After a brilliant group stage, viewers weren’t sure what to expect heading into the knockouts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It clearly had the potential to be an all-time great World Cup, but it could have been a snoozefest. After the first 3 days of the Round of 16, in which all the favorites won and there was only even 1 match into extra time, it seemed like it might be heading in that direction. Then, Morocco stunned Spain on penalties, Portugal benched Cristiano Ronaldo and demolished Switzerland, and we were treated to an absolutely brilliant quarterfinal stage. Croatia-Brazil and Argentina-Netherlands were both very exciting matches ending on penalties, Morocco somehow pulled off the upset, and France held off England thanks to a skied Harry Kane penalty late.
Unfortunately for Cristiano Ronaldo, that was pretty much undoubtedly the last we see of him at the World Cup. Fernando Santos did bring on Ronaldo early in the 2nd half as Portugal chased a goal, but the 37-year-old legend was just about useless in his 50 minutes, mustering only 10 touches, losing possession 5 times, and missing his only half-chance late. He did manage a key pass, but it was a horrible performance for one of the greatest to ever play the sport – and sadly, it wasn’t even his worst of this World Cup. In the end, Ronaldo will end with just 7 non-penalty goals and assists (plus three penalties) in 22 World Cup matches, and perhaps the most shocking stat of all: 0 goals or assists in the knockout stage. It’s doubtful that he gets taken out of the so-called “GOAT debate” because of those numbers – he’s simply too iconic for that to happen – but he certainly didn’t help his case. The only real takeaway to be made here is that one of the greatest will now undoubtedly retire without a World Cup.
Suddenly, just four teams remain – and 2 of them are the 2018 finalists. Will we see a repeat final? Let’s break it down.
Argentina vs. Croatia
Last round, here’s what TheDyspatch said about Lionel Messi while picking the Dutch to win: “Messi is the best player the sport has ever seen, but he’s yet to play like it in a World Cup quarterfinal, semifinal, or final – in fact, he has 0 goal contributions beyond the Round of 16 in the World Cup (he does have 5 there, though). His game is of course much more than that, but there has inarguably never been one of those truly mind-boggling Messi performances beyond the Round of 16. The kinds of performances that make you wonder how a footballer like him is even possible.” The piece went on to say an Argentina win or loss hinged on whether or not Messi delivered.
Well, Messi did produce one of those performances. His assist in the 35th minute was jaw-dropping and will undoubtedly go down as one of his finest moments as a footballer, given the importance of the moment and the quality displayed. His penalty in the 73rd minute was ice-cold, and then he did it again in the penalty shootout, giving Argentina the lead. He was brilliant in the buildup and started a few breaks that should have ended in goals with a sublime dribble or an inch-perfect pass.
The thing is, though, he’ll have to replicate that kind of performance if Argentina want to reach the final, and Marcos Acuña is out due to a yellow card accumulation – Acuña’s not been at his best this tournament, but his runs down the left hand side are key to Messi’s ability to open up the pitch. Ángel Di María is banged up and only played 10 minutes in extra time in the last match. Rodrigo De Paul is banged up and had to come off after just over 60 minutes. It’s hard to say either will be fully fit for this match, and that spells trouble.
On top of this, Croatia have been remarkable defensively, with their amazing Modrić-Kovačić-Brozović midfield, the brilliant Joško Gvardiol at CB, and Dominik Livaković showing out in goal. Their attack isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough to win matches.
Just like in the quarterfinal, Messi will have to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Argentina can win this, but it will almost certainly take another one of those Messi performances – and as brilliant as his career has been, even Lionel Messi can’t be perfect, time and again, every single match.
Pick: Croatia 1-0
France vs. Morocco
Coming off of an impressive performance against Portugal and becoming the first African team to reach the semifinals, Morocco are looking to become the first to ever reach the final and cement their place as the story of the tournament. There’s just one problem: France is, by far, the best team remaining in this tournament with England out. Portugal and Spain were both very talented teams as well, but not on France’s level – and Morocco’s injuries are piling up now. Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saïss, and Noussair Mazraoui all appear likely to miss the match. Walid Cheddira will be missing the match due to yellow card accumulation. Hakim Ziyech was struggling towards the end of the match against Portugal and was subbed off (likely a precautionary measure due to the hits he was taking, and a tactical move as Morocco defended for their lives late).
Kylian Mbappé is the best footballer on the planet and has had a fantastic World Cup, although he was quiet against England, and Antoine Griezmann has dominated as a playmaker this tournament. The two of them are likely 1st and 2nd for the Golden Ball when France wins it all. France’s depth has been made staggeringly clear thus far, and it just seems very unlikely that a Morocco side missing several key players will be able to keep up. This will be Mbappé’s match, as he tightens his hold on a position among the all-time greats at just 23 (he turns 24 2 days after the final). Morocco might be able to keep it close, but this would be a much, much bigger upset than their last two – both of which were already big upsets.
Pick: France 3-0