Sometimes those who cover the game have to fistfuck a narrative into fitting. And then sometimes Lionel Messi does that.
Geez, maybe we should have let Brazil go through after all.
Croatia are such a weird study. In the end, they’ve won one game out of six in this tournament. They certainly didn’t deserve to beat Morocco or Belgium. It’s arguable whether they should have even been anywhere near extra time against Brazil, considering how many shots and chances Brazil piled up. Dominik Livaković just turned into a hydra in goal, which isn’t really something you plan for as a team but is still worthy of giving your team a chance to advance. It’s easy to point to Croatia’s midfield triangle of death that Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić, and Marcelo Brozović had become, because they’re such great players. And we all need an explanation for how Croatia just kept surviving in the past two World Cups when they don’t actually win a game in regular time. But without Livaković’s heroics, or Romelu Lukaku being unable to locate which was the right direction to face in the second half of their game against Belgium, Croatia aren’t here. They’re nowhere near here.
And Argentina kind of showed why they just weren’t up to this in the semifinal. Argentina manager Lionel Scoloni certainly was aware of Croatia’s strength and planned accordingly, setting up his side in a 4-4-1-1 with basically four central midfielders in the middle. While Croatia had most of the ball in the first half, with four Argentine players who can all play as defensive midfielders surrounding the magic troika, Croatia found any passing alley or combination closed off. In this map you can see that Croatia’s midfield found a lot of passes to each other but basically nothing beyond that:
Of course, Argentina’s defensive plan made their attack a little wonky for the game’s first half-hour. Rodrigo De Paul was splitting out to the right side, and Alexis Mac Allister trying to get wide on the left, but that’s not really what either of these guys does. Argentina weren’t much of a threat for the game’s opening throes. But when Dejan Lovren is around, even in a Croatia shirt, there’s always a chance for mischief:
Lovren, for some reason only he will know, is a full 5-10 yards behind the rest of his defensive line, which is trying to play Julian Alvarez offside. Lovren’s charity gives Mac Allister the space to play this pass to Alvarez, leading to the penalty that Messi viciously converted.
The one-goal lead only put some starch in Argentina’s walk, and suddenly they were finding combinations and lanes everywhere. Their second goal had a huge slice of luck, as Alvarez had not one but two Croatian tackles of the ball bounce right back off and then in front of him, including the second one that caused the ball to just sit there for him to finish. Still, he carried the ball some 70 yards to get there.
It was child’s play from there, as Argentina had no intention of making this two-goal lead as interesting as their last one against the Dutch. They were meaty in the tackle, which led to their romps forward on the counter. They iced the game on one of those, which we’ll get to in a second.
The story you’ll hear from here until Sunday is how Argentina grew into this tournament after losing to Saudi Arabia. But it’s not all that accurate. They were hardly that bad against Saudi Arabia, and were just caught out by two lightning strikes that won’t ever hit again. They were understandably nervous and cagey against Mexico because their tournament did hang in the balance. They didn’t really have to do anything against Poland, who were more than happy to toddle off with a loss that still took them out of the group. All three of their knockout games have looked alike, with them carefully wading their way into it before taking the lead. The only difference here is they looked assured in protecting said lead, thanks to getting a third goal and Croatia’s lack of bite.
That doesn’t mean Argentina are false finalists, and far from it. Their midfield just choked the life out of Croatia’s, and no one’s been able to solve the latter.
For all the talk of how Argentina have consistently failed Messi, and how all Croatia knows how to do is win, this will now be Messi’s second World Cup final to go with the three Copa America finals he’s dragged Argentina to. If Gonzalo Higuain hadn’t pulled the beta version of a Lukaku in multiple finals, the discussion would be totally different. Argentina have the same knack for advancing that Croatia do. They may not look like world-beaters in the process, but they keep getting there.
And now it’s one step to closure.
I mean…come on…
35-year-olds are not supposed to outsprint 20-year-olds, much less do it 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 beautiful goals. Or the long-range bullets that Mexico got a look at in the group stage. It’s a farce that this is somehow still in his locker. And this isn’t against some stooge like Lovren. Joško Gvardiol has arguably been the best defender at this tournament. His soul is now paste.
Nope, free of that. Probably saving its big moment for the final.
Usual drivel, but a word on these Tom Rinaldi video bits that have become a parody of themselves. He had two today, one about penalty kicks and one about Messi and Modric. You could have swapped the voiceover to both and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
They all start the same, and continue as if every three words there’s another ellipsis. It’s supposed to build drama I guess, but it just sounds like he forgot how to read the script. “They’re the best players…of their generation…and now…they meet…as…rivals…yet again…just like they did…in Spain…pause for effect…oh isn’t this epic?” Dude, just shut the fuck up.
The penalty kick one contained another Rinaldi staple, where something inanimate or nebulous speaks in first person. This time the actual penalty spot was supposed to be narrating this thing. Which ended with the punch-me-in-the-groin hilarious, “I am…the P.K.” Dude, no one fucking calls it a “P.K.” It didn’t use to play defense for the Canadiens and Predators. Not everything is a narration of the run on the Death Star.
Both of these perfectly back up Rinaldi’s puff piece on Harry Kane, which somehow made Kane the underdog even though he’s been a can’t-miss hope for Spurs fans since he could shave and he scored 21 goals at age 21 for them. The kicker to it all was that Kane was “saved” by his love of Tom Brady. Seriously. Rinaldi has picked up 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).
It is sad that this will be Modric’s last World Cup, because he has been a treat in the past two tournaments, as well as last year’s Champions League run with Madrid especially when he had no business tossing them over the line consistently against Chelsea, City, and Liverpool. But he did. If there’s been a better technical midfielder on this stage I haven’t seen it, and his ability to play every midfield role was a true wonder. Especially when you consider that he’s basically a hobbit.
That’ll be Modric’s story, because the best midfielder in the world isn’t really supposed to come from Croatia, and Croatia isn’t supposed to be making this much noise in consecutive World Cups. And yet they did, mostly on Modric’s back and a whole lot of luck.
I still have no idea how good Croatia actually is. You could only really say they played really well against Canada. They were fine against Japan, and they were resilient against Brazil you could argue, which was enough to get to penalties in each. They don’t ask how in a World Cup, though.
Still, you can only ride the margins for so long, no matter how unlikely you were to even do that, as Croatia have been. Eventually real quality comes to stamp you out. The difference between the quarters and the semis was that Brazil basically vacated the middle of the park to Croatia. Argentina packed it. And now it’s time for a new generation for Croatia, and it is highly likely they’ll never come close to this one’s achievements. But it’s not always true that history is only written by the winners. People still talk about the great Hungary teams of the 50s. Or Brazil 1982. Or Cruyff’s Holland of the 70s. Remarkably, that’s what Croatia have earned over two tournaments. Which is quite an accomplishment in itself.