take Messi and his side one step closer, but it certainly won’t be easy.
We have highlighted three key tactical areas where Argentina against Croatia will be won or lost.
How do you stop Messi? This is a question that has plagued the minds of hundreds of managers since the little Argentine made his debut for Barcelona almost two decades ago.
Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer, nor a blueprint or guide to look towards for help.
Many have tried to stop him, and most have failed, but until the day he hangs up his boots, the question will live on.
Limiting Messi’s effect on the game is truly the key for Croatia to reach yet another World Cup final.
Dalic was asked in his press conference on Saturday about his plans to stifle the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.
He said: “We need to guard against Messi, but not in a player-on-player style, as we didn’t in our last meeting.
“We know how much he runs, how much he likes to play with the ball at his feet and the key to our defensive phase will be discipline.
“If we repeat the same thing as against Brazil, which is that we are close [to him], that we stand by the player, we have nothing to fear.”
Going man-for-man against Messi is a common method that many have attempted over the course of his illustrious career.
However, the 35-year-old’s movement is still so sharp even towards the end of his playing days that man-marking him seems pointless, especially given that in a one-versus-one situation, the likelihood is that Messi will come out on top.
Against the Netherlands in the quarter-final, Nathan Ake gave a glimpse to the world of how even the movement of Messi’s shoulders can cause marking players to fall by the wayside.
Ake steps out of the backline to get tight to Messi, but, with one slight drop of the shoulder, Messi has an inch of room to pass to Molina who scores.
So what alternatives are there to stop Messi?
Well, the only other method a defending team can use to thwart the skipper is by playing zonally.
The best way to describe zonal marking is to use Jose Mourinho’s analogy of creating a ‘jail cell’ around the attackers, with the walls of the cell being defending players.
This way, Croatia can have multiple players around Messi at all times, keeping men at a close distance to the Argentine superstar.
If Messi receives the ball within his cell, the Croatian defenders can close together in numbers and win it back.
Australia have created a cell around Messi. Four players gang up on the magician when he receives the ball.
It is likely that Dalic was referencing this style of defending given that he denied the possibility of his side using a man-marking approach.
Making it ugly
Argentina were cruising during their quarter-final tie, having gone 2-0 up with around twenty minutes left in the match.
Prior to Messi doubling the South Americans’ lead from the penalty spot, the Netherlands were still trying to build their way through the thirds, breaking Argentina down using Louis van Gaal’s typical possession-based style.
The team were going nowhere. Argentina began sitting deeper and were happy to allow the Dutch to have the ball in the first two thirds of the pitch.
Something needed to change or the Dutch were going home with a whimper. Van Gaal did something not so uncharacteristic.
The legendary manager always has a trick up his sleeve – a Plan B in case all else fails.
At Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini performed this role really well for Van Gaal.
Luka Modric played more than 100 successful passes against Brazil
With the Dutch national team on Friday, the Plan B was Wout Weghorst, and possibly Luuk de Jong too.
Weghorst scored twice, clawing the Netherlands back from despair and giving a glimmer of hope of semi-final progression.
Argentina had no answer to the change from Van Gaal.
Both Weghorst and De Jong dominated in the air as Holland began lumping long balls up towards the duo.
Lisandro Martinez, Nicolas Otamendi and Cristian Romero together forms quite a small back three in terms of height and the trio were getting bullied by the two target men.
The Netherlands created their first goal by going direct to Weghorst.
This is something that Croatia can take advantage of during this huge semi-final clash.
Argentina want to be comfortable when defending.
Lionel Scaloni is more than happy for the opposition to pass them to death in front of the backline just like the Netherlands did.
However, while it certainly won’t be pretty, going direct to the forward line against Argentina’s centre-backs could be really effective for Dalic’s side.
With players like Marko Livaja, Ivan Perisic, Bruno Petkovic and Ante Budimir in the forward ranks and all being tall, Dalic may look to play far more direct against Argentina than has been seen so far at the World Cup by Croatia.
Of the four teams in the semi-finals, Croatia have the second-best defensive record behind Morocco who have conceded merely once.
When the two sides met on the opening week, the score ended goalless which seems fitting.
Nonetheless, opponents have scored against Croatia three times in Qatar, including only two during normal time.
The biggest reason for this is Croatia’s defensive block which combines an unbreakable backline and a hard-working midfield filled with quality and persistence.
Both the defence and midfield work tirelessly and in unison out of possession which has made Croatia so tough to break down.
Given that Dalic has deployed a 4-3-3 throughout the competition so far, Croatia drop into a 4-5-1 deep defensive block, with the wingers lower alongside the midfield trio.
The three men in the middle are vital for applying pressure to their opposite numbers, constantly stepping out and trying to close down the player on the ball.
Being as aggressive as Croatia’s midfield requires a lot of communication with the defensive line. If a midfielder is caught out of position, one of the centre-backs step up too.
Here, Modric was out of position and left a gap in the midfield line. Lovren stepped forward to mark Neymar.
It is these spaces on the pitch that Messi likes to operate but others such as Alexis Mac Allister, Rodrigo de Paul and even Angel Di Maria also roam in these same areas.
Croatia will need to ensure that they are closing off gaps in the middle of the park and remaining compact to deny Argentina the opportunity to reach their dangerous players between the lines.
If Messi and co can pick up passes between Croatia’s midfield and backline and face the goal, they will rip their opponents to shreds.
However, if the European side can block out the central areas, it will force the South American champions to go wider.
When this situation occurs, Argentina crumble and the team loses their shape, with everyone heading for the flanks which makes it easier for their opponents as there is nobody trying to receive in the middle.
Saudi Arabia blocked Argentina’s access through the middle, so they move wider, leaving the team completely unbalanced, with just two Argentinian players inside the Saudi block.
So what does this all mean?
Argentina are the favourites to win here, largely due to the Messi factor.
While Modric is a sensational player and undoubtedly one of the greatest midfielders of his generation, Messi is on another planet.
Regardless, outside of the Paris Saint-Germain forward, Croatia and Argentina are quite well-matched overall on paper.
The entire end result will come down to whether the 2018 finalists can stop the Argentine captain or not.
If they can, viewers may be given a rematch of the final from four years ago, providing France put a valiant Morocco to the sword.