Key to the World Cup semifinals

(COMBO) This combination picture taken on December 11, 2022 during the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar shows Croatia’s midfielder Luka Modric (L) in Doha on December 9, 2022 and Argentina’s striker Lionel Messi in Doha on December 3, 2022 .(Photo by Nelson ALMEIDA and Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP)

by Simon Evans
Agence France-Presse

DOHA, Qatar (AFP) – Croatia and Argentina face off at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday for a place in the World Cup finals.

AFP Sport looks at some of the keys to the game.

– Magic by Messi or Modric? –
Lionel Messi’s late-career development into a shrewd creator operating behind the frontline has intensified at this World Cup.

He demonstrated how effectively he can set up the opening goal in the quarterfinals against the Netherlands with his great pass that divided the defence.

Croatia are unlikely to cross Messi in particular as they rely on a solid defense and one of the tournament’s best midfielders to gain the upper hand.

Marcelo Brozovic occupies the deepest defensive role in the Croatian midfield trio and will likely have the most work to eliminate 35-year-old Messi, but Mateo Kovacic made a heavy defensive shift against Brazil and is likely to be asked for a repeat.

With the ball, Croatia have their own little veteran maestro in 37-year-old Luka Modric, whose ability to dictate the pace, maintain possession and get his team up front into dangerous areas is fundamental to his country’s hopes reaching a consecutive World Cup finals.

– Croatian resilience or fatigue? –
Just like four years ago in Russia, where Croatia won every match of the knockout round after extra time – twice on penalties – before the final, Zlatko Dalic’s side have shown a remarkable ability to add results beyond the 90th minute achieve.

Croatia conceded the first goal against both Japan and Brazil but came back to force the game to penalties and win.

Will that impressive mental toughness prove crucial again, or will these extended battles take their physical toll?

It will help Croatia that Argentina also went to penalties in their emotionally draining quarter-final win over the Netherlands and a deciding factor on Tuesday will be which team is fresher for the task.

– Argentina’s 12th man –
If there’s one area where Argentina can count on a clear advantage, it’s in the stands, where more than 40,000 Argentine fans roared in support of their team at the Lusail Stadium against the Netherlands.

The atmosphere was so great that the round of 16 became a de facto home game for Argentina, with only a few orange fans in the stadium, which seats nearly 89,000 spectators.

It will almost certainly be the same story at the same stadium on Tuesday, when Croatia’s much smaller group of supporters are drowned out by the songs and chants of Argentina’s faithful.

Will this affect the game? Pretty sure. Many studies have shown that playing in front of a supportive audience positively affects performance.

– A striking chance? –
With Messi in a deeper role, Argentina find themselves in the unusual situation of not having an established world-class striker and the same goes for Croatia.

Dalic started the semifinals against Brazil with Andrej Kramaric in the centre-forward before Bruno Petkovic replaced him and scored the crucial equaliser.

Against the Netherlands, Argentina started Manchester City’s Julian Alvarez as a main striker, with Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez replacing him, causing plenty of trouble in extra time.

It will be interesting to see if any of these substitutes come into play in the semi-finals or if they are called upon to come in from the bench again.

© Agence France-Presse