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The M-factor

Messi carries Argentina’s hopes as Modric looks to fire Croatia into 2nd consecutive final

The M-factor

Since their group stage defeat to Saudi Arabia, Argentina and Lionel Messi have flowered. photos: Reuters

Doha, December 12

Tears are flowing from football’s biggest superstars as they make emotional exits from what might be their last World Cup. First it was Neymar. Then it was Cristiano Ronaldo. Could Lionel Messi be next?

2 Argentina have scored at least two goals in six of their last seven matches in the World Cup.

1Argentina have picked up just one win against European opponents in their last seven attempts in the World Cup.

0Argentina have never been eliminated from the semifinals at the World Cup, making it to the finals in their previous five appearances at this stage of the competition.

1Croatia’s 3-0 win over Argentina was their first win over a South American team in the World Cup in five attempts and they extended that unbeaten run with a win over Brazil last week.

Croatia’s Luka Modric will hope to get things ticking in midfield.

Momentum is building behind Messi’s push to cap his career with the biggest prize in the game. The 35-year-old Argentina playmaker has carried his team into the semifinals, almost in the same way Diego Maradona — the man with whom Messi is so often compared — led the South American nation to its second and most recent World Cup title in 1986.

Now in Argentina’s way is Croatia, a country with a population of four million which is establishing a reputation as the most stubborn and durable of opponents while also boasting one of football’s most graceful players in Luka Modric.

The teams go head to head at Lusail Stadium — also the venue for Sunday’s final — in a meeting between the last two runners-up at the tournament: Argentina in 2014 and Croatia in 2018.

Argentina might have been expected to be in this position. The team arrived at the World Cup as the Copa America champion, on a 36-match unbeaten run and with Messi back in sublime form for Paris Saint-Germain.

There was much less noise around the Croatians, yet they keep on surprising just like four years ago when their run to the final included a 3-0 victory over Argentina in the group stage. They also reached the World Cup semifinals in 1998.

Both teams have come through uncomfortable moments. Argentina’s darkest time was right at the start of the tournament, after a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in what will go down as one of the World Cup’s biggest upsets.

Inspired by Messi and one of the most fervent fan followings in Qatar, Argentina won their final two group games, ended up squeezing past Australia 2-1 in the Round of 16 and then required penalties to get past Netherlands in a wild quarterfinals match.

Messi now has four goals in the tournament in Qatar, leaving him one behind top scorer Kylian Mbappe. They are probably the two standout players at a World Cup that has seen many other top players live up to their lofty reputations.

Modric is a case in point. He might not have scored a goal. He hasn’t even had an assist. But don’t underestimate his importance to Croatia, the little magician keeps things ticking in midfield and manages to assert some control for a team which fights until the last minute.

Containing Messi will be key and much of the responsibility there lies with holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, who protected Croatia’s defence so well against Brazil.

Argentina will be without two players because of suspension: left-back Marcos Acuna and right-back Gonzalo Montiel. Acuna is the bigger miss, having impressed since coming into the team after the loss to Saudi Arabia. — AP

Short Takes

Tchouameni, Upamecano miss France training

Midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and centre-back Dayot Upamecano both missed training today as France prepare for their semifinal against Morocco on Wednesday. The French federation did not give any explanation for their absence, but a sports daily reported that Upamecano had a sore throat and Tchouameni was suffering from a knock.

‘Brazil’s best should have taken penalties first’

Brazil’s quarterfinal defeat to Croatia on penalties came as a huge shock but the South American side lost because their best shooters did not step up first in the shootout, Juergen Klinsmann said. “We were freaking out, it was real drama. We tried to discuss the difference between the drama from the Brazil game compared to the Argentina vs Netherlands game and we came up with some ideas,” Klinsmann said at a Technical Study Group briefing. “After conceding the equaliser in the 117th minute, Brazil had no time to switch gears. From the disappointment of conceding a last-minute goal to the penalty shootout, there was no time to settle and approach the shootout positively. For Brazil, they should have maybe put their best shooter first, set the tone with the best penalty taker you have and then go down the rankings.”

Stray Qatar cat heads to England

England’s hopes of lifting the World Cup might have been dashed but Manchester City duo Kyle Walker and John Stones did not want to leave Qatar completely empty-handed — hence they will be taking home a stray cat befriended by the team at their training base. The cat, who Stones named Dave, will have to spend four months in quarantine before he can be re-united with the City duo. “He was just there one day, so we’ve just adopted him, me and Stonesy,” Walker said. Stones said: “First day we got there ... Dave pops out. Every night he sat there waiting for his food.” Agencies

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