The Qatar World Cup has entered its final stretch as only four out of the 32 teams remain in the hunt to win the biggest prize in international football. Two out of the four names – Argentina and France - are hardly surprising, while Croatia’s qualification has raised eyebrows and Morocco’s inclusion has created history. Before these four teams clash for the right to play the final, Prothom Alo English takes a look at their journey so far in the competition.
Diego is watching us from heaven. He is pushing us and I really hope that this stays the same until the end.
Lionel Messi had this to say after Argentina defeated the Netherlands in a penalty shootout in a feisty quarter-final clash on Thursday.
Messi’s claim of there being a touch of the divine in Argentina’s World Cup campaign so far is not a complete hyperbole. Otherwise, how does a team that lost to a 52nd ranked Saudi Arabia by 1-2 in their opening match reaches the semifinal of the World Cup.
Wake up call from Saudi
Argentina came into the World Cup on the back of a 36-match unbeaten streak. But that momentum withered away after the shock defeat against Saudi Arabia.
After the match, the overjoyed Saudi fans at the stadium were mockingly posing a question, “Where is Messi?”
The Argentine maestro had a rare flop match against Saudi Arabia, virtually disappearing from the contest after scoring from the spot in the first half.
But thankfully for Argentina, the ‘lost’ Messi resurfaced.
Messi rejuvenates Argentina
After a drab first half against Mexico, Argentina took a lead in the second half thanks to some ‘Messi magic’.
Mexico made the cardinal mistake of giving Messi some space at a shooting range and Rosario’s favourite son made them pay with left-footed strike to give Argentina the lead in the 64th minute from out of the blue.
The goal from Messi reinvigorated Argentina, who orchestrated several more attacks at the Mexico goal before Enzo Fernandes doubled their lead in the 87th minute with an assist from, no surprises, Messi.
Easing past Poland, Australia
Argentina played their most one-sided match in the Qatar World Cup in their final group-stage game against Poland.
The Polish side did little more than stay back and defend in the entire game. Poland managed to keep out Argentina in the first half, with their keeper Wojciech Szczesny even saving a penalty from Messi.
But their resistance broke down in the second half, with Mac Allister scoring in the 46th minute from a pass from Nahuel Molina.
Julian Alvarez doubled the lead in 21 minutes later with Fernandes making the assist.
After an easy 2-0 win over Poland, Argentina qualified for the second round as Group C champions and were up against Australia in the Round of 16.
The match against Australia was Messi’s 1000th professional game and he marked the occasion with a goal in the 35th minute. Alvarez then scored in his second straight match to put Argentina 2-0 up 12 minutes into the second half.
Argentina felt some pressure in the game after conceding an own goal with 13 minutes of regular time remaining on the clock.
But the Australia didn’t have enough venom in their attack to really challenge Argentina, who marched onto the quarter-final.
A fiery battle against Netherlands
Argentina faced their biggest challenge in the Qatar World Cup up against coach Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands team.
The match was a heated affair, with tensions flaring in both sides almost from the start.
Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew the whistle for a foul a total of 48 times in the match, 30 times against Netherlands and 18 against Argentina.
The Spanish referee was on a booking frenzy, showing the yellow card to 17 players and officials and one red, due to double booking, to Dutch defender Dumfries at the very end of extra time.
In between the fouls, taunts and bickering, both teams scored twice in the first 90 minutes to take the match into extra time.
Mentally, Argentina were in the back foot heading into extra time, after throwing away their 2-0 lead in the final 18 minutes of the match, courtesy of a brace from Dutch substitute Wout Weghorst.
Argentina pressed extremely hard for a late winner in the final 15 minutes of extra time but the Dutch held on to take the game into a tie-breaker.
But Argentina’s goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez then emerged as the saviour for the Latin American side, much like he did in their last year’s Copa America semifinal against Colombia.
Martinez saved the first two penalties from the Netherlands and Lautaro Martinez scored Argentina’s fourth penalty to ensure a 4-3 win in the penalty shootout.
The Croats await
Now, Argentina will face Croatia in the semifinal on Tuesday night in Doha. It is expected to be another gritty battle against a Croat team that refuses to go away. But Argentina believe that fate is on their side and that Messi’s last dance in the World Cup will end with the Albiceleste lifting their third World Cup trophy.