World Cup roundup: Unpacking the drama as Brazil falls, Argentina escapes

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The 2022 World Cup is in full swing. At the end of every matchday, we’ll review the biggest talking points emanating from Qatar and break down all the action on the pitch. Below, we look back on Friday’s epic quarterfinal games.

Brazil, Neymar genuinely unlucky

Neymar’s defining moment was, ultimately, fleeting.

It’s moot now, but there’s an alternate universe where Neymar’s spectacular extra-time goal against Croatia – which tied Pele’s scoring record for Brazil’s men’s national team – goes down as the seminal sequence of his career. Imagine this: In scoring one of the great goals of the tournament, Neymar’s spark of inspiration helps lead Brazil to its record-extending sixth World Cup title and allows the 30-year-old to sign off from Selecao duty, garnering the admiration he desperately craves in his homeland.

Instead, his breathtaking tally is a footnote in Croatia’s improbable comeback victory. A goal of such quality – that showcased Neymar’s unique blend of quickness, agility, balance, composure, and skill – deserved better. Brazil, frankly, deserved better than a 4-2 shootout defeat.

Croatia, of course, deserves immense credit for again showcasing a stubborn unwillingness to lose. Zlatko Dalic’s team, gritty and experienced, is exceedingly difficult to beat. Brazil is the latest nation to learn that lesson in heartbreaking fashion. But, while it counts for absolutely nothing now, Brazil really should have won the tense affair at Education City Stadium.

Tite’s side peppered Dominik Livakovic’s goal, recording 11 shots on target over 120 minutes. Croatia had just one: Bruno Petkovic’s 117th-minute equalizer, a scuffed effort from the big striker that took a wicked deflection and spun into the net beyond Alisson’s outstretched arm.

Luck is often viewed in sporting parlance as a dirty word; it’s as if being lucky decreases the value of winning. But every team to ever win a title, at international or club level, needs luck at some point along the way. Brazil didn’t have it Friday.

The Selecao became the first team to lose a World Cup knockout match after taking a 1-0 lead in extra time. And it was in a game they had no business losing. And in what could have been a crowning moment of Neymar’s career. This one will be difficult to digest in Brazil for years to come.

Will Modric ever age?

Vedran Corluka and Mario Mandzukic were among those celebrating with Luka Modric when Croatia emerged victorious from the penalty shootout. Both retired from playing in 2021 after at least two years of their stiffening limbs offering diminishing on-pitch returns. Both have since appeared on Dalic’s coaching staff. And incredibly, both are several months younger than Modric.

The midfielder’s effervescence is well known. At 37, Modric is still as slippery and technically gifted as he was over a decade ago. He’s since drawn confidence and composure from a career awash with individual honors and club trophies. But his occasional omnipresence defies science. Despite his advanced years, he was everywhere against Brazil. He filled space between the lines, drew five fouls, and even chipped in with three tackles and two blocked shots.

Modric effortlessly evaded opponents throughout the 120 minutes. In the second period of extra time, he left Fred – who only came on minutes earlier – dumbfounded with a sublime dummy that won a corner. He was also involved in Petkovic’s dramatic equalizer as he rolled a physical challenge from former Real Madrid teammate Casemiro before the ball spilled to Nikola Vlasic through the middle. Two passes later, Croatia was level.

Being Croatian, Modric is used to working overtime. Eight of the national team’s last nine knockout matches needed an additional 30 minutes – the only exception being the 2018 World Cup final defeat to France. Nevertheless, a dominant question going into the semifinals will be the fitness of Modric and Croatia’s other elder statesmen after their considerable workload.

But if we’ve learned something from Croatia’s recent tournaments, it’s that it can never be written off. Judging from Modric’s inspirational display against Brazil, he’s still not ready to retire to a seat beside Dalic in the technical area.

Unforgettable day of World Cup theater

What. A. Day.

You didn’t have to be a fan of any of the four teams playing Friday to feel the unparalleled drama of the World Cup. With Brazil crashing out of Qatar at the hands of Croatia hours before its biggest rival, Argentina, narrowly avoided a similar fate against the Netherlands, Dec. 9 may end up as the best day of the 2022 World Cup.

There’d already been plenty of action in Qatar to keep fans entertained before the quarterfinals kicked off with a bang. Most of the excitement stemmed from the group stage, with Japan upsetting Spain en route to topping its group on the same day as South Korea’s surprise victory over Portugal. Morocco’s triumph over Spain in the round of 16 also ranks right up there as one of the most memorable games in Qatar.

But Friday was different.

Brazil and Argentina – two of the sport’s most successful competitors with seven World Cup titles between them – were on the ropes just hours apart in their respective quarterfinal matchups. Both seemed destined for a semifinal berth before disaster struck under eerily similar circumstances. Both battled stubborn opponents who refused to go down without a fight. But only one survived.

