World Cup semifinals preview: What to know about each team, predictions, schedule and more

Sports

The 2022 World Cup semifinals are here. After a thrilling round of 16 and quarterfinals, we’re into the business end of the tournament with four teams remaining. There’s plenty of star power, great matchups and top players who all have their eyes set on hoisting the trophy on Dec. 18.

The action begins Tuesday with Croatia and Argentina kicking off, then defending champions France take on underdogs Morocco a day later. But before the games begin, preview each team with key things to reaching the final, players to know and predictions from our ESPN writers.

– World Cup 2022: News and features | Schedule | Bracket
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Tuesday

Have they met recently? This is their third meeting at a World Cup, but first in the knockouts. Argentina won the first meeting 1-0 in 1998’s group stage, with Croatia winning 3-0 in 2018.

Odds to win World Cup (via Caesars Sportsbook): Argentina +155; Croatia +650.

Argentina are -150 to advance from the semifinal, while Croatia are +450.

Why Croatia will reach the final

Coach Zlatko Dalic spoke a lot in the aftermath of Croatia’s quarterfinal victory over Brazil on penalties about their “fighting spirit,” and even though it’s not something you can quantify with statistics or data, it will be the one thing that worries Argentina most.

Croatia have a fantastic ability to stay in a game. Their midfield three of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic have the technical ability on the ball to control large spells and when they have to defend, they are dogged and organised.

Argentina, even with Lionel Messi, will find it very hard to break them down and the longer the game stays even, Croatia will only grow in belief. Eight of their past nine knockout matches at major tournaments have gone to extra time, beating both Japan and Brazil on penalties during their run in Qatar. They also won two shootouts — against Denmark and Russia — on their way to the final in 2018.

Croatia will hope to disrupt Argentina and Messi long enough for panic to set in and then look to take advantage. Their record at the past two World Cups suggests it’s a well-formulated plan. If they can knock out Brazil, they can certainly do the same to Argentina. — Rob Dawson

Why Croatia won’t reach the final

The most obvious reason for Argentina reaching the final over Croatia is that, simply put, they have better players. There’s a reason that Argentina and Messi arrived in Qatar aiming to lift the trophy while Croatia and Modric turned up hoping to make it through the group stages — expectation based purely on the depth of talent each coach has available.

Aside from putting four past Canada in the groups, Croatia have found the net just twice in their other four games and scored in the 116th minute against Brazil with their only shot on target — and even that needed a significant deflection.

They had a marvellous run to the final in 2018, but once there, the final hurdle against France felt like one game too far. They conceded four goals in 65 minutes. It was hardly a surprise given they’d played the equivalent of an extra game in the knockouts after going for 120 minutes in the round of 16, quarterfinal and semifinal.

After extra time and penalties against Japan and Brazil, there is a danger Croatia might run out of steam against Argentina, particularly when coach Lionel Scaloni can turn to his bench and throw on a number of world-class players. — Dawson

Why Argentina will reach the final

Maybe it’s nothing more, or less, than fate. This is almost certainly Lionel Messi‘s last shot at winning a World Cup, and he has dragged Argentina to this stage by his brilliance and force of personality. He isn’t the player he was in his prime, with that electric burst of pace, but at 35, he has shown he is still capable of making the crucial difference.

His goals against Mexico and Australia set Argentina on their way to big wins, while his reverse pass for Nahuel Molina to score in the quarterfinal against Netherlands was one of the moments of this World Cup.

Messi will have to find something magical again to overcome a Croatia team that manages tournament football better than most. The 2018 World Cup finalists are a tough, proud team with Modric as influential as Messi. But there does feel a sense of destiny about Argentina this time around. — Mark Ogden

Why Argentina won’t reach the final

Take Messi out of the team and Argentina are a limited side. For a country that has produced some incredible players, there is a real shortage of world-class support for Messi. Julian Alvarez, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister have all had a good tournament in Qatar, but they are not world beaters. How Argentina could use one of their former great strikers, such as Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Batistuta right now.

Argentina’s lack of pace and creativity hasn’t been a major issue so far, but as the tournament approaches its decisive stage, the key details matter and they will need to find something extra to beat Croatia.

