As Messi’ Argentina eyes victory against Croatia in Tuesday’s semifinal to lift the ultimate prize after a 38-year-long gap, the Croats have other ideas.
That’s why Croatia’s coach Zlatko Dalic is confident that the clash would be remembered as the “greatest game” in his country’s history.
With a population of less than four million people, Croatia have been achieving much more than one would expect from them. The losing finalist in the last edition are now three-time semifinalists.
“At back-to-back World Cups to be among the four best national teams, that’s an extraordinary success for Croatia,” said Dalic, who saw his side beaten 4-2 by France in the final four years ago.
“However, we want more,” he added. “I’m optimistic and have full confidence in my players. They’ve shown their great quality and strength of character, and deserve to be in the final.”
As in Russia in 2018, Croatia have required two penalty shootouts to reach the last four — beating Japan and then a heavily fancied Brazil.
Croatia haven t won a knockout game in normal time at a major tournament since coming third at the 1998 World Cup. “It was quite exhausting with extra time in two matches, but we’re in the semi-finals of the World Cup and we’re not even discussing exhaustion,” said Dalic.
On the other hand, Lionel Messi, 35, will attempt to guide Argentina into the final for the second time in eight years against the beaten finalists in 2018.
Messi, who suffered defeat to Germany in the 2014 final, is desperate to crown an extraordinary career by finally winning the World Cup and emulating another Argentinian legend, the late Diego Maradona.
Playing likely his last World Cup, he is desperate to land the one major title missing from his extensive collection but he is also carrying the weight of the nation on his shoulders.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward was a pivotal figure in Friday’s stormy quarterfinal win over the Netherlands, when a record 18 yellow cards were shown and players from both sides were involved in a melee as the referee fought to regain control.
The match ended with Argentina players appearing to taunt their distraught Dutch opponents before sprinting away to celebrate after a penalty shootout win.
Even the normally mild-mannered Messi was caught up in the bad blood, shouting abuse at Dutch players while he was being interviewed after the game.
Earlier, Croatia said they would not attempt to stop Argentina superstar Messi by man-marking him but instead will focus on immobilising the entire team.
“We don’t have a specific plan yet for stopping Messi and usually we don’t concentrate on stopping one player but the entire team,” striker Bruno Petkovic told a news conference.
“We will try to stop them as a team and not with man-marking. Argentina are not only Messi, they have a number of great players. We have to stop the entire Argentina team,” he said.
With no players suspended and no injury concerns following the return of Croatia defender Borna Sosa, Zlatko Dalic’s team is brimming with confidence and ready for more.
Their midfield comprising captain Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic will be key to dictating the pace, as they did against Brazil, and defender Josip Juranovic said the three were utterly dependable.
“Mateo, Luka and Marcelo are the best Croatia midfield in history. I don’t think it can be repeated. When you pass them the ball it is safer than having your money in the bank,” he added.