Croatia 1 (4) – Brazil 1 (2)
Croatia can no longer be considered a dark-horse or a Cinderella team. They have now proven over two successive tournaments that they are a legitimate contender. How this tiny nation of 4 million is able to achieve success at this level that other much bigger, more populous, and richer countries is beyond the scope of this article, but it is still nevertheless fascinating to ponder.
Is it this particular generation of players ? Modric, Perisic, Kovacic, Lovren just to name a few. Or is a culture of football that produces technically gifted players ? Does their manager Zlatko Dalic have some kind of system that maximizes the talents of his players ? Or do the Croatians simply have some kind of superpower that allows them to beat any team in a PK shootout. This game marked the fourth time in the last six elimination games that the Croatians have won via penalties !
Or can we say that Brazil, not even mentioned until now, simply blew a lead they should not have ? How is it that you allow an older and surely more tired team (Croatia had played extra time against Japan already while Brazil cruised to a 4-1 victory over South Korea) to equalize on a 3-3 counter in the 119th minute ? Why didn’t Brazil park the bus at the end and simply shut shop down and advance ?
After the game Dalic claimed that the Croatian midfield of Modric, Brozovic, and Kovacic was the best in the world. This trio allowed Croatia to equal Brazil in possession.
“I said it before the game and I say it again now,” Dalic said after the match. “We have the best midfield in the world and we demonstrated it again today. We controlled the game.”
But that midfield dominance didn’t exactly translate into overall chances for Croatia, which were slim to none. Rather it served as a force to frustrate the technically superior team into an endless 0-0 war of attrition that would eventually culminate in the Croatian specialty, the PK shootout. It wasn’t that Croatia didn’t try to generate chances but for as much as they tried, Croatia could not penetrate the last third to generate any shots on goal. Brazil, on the other hand, forced Croatia’s Dominc Livakovic to make 11 saves.
The Croatian tactic worked mightly for 104 minutes. Then, as often occurs with Brazil in tight and tense games, one moment of magic changed everything. The formula of team plus individual play worked once again when Neymar worked two wall passes before finally dribbling his way past the last defender and the goalie to roof the ball into the net. That looked like the game winner. All Brazil had to do was defend the last 15 minutes.
If Croatia have proved something over their last two World Cups is that it is a team that simply does not give up. Using the strategy that they had employed all game, they did not panic. When Brazil inexplicably tried to attack deep into the second overtime, Croatia forced Brazil into a turnover and quickly began a counterattack. Six Brazilian players were caught out of position in the Croatian half, leaving only four to defend the lightning quick counter. Their lone shot on goal that evening happened to be the equalizing goal by Bruno Petkovic at the very end. Unlucky for Marquinhos, Petkovic’s shot deflected slightly off his knee, enough to elude the diving Allison.
Once the PKs started, the body language of the players indicated a strong advantage for Croatia. When Marquinhos slammed his kick straight into the post, it was all over. Neymar, the Brazilian star, didn’t even get a chance to kick.
Croatia’s goalkeeper was simply phenomenal. Dominic Livakovic made 11 saves, the second most to Tim Howard’s performance for the USA in the 2014 World Cup against Belgium.
Neymar was slated to kick fifth in the PK shootout. He never got a chance to do anything. Tite apparently hadn’t learned the lesson of years ago when Portugal committed the same mistake with Ronaldo. The lesson here is have your best player kick first, period.
Argentina 2 (4) – Netherlands 2 (3)
Argentina and the Netherlands have a long storied history in the World Cup. When they play it has almost a darby like feeling. The matches between the two countries have been historic, emotional, tense, and simply world-class football. The latest chapter written at the quarter final stage was a rich augmentation of this great rivalry. But what otherwise an amicable rivalry in years past got ugly this time around.
The two book end goals were the highlights of this game. Both were initiated by perfect passes that skimmed along the ground untouched to their destination. The two recipient players both took amazing first touches to then set up their finishes. Both were works of genius, one from an individual and one from an entire team; the first improvised on the run of play and the second from a free kick.
The first 70 minutes of this game belonged to the South American squad as the Dutch, employing the same strategy that had worked against the Americans, decided to sit back and let Argentina have the ball.
Messi’s brilliance emerged again late in the first half. Taking a ball in the Dutch third, he eluded Nathan Akeh with a drop of the shoulder and started dribbling towards the middle of the 18 yard box. With three Dutch defenders pursuing him, he made a perfectly weighted no-look pass against the grain and found Nahuel Molina inside the box. Molina made the slightest of touches to both elude his defender and set up his shot, which beat the onrushing keeper. There are so many brilliant moments in this goal, but it is Messi’s ability to know where Molina would run a priori to his pass that has to be highlighted here. The weight and accuracy of the pass take a very close second.
In the 70th minute, Rodrigo Acuna drew a PK. The Dutch keeper, Andries Noppert, who made his national team debut in the Netherlands first game of the World Cup, opted not to move at all and Messi drilled it past him on his left side.
The Dutch finally decided to play, having no choice now as they stared down elimination. In came in the big Dutch striker Wout Weghorst. And in started the crosses into Argentinas box, in search of the 6’6” striker.
The game began to turn ugly in the 74th minute, when Argentinas keeper Emiliano Martinez stepped over Dutch striker Luuk de Jong after he collected a cross into the box. You can clearly see de Jong mouth: “What the fuck are you talking about.” as Martinez continued his stare down. What had been a very fair game up to that point was about to turn.
The Dutch finally scored in the 82nd minute after a beautiful header by Weghorst eluded Martinez, who hadn’t, up to that point, even faced a shot on goal. Just five minutes later, Argentina’s Leandro Paredes violently tackled Akeh in front of the Duth bench, and then, as if he hadn’t done enough, kicked the ball straight into the Netherlands bench. (Paredes earned a yellow for his stupid play. I feel like he should have earned two yellows on the same play and an immediate ejection.) The sequence earned him a yellow card, but more importantly, it was the time wasted that was the most punishing for Argentina. At the end of the preliminary 90’, an additional 10 minutes of time were added on.
Eleven minutes into stoppage, the Spanish referee called a borderline foul on Argentina that resulted in a Dutch free kick. Having threatened, and ultimately scored, via the air, the Dutch team were poised again to target their big man in the box for the equalizer.
But what happened next was pure tactical brilliance coupled with perfect execution. Holland decided to go via the ground instead. Teun Koopmeiner’s perfectly weighted ball found Weghorst in the box, who this time used a deft touch and kick to roll the ball past on onrushing Martinez. It was an outrageous goal, one that goes against every grain of footballing convention. Working the ball on the ground to your tallest player caught Argentina completely off guard.
The extra time reverted to first half form. It was Argentina that threatened the entirety of the additional time. Noppert made one incredible save and the post made another one.
The penalties began with Emiliano Martinez trying, and succeeding, to intimidate the Dutch kickers as he stopped the first two shots diving first to his left to block Van Kyiuk, and then to his right to stuff Birkhaus. The Dutch would not miss their next three shots. And when Enzo Martinez went wide with his shot, it was up to Lautaro Martinez to put Argentina through with the last kick.
As he walked up to take the kick, three Dutch players attempted to escort him to the spot, and one of them earned a yellow card in the process. Martinez made his shot and launched Argentina into the semi-finals, a game they’ve never lost in World Cup competition.