Lionel Scaloni’s team need to find a way to stop Modric dominating the game with his movement of the ball in midfield, but that is the same challenge for all of Croatia’s opponents and few are able to pull it off. This game will come down to whether Argentina can stop Modric, but also how they can threaten Croatia in ways that don’t involve Messi. — Ogden

One Croatia player to watch: Luka Modric

Modric is the obvious choice because of his status and experience, but RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol, 20, has been one of the best young players at the World Cup and Croatia will need him to be in top form again.

Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the star against Brazil, and you would think he’s going to have to make at least a couple of saves against Argentina if there’s going to be another shock result.

If Croatia want to hurt Argentina, Celtic right-back Josip Juranovic is a good outlet. Argentina haven’t settled on their full-backs and Juranovic caused Brazil problems with his runs down the right flank. — Dawson

One Argentina player to watch: Emiliano Martinez

The Argentina goalkeeper has had his critics in this tournament, but he rose to the occasion during the penalty shootout win against Netherlands. And because no team takes games to penalties as often, and successfully, as Croatia, Argentina may need the Aston Villa No. 1 to produce heroics again.

But Martinez’s role goes beyond his ability with penalties. He is a commanding presence and one who will try to dominate the penalty area, so Argentina at least know they have a keeper they can rely on. — Ogden

Predictions

Argentina 2-1 Croatia (AET): It’s Croatia, so it’s going to extra time, but this time they’ll find Argentina have too much firepower and won’t be able to hold on for penalties. — Dawson

Argentina 1-1 Croatia (Argentina win on penalties): This game feels like it will be a tense battle for 120 minutes and will eventually go to penalties. If that happens, both sides know from recent experience how to win on spot-kicks. — Ogden

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1:41

Craig Burley is full of praise for Morocco’s performance and resilience after they become the first African team to make it to a World Cup semifinal.


Wednesday

Morocco vs. France
Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor; 2 p.m. ET

Have they met recently? This is the first time since 2007, when they drew 2-2 in a friendly. They have never met at a World Cup.

Odds to win World Cup (via Caesars Sportsbook): France +120; Morocco +1000.

France are -200 to advance from the semifinal, while Morocco are +625.

Why Morocco will reach the final

No team has the same momentum, no team has as much support locally and globally as these potential history-makers. This isn’t just the first African nation to reach the semifinal, it’s also the first Arab nation and only the second Muslim nation. In a sport that has traditionally been a closed affair between Europe and South America, much of the rest of the world is cheering them on … they’re not just playing for themselves here.

They also match up well with France. They’ve conceded just once all tournament (and that was an own goal), they’ve shown the ability to defend stoutly and concede very little space behind for Kylian Mbappe to run into. They have the World Cup’s outstanding keeper thus far (Yassine Bounou), they have two midfielders in Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi who are on fire in terms of quantity and quality, and they have wingers in Sofiane Boufal and Hakim Ziyech who can invent something out of nothing to get you a goal, which is often all it takes at this stage of the competition.

Most of all, they’re gritty and they’re hungry. You’d back them in a street fight and, let’s face it, this is knockout football. Games are tight and it’s so often about intensity, chutzpah and mental toughness.

Now, who do you think has more in that department? Morocco or France, who needed Harry Kane to blast a penalty over the bar and some slightly dubious calls to get past England? Look at the penalties Les Bleus conceded in the quarterfinal (especially the Theo Hernandez one), look at the way they were outplayed for much of the game and ask yourself: who is more focused right now?

That’s right. It’s Morocco. — Gabriele Marcotti

Why Morocco won’t reach the final

Let’s live in the real world here. France are the reigning world champions for a reason. They can throw up a stinker against England and still win. Morocco’s entire first-choice back four are physically hurting.

Achraf Hakimi is battle-scarred and hurting. Romain Saiss played carrying an injury against Portugal and had to come off. He may grit his teeth and play, but he’s held together by masking tape and adrenaline right now. Nayef Aguerd, the other outstanding centre-back missed the Portugal game, as did Noussair Mazraoui, the other fullback. Both are unlikely to feature, both would give a kidney to be there.

Next man up? Sure. But there’s a reason some stuff only works in movies. Battering ram cult hero supersub Walid Cheddira is also suspended after picking up two yellows in minutes against Portugal, which means Youssef En Nesyri, also banged up, will need to lead the line on his own.

