Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni yesterday downplayed the favourites’ tag going into the FIFA World Cup semi-final, saying their European rivals Croatia have the players to present a serious challenge for a spot in the final.
Lionel Messi’s Argentina take on Croatia - captained by Luka Modric - today at Lusail Stadium after both teams survived scathing battles in the quarter-finals.
Argentina, winners in 1978 and 1986, beat Netherlands in a hot-tempered clash on Saturday while Croatia stunned five-time World Cup winners Brazil in their last-eight match on Friday.
Scaloni said Argentina is ready for their toughest match in the World Cup.
“We expect a tough match and we are playing against a really solid team. They will make things challenging for us. I am convinced they are a great team. They play as a unit and that is the main challenge for us,” Scaloni said at a pre-match conference yesterday.
“Croatia has excellent players and they have troubled many top teams. They have players to hurt us. I won’t name those players or talk about their strengths and weaknesses. Croatia always play in the same way. They have a good, long lasting football tradition,” he added.
“We always analyse our previous matches and we look at areas where we can improve,” the Argentine coach explained. “We have to see where we can hurt our opponents.”
After a draining quarter-final against Netherlands on Saturday - when players and officials of both sides were in each other’s faces - Scaloni said winning the previous match was all the boost his players needed going into today’s semi-final.
“The best recovery is winning a match. That’s the best way to face an outcome. Despite the load (of playing 120 minutes of football), we are doing well. I won’t call it a concern but my squad is doing well,” Scaloni said.
“On post-match day, we worked on the recovery. Even yesterday we didn’t train intensely. We mainly discussed the technical stuff among ourselves. Angel Di Maria and Rodrigo De Paul are fit. We have to see how many minutes they can play,” said Scaloni.
Scaloni said Argentina will be playing to their trusted method of Messi leading the show on the pitch.
“We have our own system, our own style. Of course, you have to see how the opposition is playing,” Scaloni said.
“We always talk to our players. We won’t change our style beyond our system and that’s what we are going to do. In the game, we will try to make the best decisions possible,” Scaloni added.
“Our hopes about the semi-final? Yes, we are hopeful of reaching the final,” Scaloni said yesterday.
“We play for family members of the players and all our fans. Our fans have made such a huge effort - it costs a lot to come here. They spent a lot (of money),” he said.
Scaloni said the Argentine camp has managed to keep their emotions in check.
“We feel the same when we played Poland, Australia and then the Netherlands. Remember we lost against Saudi (in the opening match). But we won’t change our plans. It’s a crucial match for us. We know that this is a football match and sometimes luck can be on your side,” Scaloni said. “If you are lucky, then you could have an easier road to the final,” he said.
“The most important thing is what lies ahead. I don’t think of the past. My objective is tomorrow’s match. We don’t want to think about winning or losing as that takes a lot of energy from you,” he said.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic yesterday said his team would be aiming to reach their second successive World Cup final. At Russia 2018, Croatia lost to France 4-2 in the final in Moscow.
“Playing back-to-back World Cups and to be among the four best national teams, that’s an extraordinary success for Croatia,” Dalic said yesterday.
“However, we want more. I am optimistic and have full confidence in my players. They’ve shown their great quality and strength of character, and deserve to be in the final,” Dalic added. Croatia set up their semi-final date following two penalty shootouts against Japan and Brazil in their last couple of matches.
“It was quite exhausting with extra time in two matches, but we’re in the semi-finals of the World Cup and we’re not even discussing exhaustion,” Dalic said.
“We are still strong, with energy and enthusiasm, without a doubt. We are going to give it our all, just as we have done in previous games. Against Argentina we will do the same, we will give our all. We don’t have any injury problems. They don’t feel tired. They’re under greater pressure than we are. They’ll have more fans and that’s a disadvantage for us, but we won’t be complaining,” Dalic said.
“We’re now in the semi-finals and playing against one of the best teams in the world and in history.”
The kick-off is set for 10pm today. A capacity crowd of 88,966 is expected to watch the match live.