Who could’ve seen this bracket coming?
Argentina and Croatia will meet in the semifinals on one side, while France and Morocco will go at it on the other in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Each nation has passed multiple tests to reach this point of the tournament in Qatar, but the stakes are now the highest they’ve ever been as the final approaches.
Ahead of the two semifinal matchups on Tuesday and Wednesday, let’s look at the biggest key for each team if they want to lift the World Cup trophy on Sunday, Dec. 18:
England had France’s defense on strings. Bukayo Saka most notably forced Theo Hernández and Dayot Upamecano into mistakes all game on the right-hand flank, and Harry Kane also caused some troubles inside the box. Les Bleus were fortunate to escape the game with a win despite allowing 16 shots, eight of which hit the target.
How the backline performed against an elite attacking side was a key talking point as France rarely got tested by Australia, Denmark, Tunisia and Poland heading into the quarterfinals. The result clouds the performance, but France will need to be far more secure when Morocco attacks them in transition. The Atlas Lions won’t dominate possession to score, but they have technically sound players who can get the ball in the right spots for a clinical finish.
The same applies should France rematch Croatia in the final or face Lionel Messi and Co. Argentina are the best attacking threat left that can trouble France, and Les Bleus need to tighten up to repeat. Kylian Mbappé and Co. will always be a threat offensively, but the defense and midfield have to step it up.
La Albiceleste have primarily relied on one thing in Qatar: Get the ball to Lionel Messi. The 35-year-old superstar continues to shoulder the attacking burden, logging four goals and two assists in five games thus far.
It’s not a surprise that manager Lionel Scaloni wants to get his generational talent on the ball more, but he’ll need other players to get involved centrally, too. Argentina like to run variations of a 3-1-6 in possession with the fullbacks supplying the width on each flank, but the squad desperately lacks true one-on-one threats that can take on defenders in isolation.
That’s why Messi dropping into certain zones in the central parts of the attacking third is so vital, as his ability to spin on a dime and put defenders on their back foot opens up passing lanes for his teammates to run into. Getting Ángel Di María healthy will also be imperative as he’s the only other player not named Messi who can draw in defenders to create opportunities.
Remember how Neymar and Lucas Paquetá combined to score against Croatia? That might just be the formula for Messi and Co.
The longer Croatia are on the pitch, the more trouble it means for the opposition. Just like the Vatreni did in 2018, they are perfectly comfortable going into extra time and penalty shootouts. Whereas most nations dread the scenario, Croatia relish it.
It’s not a coincidence that two of the Vatreni’s three wins in the 2018 knockout rounds came via a penalty shootout, with the other coming off a goal in extra time. They’ve done the same against Japan and Brazil this year.
Now they’ll look to do so again against Messi and Argentina. Croatia don’t have the attacking output to outscore teams, which is why they set up to defend and get their midfielders on the ball to keep things ticking before reaching the attacking third.
Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić are the best midfield triumvirate remaining in Qatar, and the longer they can keep the score level against Argentina, and maybe France or Morocco, the better they’ll feel about their chances.
The Atlas Lions may have scored the fewest number of goals among the remaining teams, but they’re not a team predicated on attacking in numbers. Instead, Morocco are more than comfortable sitting back for long stretches of games, but they’re also technical enough to work the ball up the field and create chances in transition.
In a sense, they’re playstyle is essentially similar to Croatia’s. They have a sound back four and a quality shot-stopper between the sticks with midfielders who can keep possession if the game calls for it. The main edge is that Morocco has faster attacking outlets up top compared to the Vatreni.
It’s why it’s critical that Morocco should not concede first, as it is something it hasn’t faced all tournament. The lone goal conceded was an own goal, otherwise everyone has been stout in their duties. Either they’ll play the long game, or they’ll nab the opening goal and shut you out the rest of the way. That’s exactly how they beat Spain and Portugal, though France are a much better team going forward.
Morocco can’t outscore France in regulation or extra time. They either need to get the first goal somehow and hold firm defensively like they did against Portugal or replicate the Spain game where they drew out the game until it reached a penalty shootout. In this scenario, all the pressure would be on Les Bleus. It’s easier said than done, but the Atlas Lions have accomplished it all tournament.
If they can pull off the unimaginable against France, Argentina or Croatia are not as strong and are much more favorable matchups. Could it happen for Morocco?
Each Semifinalists' Biggest Key to Winning the 2022 FIFA World Cup – NBC Sports Chicago