Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 in the first semifinal of the World Cup at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar on Tuesday.
Argentina, who lost their first match of the World Cup against Saudi Arabia, will now face the winner of the other semifinal between France and Morocco on Sunday.
Here are two things that stood out in Tuesday’s match:
Argentina lacked width in attack, Croatia dominated possession early on
Argentina were missing their influential left-back Marcos Acuña and hence, started with a 4-4-2 with Messi and Alvarez up front and Alexis Mac Allister and Rodrigo De Paul on the flanks.
Acuña’s absence also meant that the Argentines could not switch to a 3-5-2, like they have done frequently throughout the tournament. As a result, Lionel Scaloni decided to start with two centre-backs and Leandro Paredes as the central midfielder.
With the team packed with defensive minded midfielders, Argentina failed to dominate possession and also lacked width in their attack, with both De Paul and Mac Allister being central players primarily.
Croatia took advantage of that and dominated ball-possession from the very beginning. They started with a 4-3-3 and their experienced midfield comprised of Luka Modric, Matteo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic kept spreading the ball around.
However, Croatia could hardly make much penetration in the final third to trouble the Argentine defense. Andre Kramaric, starting as the centre-forward, kept falling back as there was barely any supply of balls to him.
Mario Pasalic could not make any impact on the right flank and De Paul and Nicolas Tagliafico combined to nullify the attacking threat of Josip Juranovic down the right flank.
Moreover, the Argentines also pressed intensely and won back a lot of balls quickly. Most of their players, including Messi, continued to press and snatch well into the second half to make things difficult for the Croats.
Argentina made inroads on the counter as Croatian defense crumbled
It was evident in the first half-hour that Argentina would prefer to sit back and attack through counters. One such counter-attack brought about the opening goal of the match, as Paredes’ through pass set Alvarez free in the final third and Dominik Livakovic committed a foul on him inside the box.
Alvarez had managed to chip the ball toward goal before the collision with Livakovic and it was cleared off the line. As such, Croatia was unlucky to concede the penalty.
Messi’s penalty kick – his 5th goal of the tournament – put Argentina ahead.
Just as Croatia tried to come in terms with the setback, Argentina again scored with a counter-attack. Alvarez collected the ball following a pass played to him by Messi from the Argentine half and ran at the Croatia goal. Two Croatian players, Borna Sosa and Juranovic, tried to tackle him, but both failed to clear the ball and Alvarez slotted home past Livakovic.
Croatia threw in Bruno Petkovic, Nikola Vlasic and Misla Orisic in place of Kramaric, Pasalic and Sosa, respectively, but their tendency to play square passes, inability to play crosses into the box and lack of penetration did not help their cause.
Argentina then scored again as Messi received the ball from a throw-in and covered a long distance with it before playing a pass to Alvarez inside the box and the latter obliged by shooting home.
Josko Gvardiol, who has had a fine tournament prior to the semifinal, failed to win the ball from Messi despite getting enough time to do so. The third goal sealed the fate of the match and Croatia bowed out meekly.