What’s more is that France boss Didier Deschamps has no qualms about shutting up shop if he needs to. He won the last World Cup playing essentially counterattacking football. This time, France have been a little more expansive, but, fundamentally, they have so many one-on-one threats all over the pitch (Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, Kingsley Coman off the bench, Aurelien Tchouameni from distance) that a goal can come any time, from anywhere.

And, on set pieces, Olivier Giroud, France’s all-time leading goal scorer, who bagged the winner against England, plus the gigantic Dayot Upamecano are serious threats. There are a ton of ways France can win this game.

For Morocco, the path is far narrower. On paper, too narrow to squeeze through. — Marcotti

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1:48

Mark Ogden gives his analysis on the best players in Qatar so far.

Why France will reach the final

France showed against England all their resilience, ruthlessness and mental strength. It will be a very different game against Morocco, but they have everything they need to beat them.

Morocco beat Spain and Portugal because these two teams were too one-dimensional. Les Bleus have so much variety. Giroud is the old school centre-forward always in the box. Mbappe and Dembele have the pace, skills and tricks to beat anyone on a one-vs.-one, which Spain and Portugal lacked. Griezmann will play between the lines, while you can expect Hernandez to bomb forward from his left-back position.

The French have been there before. They are used to playing big games, unlike the Moroccans. The current world champions have the experience and know-how in these kind of games when the pressure is high.

They are also fit. There are no injury worries (unlike for the Moroccans), no fatigue, no suspensions, no players missing either. They are full of confidence and momentum after the way they beat England in the quarterfinals. They have the best player in the world in Mbappe, who will face his best friend Hakimi, who he knows by heart and will want to beat so he can go back to scoring ways to clinch the Golden Boot award. — Julien Laurens

Why France won’t reach the final

It is well-known that this French team can get carried away and arrogant at times, and there is a risk that they could take this game a bit lightly and get surprised by a dangerous Morocco side. We saw it against Tunisia, albeit with a B team. It could happen again.

The French were under pressure against England. Harry Kane forced Dayot Upamecano to make some mistakes that could have proven costly. Morocco and En Nesyri will surely target Upamecano with long balls behind his back.They will also target Jules Kounde at right-back, the biggest weakness in the French defence. Boufal, the Morocco winger, is in great form this tournament and will have a go at Kounde.

On the other side, the pair of Ziyech and Hakimi will also target Hernandez and the not-so-keen-to-defend Mbappe. So France could suffer a bit defensively and they might not find the key offensively either against the best defence of the tournament so far.

Apart from Coman, Didier Deschamps doesn’t have an option off the bench who is as strong as the starters. He has good young forwards (Marcus Thuram, Kolo Muani) and midfielders (Youssouf Fofana) but no one who can realistically change the game. So the lack of depth could be an issue if France can’t break the deadlock. — Laurens

One Morocco player to watch: Achraf Hakimi

He’s arguably Morocco’s key attacking threat from deep, bursting down the right flank, overloading the midfield and delivering crosses. But he will also have the single toughest task on the day: containing his club teammate Mbappe, the fastest thing on two legs at this World Cup.

It’s a huge ask for any right-back, let alone one like Hakimi, a natural wingback who is more about technique than flat-out athleticism. You don’t shut down Mbappe, but you can contain him for most of the game, like Kyle Walker did for England. But there will be times he gets away from you. And that’s a problem. Hakimi will need to monster this game at both ends of the pitch. A huge task for a man who has been huge this tournament. — Marcotti

One France player to watch: Adrien Rabiot

The Juventus midfielder has been outstanding so far, and we don’t say it enough. He is complete. He defends, he attacks, he compensates, he shuffles, he tackles, he presses, he intercepts, he creates, he runs forever, he wins headers and he even scores goals and assists, too. He has been a revelation and such an asset for France in every single game.

In a match where Les Bleus will have a lot of the ball against a really low and compact block, his movement and impact with the ball will be important. France’s left hand side is the strongest with Rabiot, Hernandez and Mbappe, and Rabiot will have to make it work again. He will have to play high to bring a numerical advantage for the French to unlock the tight Moroccan defence. — Laurens

Predictions

France 1-0 Morocco: After the scare against England, you can expect Deschamps to get Les Bleus at their minimalist best. Finding a goal through one of their superstars and then bolting the door. — Marcotti

France 2-0 Morocco: Morocco have been outstanding so far, but France will be a step too high. I don’t think they can recreate a third miracle in a row. The French will be too strong. — Laurens

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