Matthias Hangst / Getty Images Sport / Getty

In the early contest, it was Brazil against a battle-tested Croatia side fresh off of finishing second in 2018. The five-time winner appeared to seal a place in the semis after Neymar’s historic go-ahead goal in the first half of extra time. But Croatia came roaring back to score an equalizer before Livakovic denied the Selecao early in the shootout. Marquinhos’ miss on Brazil’s fourth attempt ultimately doomed Tite’s side and ended any hope of a mouthwatering semifinal against Argentina.

But Argentina’s spot in the semis was anything but guaranteed against a resilient Netherlands outfit. La Albiceleste supporters were already buzzing after learning of Brazil’s shock elimination. The stadium was rocking after kickoff when Nahuel Molina and Lionel Messi gave Argentina a 2-0 lead. But the Dutch silenced the boisterous South American fans with a dramatic equalizer, a 101st-minute equalizer.

In the shootout, after seemingly learning from Brazil’s mistake when Neymar was picked to shoot last, Messi stepped up to take the first penalty, delivering a composed strike to set the tone. Argentina’s path to victory in the shootout wasn’t straightforward from there, but the two-time World Cup winner ultimately prevailed to play another day. A date with Croatia awaits.

Quick free-kicks

Why didn’t Neymar take a penalty?

As a shattered Neymar looked on in despair, tears flooding from his eyes, it was impossible not to question why, as Brazil’s best penalty taker, he didn’t step up to the spot in the shootout. It brought a familiar debate back to the forefront: What is the ideal way to allocate your penalties in a shootout? “The fifth (shot) is the decisive one, there is more pressure, and players more mentally prepared are ones to take this last penalty kick,” Brazil manager Tite said after the match when asked why Neymar was saved for the last penalty, which, as it turned out, he never got the chance to take. Having Neymar go first is the sensible decision. If not that, then perhaps fourth? All too often, the fifth penalty never comes to fruition. The shootout is over before it can get to that point, as was the case Friday. There’s something undeniably grand and satisfying about having your superstar convert the final, winning kick. But the risk is too great. This was just another example. The dichotomy was hammered home when, later in the day, Messi stepped up to take – and converted – Argentina’s first shootout attempt.

Livakovic, Juranovic in the shop window

Croatia’s goalkeeping choices were supposed to be an Achilles heel at this tournament, but the reputation of Dinamo Zagreb’s Livakovic has skyrocketed in Qatar. Following his three penalty shootout saves against Japan, the 27-year-old produced more heroics with 11 stops – seven of which were shot inside his own area – and an extra save in spot-kicks against Brazil. However, Livakovic might not be the most sought-after player in Dalic’s ensemble. Josip Juranovic, expected to be available for transfer after Celtic signed fellow defender Alistair Johnston last week, was arguably Croatia’s second-best player (after Modric) at Education City Stadium. The right-back halted Vinicius Junior on numerous occasions and ambitiously ran at Danilo or through the middle whenever he had the ball. Every time he surged forward, it felt like his asking price raised by a few million.

That’s more than enough, Mateu

Regular La Liga viewers all likely nodded in unison with every yellow card Mateu Lahoz handed out at Lusail Stadium. This was no surprise to them. They probably had sore necks by the end of it all. The eccentric Spanish referee, infamous for making himself a central figure in any match he oversees, showed 18 total cards in Argentina’s chaotic victory over the Netherlands. Of course, some of that wasn’t his fault. Leandro Paredes smashing the ball into the Dutch bench from point-blank range, which started a brouhaha, was out of Lahoz’s control. But the Spaniard too often brings commotion upon himself within matches with questionable decisions and a lack of consistency. Clear bookable offenses slide right on by, while less serious infractions result in Lahoz reaching for his pocket. It’s confounding. Messi and Emiliano Martinez slammed the referee’s performance after Friday’s match, with the latter calling him “useless.” With Spain out of the tournament, there’s a possibility Lahoz, who took charge of the 2021 Champions League final, could be the man in the middle for the World Cup final. That would be to the detriment of the tournament.

Launch it to the big man

Louis van Gaal and the Dutch purists have been at odds for much of his current tenure. His style of football – which ditched the nation’s beloved 4-3-3 system – was dubbed too defensive, too reactionary, and, crucially, not aesthetically pleasing. Van Gaal, never one to cower in the face of critics, refuted claims that his team was “boring” and pointed to the results as many coaches do. The Netherlands, until Friday, was winning. Against that backdrop, there would have been something delicious – and hilarious – about Wout Weghorst emerging as the hero if his unlikely late brace in normal time had culminated in a Dutch victory. The gigantic forward is the antithesis of the silky football of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, and Arjen Robben. But he was damn effective against Argentina, scoring twice with his first 10 touches after coming off the bench, including the latest second-half goal in a World Cup knockout game in recorded history (101st minute). Launching the ball forward to a hulking center-forward is dismissed by many as antiquated, but, as Van Gaal and the Netherlands proved, it can work. That tactic very nearly saved the Netherlands.

Stat of the day

Messi’s assist for Molina, in which he created a passing lane out of thin air by nutmegging Nathan Ake, was out of this world.

Tweet of the day

“And then to penalties. Which they always win.”

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