Matchup of the little maestros

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Lionel Messi and Argentina's World Cup dream remains alive but an indefatigable Croatia side inspired by the enduring brilliance of Luka Modric stands in their way in Tuesday's semifinalin Doha.

Argentina has recovered from the shock of losing its opening game in Qatar to Saudi Arabia and made the last four with an exhausting win on penalties against the Netherlands at the end of a fractious quarterfinal on Friday.

Having been 2-0 up and cruising after 83 minutes, with Messi setting up one goal in sublime fashion and netting a penalty, Argentina conceded twice late in the game and had to survive extra time before triumphing 4-3 in a shootout.

Backed by an enormous contingent of traveling supporters who have brought the passion, noise and color of Argentina's own stadiums to this World Cup, Messi and his teammates are starting to believe this really could be their year.

"We have balls, passion, heart and we are doing this for 45 million people," said goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. Argentina's optimism now has only increased after seeing great rival Brazil go out in the last round.

Now aged 35, this has been billed as Messi's last chance to win a World Cup, eight years on from Argentina's defeat in the final to Germany in Rio de Janeiro.

He is determined to seize the chance and has already scored his first two goals in the knockout rounds of any World Cup, netting against Australia in the last 16 before his penalty against the Dutch.

World Cup glory would complete a wonderful career for the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner, who is arguably the greatest club player ever.

After years of being unfulfilled at international level he inspired Argentina to victory at last year's Copa America, but he knows there are no more dogged or durable opponents than Croatia.

After all, any sense of relief at avoiding Brazil in the last four will be tempered by the prospect of facing a Croatian side who knocked out the favorite on penalties and never knows when it is beaten.

"They are a great team who matched up to Brazil and at times were much better," said Messi.

"They have good players across the whole midfield and they have been working with the same coach since the last World Cup, so they all know each other very well."

Terrific trio

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni switched to a five-man defense against the Netherlands as he brought Manchester United centerback Lisandro Martinez into his lineup.

But the midfield is always key against Croatia, with Modric still controlling games at 37 and Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic completing a formidable trio.

After reaching the final four years ago, Croatia has beaten Japan and Brazil on penalties to make the semis here.

The Croatians have gone to extra time in eight of their last nine major tournament knockout matches and the nation of just 4 million people has nothing to lose as it eyes a place in the final against France or Morocco.

But Croatia has a master in Modric, the 2018 Ballon d'Or winner who starred in a 3-0 group-stage victory over Argentina four years ago.

"I think Mateo, Luka and Marcelo are the best midfield in history. When you pass them the ball, it is safer than having your money in the bank," said Josip Juranovic, another standout at rightback. "We are so lucky to have them in the team."

Modric's history with Argentina goes back to 2006, when he made his international debut for Croatia aged 20 in a friendly between the teams.

Messi scored in that game but Croatia won 3-2. Zlatko Dalic's team will not be afraid of Argentina or its No 10 when the sides meet again at Lusail Stadium. Asked about how they would handle Messi, Croatia forward Bruno Petkovic responded: "We don't have a specific plan, at least not yet, for stopping Messi and usually we don't concentrate on one player, but Argentina is not only Messi."

Two players who will not feature for Argentina, however, are defenders Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna, both of whom are suspended.

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