Croatia will play Argentina in the first semi-final of the 2022 Qatar World Cup on December 13th.
It features the last South American team left in the competition against the team that ended the campaign of their great rivals and tournament favourites, Brazil.
Croatia continue to punch above their weight
For a country with a population of less than four million people, Croatia continue to punch above their weight when it comes to football. Croatia, the beaten finalists from four years ago, will play in their third World Cup semi-final in eight tournaments.
They have also proved to be the masters when it comes to pragmatism and character. When they reached the final in Moscow four years ago, all three of their knock-out games went to extra-time (two of them to penalties) and that same formula has served them well this time. They first beat Spain and then a highly fancied Brazil side on spot-kicks, with goalkeeper Dominik Livaković making himself a hero in both shoot-outs.
Can Messi shred his unwanted tag?
Lionel Messi began the World Cup with the unwanted tag of being among the best players never to have a World Cup, but, at the age of 35, in what may well be his last major tournament, he is doing his best to put the record great.
He has helped drag his country to this stage, despite suffering a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening game, and he seemed to have won their quarter-final with the Netherlands in normal time with an assist and a penalty.
But in a fractious game that saw the Spanish referee hand out a record 18 yellow cards and leave both teams facing disciplinary charges, the Dutch fought back with two late goals to take the match to extra time, and eventually penalties.
And Argentina revealed that they had their own spot-kick master, with their goalkeeper Emi Martínez keeping out two Dutch efforts.
A difference in styles
This match will feature two different styles of football, Argentina will look to dominate the ball and possession and to give Messi time and space on the ball to dictate the pattern of play. Croatia will look to sit back, remain defensively solid, and combative in midfield, and relying on the occasional break or set piece to pose a threat at the other end.
It may even be the Croatian game plan to play for extra time and penalties from the outset. Although this is a high-risk strategy, it has proved to be one that has worked for them in the past and has enabled them to overcome higher-ranked teams, at least on paper, time after time.
One factor that needs to be considered is the possible effect that fatigue may have on them. Croatia have one of the oldest squads in Qatar, and the cumulative physical and mental effect of having to o the full distance in both knock-out games could potentially catch up with their players at some stage.
The key to this match will be the ability of Argentina to break down the packed Croatian defence.
Clear-cut chances are likely to be few and far between, and, as ever, Messi will be the key figure for his side, If he can influence the game and does not drop too deep, then he should create enough opportunities for others and himself, which should result in one of them being taken at least.
Croatia, of course, will know this, and will be doing as much as they can to negate his threat by surrounding him every time he gets the ball.
They will not spend much time on the attack, but, when they do so, will need to be clinical in front of goal.
If it does go to penalties, then Argentina will not worry. They won the Copa América beating Brazil in the final last year on spot kicks, and in their bad-tempered match with the Dutch, arguably kept their heads better than their opponents.
Whilst Croatia reaching another final would be a major achievement, it may be that the stars are finally aligning for Messi to realise his dreams and lead his country to another World Cup triumph.
With few exceptions, semi-finals are usually close and edgy affairs, and those expecting a footballing classic are likely to be disappointed,
But Argentina may just edge this by a single goal.
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