2022 Men's World Cup: Winners and Losers of the Semi-finals

Nick AkermanFeatured Columnist IVDecember 14, 2022

2022 Men's World Cup: Winners and Losers of the Semi-finals

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    Argentina's forward Lionel Messi congratulates France's forward Kylian Mbappe (R) at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between France and Argentina at the Kazan Arena in Kazan on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Luis Acosta / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)
    Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

    Oh my word, we have a Lionel Messi vs. Kylian Mbappé final at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The Paris Saint-Germain superstars, joint-top scorers at the tournament, will do battle on Sunday after overcoming Croatia and Morocco, respectively, in their semi-final match-ups.

    How on Earth can we pass the boredom until two of the planet's best face each other? Reading our winners and losers is a good start…

Winner: The Messi-Álvarez Connection

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    Lionel Messi put on a stunning performance in the 3-0 destruction of Croatia on Tuesday; his penalty got Argentina rolling, and his assist for the third nearly reached Jérôme Boateng levels of embarrassment for Joško Gvardiol, who was in shambles before Messi set up Julián Álvarez for the tap-in.

    The synergy between the two is rapidly improving. Álvarez makes smart runs and is willing to hassle the opposition more than any other forward in Argentina's squad, a trait that is opening greater room for Messi to operate. He also has a knack for forcing his marker to commit, as we saw when the Manchester City man coaxed Dominik Livaković into conceding the penalty after half an hour.

    Álvarez's run for the second goal was borne by great energy and desire to see Argentina get over the line. He had no right to break forward from Croatia's corner like he did, and although he was fortunate the ball bounced back to him en route to goal, the ripple of the net was fully deserved.

    This eagerness is the perfect tonic for where Messi is at in his career. The 35-year-old doesn't dribble as explosively and often as he used to. That's fine, as Álvarez's continual buzzing across the forward line allows Messi to spring into life with devastating impact at key moments.

    The little shimmy and change of direction that shrugged off Gvardiol is evidence of a man who is confident Álvarez will be in the box to finish off his hard work.

    Credit must also go to manager Lionel Scaloni, whose decision to drop Lautaro Martinez after the group-stage loss to Saudi Arabia was a brave one. The Inter striker has had a stinker of a tournament, but let's not forget he averages close to a goal per game for his country. Scaloni, like his team, has felt his way into this tournament with decisive moves that have paid dividends.

    Both Messi and Álvarez will need to be on top form to beat France/Morocco in the final. There's a chance it could be their last game together, should Leo retire after either potential result. For now, this partnership is the driving force behind Argentina's remarkable turnaround.

Loser: Croatia's Cinderella Run

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    Luka Modrić
    Luka ModrićManuel Reino Berengui/Defodi Images via Getty Images

    With so much Messi talk it's easy to forget Croatia once again outperformed expectations in Qatar. Despite being finalists four years ago, few would have predicted a run to the semi-finals, especially with a penalty shootout win over Brazil along the way.

    Croatia's Cinderella run has really played out over a number of years. However, the squad will look hugely different by the time the next World Cup arrives in 2026.

    Talisman Luka Modrić is 37, Ivan Perišić and Dejan Lovren are 33, and Marcelo Brozović is 30. Add four years on and you've likely got a close-to-retirement Brozovic and 32-year-old Mateo Kovačić lining up in midfield. Considering Ivan Rakitić is already gone, the next pool of talent faces a huge challenge to plug the chasm that is rapidly forming.

    Luckily for the Europeans, some brilliant prospects gained vital experience at this year's tournament. Gvardiol was excellent, powerful, combative and a true leader at age 20. The humbling by Messi matters little in the long run. Gvardiol will land a big-money move to an elite club soon, likely within the next two transfer windows.

    Then there's Borna Sosa, Lovro Majer, Josip Šutalo and Josip Stanišić, four of the squad's younger players who can provide a solid base to work from in the future. Impressive 20-year-old attacking midfielder Luka Sučić didn't get on the pitch in this competition but has the ability to become a key player for his country in the years ahead.

    Croatia enter the Nations League final alongside Netherlands, Spain and Italy in June. This is likely the final showing for Modrić's generation after continual overachievement throughout the last decade. Croatia are probably the least favoured of the four teams on paper…exactly how they like it.

Winner: France's Strength In depth

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    France's Theo Hernández (left) celebrates next to Olivier Giroud
    France's Theo Hernández (left) celebrates next to Olivier Giroud Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

    Hold up a minute. France lost Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Presnel Kimpembe and Christopher Nkunku before the World Cup began…and they still made it to the final?

    Add in Lucas Hernández missing nearly the entire tournament with a season-ending ACL injury in the opening round and an illness for Adrien Rabiot as the semi-final arrived. Few squads could have coped with this.

    The ridiculous strength in depth is a large reason Didier Deschamps' men are in the final. Hernández's replacement, his brother, Theo, scored the vital opener to sink Morocco.

    Rabiot, who likely wouldn't have been in the starting lineup if Kanté or Pogba had been fit, has ranked among the best midfielders in the tournament. Youssouf Fofana, the replacement's replacement, was an adequate stand-in against Morocco.

    Then you see Deschamps bring on Randal Kolo Muani when they needed a settler against the Atlas Lions. He scored seconds later. The manager has used his squad brilliantly, no matter the fitness issues they've faced.

    It's remarkable how much talent this nation relentlessly produces. Two World Cup finals in a row speaks extremely loudly.

Loser: The Chance for a 1st-Time Winner

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    Morocco's Bilal El Khannouss reacts after losing to France.
    Morocco's Bilal El Khannouss reacts after losing to France.GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

    It's a small plot line among lots of amazing stories, but it's disappointing not to see a potential first-time winner reach the showcase match. Only eight nations have won the World Cup, and that's the way it's going to stay for at least another four years.

    Croatia and Morocco both had the opportunity to join an elusive club, but really, both nations should be overjoyed with their performances after showing a whole lot of grit, determination and skill to get to the semi-finals.

    A question to ponder: Realistically, when will someone new lift the trophy? It still feels a long way away, despite the heroics of those trying to upset the rhythm.

Winners: Morocco

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    AL KHOR, QATAR - DECEMBER 14: Players of Morocco applause at the end of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 semi final match between France and Morocco at Al Bayt Stadium on December 14, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. (Photo by Ercin Erturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
    Ercin Erturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

    Morocco fought valiantly until the end and deserve to be the side everyone talks about long after this World Cup is over. Becoming the first African nation to reach the semi-finals is amazing history to make, especially as they got there by playing terrific football, both individually and as a team.

    How many of these players were you excited to watch before the competition kicked off? Hakim Ziyech, Sofyan Amrabat, Youssef En-Nesyri, Azzedine Ounahi, Achraf Hakimi…you know what? The list should include Morocco's entire squad. A squad that includes players who people will no doubt look out for once club football returns.

    Walid Regragui's side had France on the ropes multiple times and were unlucky not to find an equaliser, even hitting the post with a bicycle kick. They played with pace, elegance and a never-say-die attitude that accumulated wins over Belgium, Spain and Portugal. Before falling to France, they had conceded just one goal all tournament.

    It is going to be hugely exciting to see how this team develops over the next four years. You can bet a new generation of Moroccan footballers were inspired by seeing their heroes achieve something nobody else has from the continent.