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Five talking points after two excellent semi-finals at Qatar 2022

62 of the 64 games scheduled at Qatar 2022 are now elapsed, with only two remaining over the final weekend of the competition, the third-place play-off and the big final, which is scheduled for Sunday, 18 December, between Argentina and France. Both teams have recorded important wins in the semi-finals, keeping clean sheets against Croatia and Morocco respectively and will now battle for the big trophy.

But what happened over the course of the last days at Qatar 2022 and how did the two sides progress to the final act? We analyse the games, anticipate trends and go over the last 180 minutes of football at Qatar 2022.

There’s Messi… and the rest

Since the start of the season, Lionel Messi’s focus was clear: be in the best possible shape for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Argentina star has been in superb form at PSG in the past months, shrugging off any resentment of the treatment he had at Barcelona in the summer of 2021 and is currently a player possessed, making it clear that this is going to be the last shot for him to win the FIFA World Cup.

At Qatar 2022, Messi not only broke the record for the largest number of games played in the competition, tying Lothar Matthaus’ 25-game tally, he also became the top goal scorer for Argentina, with 11 goals, and has scored once in the Round of 16, in the quarter-finals and in the semi-finals, after failing to register a single goal in the knockout phases of the competition.

The Argentina No.10 is undoubtedly a prime pick to win the MVP award in this tournament – the Golden Ball – and has been the fulcrum of this Argentina side, who bounced back admirably after losing the first match in the competition, a 1-2 loss against Saudi Arabia. Dishing assists, scoring goals, creating chances, Messi has been doing everything possible to ensure Argentina are going to win the competition. And if his legacy has not been cemented, well… This tournament will ensure that he will be truly popular in Argentina, where his commitment was questioned at times.

Alvarez comes of age at Qatar 2022

11 of Argentina’s goals were scored with him on the pitch and all five conceded were with him off the pitch. Since that loss against Saudi Arabia, Julian Alvarez was slotted into the South American team and he never looked back, becoming a key starter for Lionel Scaloni’s side. Transferred by Manchester City this summer for a meagre $15 million, Alvarez is starting to look like one of the best young players in the world, delivering excellent performances, including a brace in the semi-final against Croatia, won by Argentina, 3-0.

Alvarez has scored four times at this edition of the FIFA World Cup, as the 22-year-old striker had only three goals for Argentina prior to the competition. He also become the youngest player to score two goals in the semi-final of a FIFA World Cup edition since Pele in 1958, with an outstanding performance that earned plenty of praise for Argentina.

Sure, Alvarez is not Messi – no player will ever be, probably, but with him and Enzo Fernandez in the squad, Argentina’s future looks bright, as the young generation is starting to take over the one that features Messi, Otamendi or Papu Gomez.

Experience matters the most

They say the knockout phases of the international tournaments are not for everybody and that was there to be seen once again at Qatar 2022, when France delivered a knockout blow to Morocco, earning a 2-0 win in the semi-finals, despite conceding the possession battle, passing less than the African side and having fewer shots on goal than their opponents.

But these types of games are also won thanks to the experience and this is what France brought, despite many young stars in the squad, like Aurelien Tchouameni, Jules Kounde or Ibrahima Konate starting the match. France controlled the tempo, let Morocco dominate and pounced on the counter attacks, relying on Kylian Mbappe’s speed.

France got lucky by scoring early, with Theo Hernandez delivering a huge blow to Morocco after four minutes and 41 seconds and they controlled the match through sheer experience and a bit of luck through Morocco’s plethora of injuries that left the back line exposed. But this France team proved they do not need to play pretty to win and had, once again, a tournament to remember.

France is on the brink of history

France missed Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante or Karim Benzema and for any team, these three players could have been slotted as starters and played throughout the whole tournament. However, Didier Deschamps had to make do without them and created a tightly-knit unit, with a focus on defence, even if they conceded a goal in all of the matches played until the semi-final against Morocco.

The reigning champions knew the odds were stacked against them, but still found ways to deliver excellent performances, with some exciting brand of football, playing to their strengths. And here they are, close to writing history at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Only Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) have won back-to-back trophies on the biggest of stages and that means that France could become only the third team in history to retain their title. And the first one in 60 years, which definitely underlines the challenge of doing this on the long term, especially with the same coach and the same core of players, albeit with plenty of young stalwarts ready to make their mark in the place of the missing ones that won the FIFA World Cup four years ago.

Morocco and Croatia face off again after stellar tournament

Last, but not least, spare a thought about Morocco and Croatia and their excellent performances. The European side were back in the semi-finals after reaching the final four years ago, but this time around, they could not produce the type of football needed to make it to the final act. With an aging squad, Croatia simply could not dominate Argentina, as Luka Modric ended his trophy hunt at the FIFA World Cup in tears.

Still, they have, once again, been impressed with their excellent fighting spirit, never-say-die attitude and resilience, coming back time and time again, despite not having the most talented squad in the competition.

But Morocco was truly the big surprise of the competition, with the ”Atlas Lions” capturing the minds of the African and Arab worlds with their excellent performances. Sure, many could have dubbed them a team that defended, but Morocco did take the game to their opponents many times, as proven against France, where they hit the post and had two other huge chances, saved by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

The two sides will meet on Saturday in the third-place play-off, but both of them are sure winners of the competition, after having met first in the group phase, in a close 0-0 draw. If somebody said that the two sides would meet again on Saturday, well, nobody would have believed it.

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