World Cup Tuesday Preview: Croatia aim for second straight finals trip in clash with Lionel Messi and No. 3-ranked Argentina

netherlands out – belgium out Mandatory Credit: Photo by Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock (13659660b) Lautaro Martinez of Argentina cheers after the decisive penalty during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarterfinal match between the Netherlands and Argentina at the Lusail Stadium on December 9, 2022 in Al Daayen, Qatar. Netherlands v Argentina, Al Daayen, Qatar – 09 Dec 2022

World Cup Tuesday Preview: Croatia aim for second straight finals trip in clash with Lionel Messi and No. 3-ranked Argentina

Semifinals: Argentina (No. 3) vs. Croatia (No. 12) 

When, where: 1 p.m. CT, Lusail Iconic Stadium (Lusail, Qatar)

Match history: Argentina and Croatia have played each other five times with an evenly split record of 2-2-1. The last meeting came during Group D play of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when Croatia blanked Argentina 3-0 behind three second-half goals, including a score in the 80th minute by Luka Modrić. The only other World Cup meeting between the two nations came in 1998, when Argentina defeated Croatia 2-1 during Group H play. That was also the same year that Croatia finished in third place overall in their first-ever World Cup appearance. 

Player to watch, Argentina: Lautaro Martínez, Forward. The 25-year-old forward of Inter Milan became a country hero after sinking the winning penalty kick vs. the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, but he’s also been a vital cog all tournament long on the offensive end for the White and Sky Blues of Argentina. Martínez has attempted six shots in two matches of knockout stage play so far, including three shots on target, and has provided a much-needed attacking boost for the Argentines with opposing defenses focused more and more on superstar Lionel Messi. At the 2022 World Cup, Martínez ranks second overall for Argentina in total shots (10), third in shots on target (three), and third in expected goals (1.27), according to, despite coming off the bench as a reserve in both knockout stage matches. Martínez will be needed to keep Croatia’s defense and counterattacking honest in this semifinal matchup.

Player to watch, Croatia: Mateo Kovačić, Midfielder. The 28-year-old midfielder from Chelsea is a do-it-all footballer for the 2018 World Cup runners-up. Kovačić has started all five 2022 World Cup matches for Croatia and has made his impact felt across the board. Kovačić is tied for the team lead with five chances created, leads Croatia in expected assists (1.08) and tackles won (12), ranks second in pass percentage (90%), third in interceptions (four) and fifth in receptions (30). This is the third overall World Cup appearance for Kovačić, who was a reserve in Croatia’s 2018 run but still recorded an assist and four shot attempts along the way. The veteran midfielder is also savvy in the open field, totaling 15 fouls against him over the past two World Cups, including eight already in Qatar. His accurate passing and physical play will be a key factor if Croatia is to brunt the talented offensive attack of Argentina throughout the match.

Argentina World Cup history: This will be Argentina’s sixth overall appearance in the World Cup semifinals, where they are undefeated (5-0) with two World Cup titles and three runners-up finishes to their name. Argentina’s two World Cup titles came in 1978 and 1986, as well as three runners-up showings in 1930, 1990, and 2014. Messi leads the way for “La Albiceleste” of Argentina in all-time matches played (24), and teammate Ángel Di María isn’t too far behind, sitting in sixth place on Argentina’s all-time list (17). Messi’s goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals moved him into a tie for all-time World Cup goals scored for Argentina with Gabriel Batistuta (10). Messi, who won the 2014 FIFA Golden Ball award, is in contention to take home either the Golden Ball or the Golden Boot (most goals scored) this time around, as his four total goals scored rank just one behind the phenomenal French forward Kylian Mbappé (five goals).

Croatia World Cup history: Croatia, only a FIFA member since 1998, finished in second place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia after losing to France 4-2 in the finals. Croatian midfielder Luka Modrić also won FIFA’s Golden Ball award (best overall player) in their runner-up campaign four years ago. Croatia’s previous deep run into the tournament came in 1998, their first-ever appearance at the World Cup when they were also ousted by the French in the semifinals in a 2-1 defeat. Croatia finished third in that World Cup, and between then and 2018, they had qualified for both three World Cups (‘02, ‘06, ‘14) and three group play exits. The “Chequereds” of Croatia boasts a quartet of highly-experienced World Cup footballers in Modrić, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Perišić, and Kovačić, who have all been to at least three consecutive World Cups between 2014 to 2022 and rank as the top four all-time in World Cup matches played for the Croatian national team. This is Modrić’s fourth overall World Cup appearance. The now 37-year-old of Real Madrid leads Croatia with 17 all-time World Cup match appearances dating back to 2006, while Perišić is tied for first in all-time Croatian World Cup goals scored (six) with Davor Šuker.

What to expect: Croatia’s defense continues to be a puzzle that opponents struggle to solve, including No. 1-ranked Brazil, which needed extra time to score just one goal during their quarterfinals match. Croatia hasn’t allowed an opponent to score multiple goals in all five of its matches so far, which includes clean sheets against both semifinalist Morocco (0-0) and No. 2-ranked Belgium (0-0) and an overall average of 0.6 goals conceded per match which is good for third overall at the 2022 World Cup behind only Morocco (0.2) and Tunisia (0.3). If any opponent were to break through against the Croatian backline, however, it would be the No. 3-ranked Argentinians. Argentina ranks third overall at the current World Cup in time of possession (61.9%) and expected goals (9.9), as well as second in accurate passes per match (572.6) and first in penalties awarded (three). Messi and Julián Álvarez have scored six of Argentina’s nine goals in Qatar, while five of the South American side’s seven non-penalty goals have come via an assist from a teammate. Croatia can also be accurate with the ball when needed, however, ranking third overall in the field in accurate crosses per match (6.2). Croatia has been content to play things close to the vest and only attack when trailing. It’s a conservative strategy that has worked wonders for the small European nation dating back to 2018, so don’t expect to see anything different come Tuesday in the semifinals. Argentina is good enough to find the net, sure, but their defense hasn’t shown enough top form to prevent Croatia from equalizing either. I’d be surprised we don’t see extra time in this contest, and if we do, and it comes down to a penalty kick battle between goalkeepers Dominik Livaković and Emiliano Martínez, then we could truly be in treat for an instant classic at Lusail Iconic Stadium.

Chris Dell’s Prediction: Croatia 1, Argentina 1 (Croatia win 4-3 on penalty kicks)

Semifinals Schedule:

Tuesday, Dec. 13

  • Who: Argentina (No. 3) vs. Croatia (No. 12)
  • When, where: 1 p.m. CT, Lusail Iconic Stadium (Lusail, Qatar)

Wednesday, Dec. 14

  • Who: France (No. 4) vs. Morocco No. 22)
  • When, where: 1 p.m. CT, Al Bayt Stadium (Al Khor, Qatar)

Finals Schedule:

Saturday, Dec. 17

  • What: Third-Place Match
  • Who: TBD vs. TBD
  • When, where: 9 a.m. CT, Khalifa International Stadium (Al Rayyan, Qatar)

Sunday, Dec. 18

  • What: Finals Match
  • Who: TBD vs. TBD
  • When, where: 9 a.m. CT, Lusail Iconic Stadium (Lusail, Qatar)

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