Maintaining its trend of producing action-packed encounters, the 2022 FIFA World Cup gave fans two memorable semi-finals this week. Argentina and Croatia squared off in the first semi-final on December 13. The South Americans played rewarding, eye-catching football to secure a 3-0 win over their European rivals.
The following day, first-ever African FIFA World Cup semi-finalists Morocco saw their dream run ended by defending champions France. The 2-0 victory was far from straightforward, however, with the Atlas Lions coming agonizingly close to hurting Les Bleus on a couple of occasions.
Didier Deschamps’ France will face Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina in the final match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup on December 18. As we await the biggest spectacle in the world, let us take a look at the five players who made the 2022 FIFA World Cup semi-finals come alive with their performances:
#5 Azzedine Ounahi (Morocco)
Moroccan central midfielder Azzedine Ounahi was arguably their best player in their 2022 FIFA World Cup semi-final defeat to France. He kept the game ticking with his short and crisp passes, carried the ball forward with grace, and helped out at the back as well.
Ounahi lodged Morocco’s first shot on target in the 10th minute, putting his boot through the ball from outside the box. He caught the ball superbly but a strong left hand from France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris kept him from wheeling away in celebration.
Against the defending champions, Ounahi completed 66 passes (88% accuracy), pulled off three dribbles, played 10 passes into the final third, and delivered three accurate long balls. Defensively, he helped with a successful tackle, a clearance, and six recoveries.
#4 Theo Hernandez (France)
France left-back Theo Hernandez scored his team’s first goal in their 2-0 victory over Morocco on December 14. In the fifth minute, the AC Milan star latched on to Kylian Mbappe’s rebound (blocked shot) on the left side of the penalty box. It was at a difficult height for the player, but he superbly read the bounce of the ball and steered the ball past Yassine Bounou with a tidy left-footed finish.
Hernandez made some excellent defensive interventions, rarely giving the ball away, and worked tirelessly from the first blast of the whistle to the last. Against Morocco, Hernandez won all four of his attempted tackles, came out on top in all six ground duels, and delivered four accurate long balls. He also made 10 recoveries, blocked a shot, and made an interception.
#3 Antoine Griezmann (France)
France superstar Antoine Griezmann was colossal for his team in the 2022 FIFA World Cup semi-finals. He was their creator-in-chief, willingly covered every blade of grass, and acted as an auxiliary defender whenever Les Bleus needed him to.
The Atletico Madrid man played a game-high four key passes against the African outfit. He completed 21 passes (81% accuracy), played six balls into the final third, and delivered three accurate crosses. Coming to defensive contributions, Griezmann attempted two tackles, cleared the ball thrice, intercepted two passes, and made a staggering eight recoveries.
Griezmann was deservedly chosen as the Man of the Match for his sublime display against Morocco.
#2 Julian Alvarez (Argentina)
Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni started Lautaro Martinez in their first two Group C fixtures against Saudi Arabia and Mexico. The Inter Milan man failed to impress in both matches, which paved the way for Manchester City’s Julian Alvarez to come in.
Over the last four matches, the 22-year-old has firmly proven his mettle, scoring four goals to become Argentina’s second-highest scorer at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Alvarez was at his clinical best in his team's 3-0 victory over Croatia on December 13. In the 39th minute, five minutes after winning his team a penalty that Lionel Messi converted, Alvarez got on the scoresheet himself.
He went on a driving run through the middle, leaving Croatian defenders in his wake. A couple of lucky deflections helped him go one-on-one with Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, but his toe-poke finish deserved all the praise. In the 69th minute, Alvarez hit another, applying a first-time finish to Lionel Messi’s cutback from the byline.
It was a perfect display of center-forward play by Alvarez, who is capable of striking fear in the hearts of the French defenders ahead of Sunday’s final.
#1 Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Arguably the most in-form player at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Lionel Messi, dropped a masterclass against Croatia on Tuesday. The Paris Saint-Germain superstar first found the top-right corner of Livakovic’s goal with a confident penalty in the 34th minute. The goal made him Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the FIFA World Cup (11 goals), taking him past the great Gabriel Batistuta.
The goal, however, was not the highlight of his display against Croatia. It was his assist to Alvarez that took our breath away. In the 69th minute, Messi picked the ball up past the halfway line and proceeded to dribble along the right flank. Croatia’s standout player in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Josko Gvardiol, tried to dispossess him on the right wing itself, but Messi, 35, kept the 20-year-old at bay.
Messi ultimately shook Gvardiol off his tail near the penalty box, turning the centre-back inside out with clever feints and directional changes. Having broken the defender’s shackles, Messi took the ball to the byline and cut it back for Alvarez, who finished off the move with a confident strike.
Messi now has five goals and three assists to his name at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Given the form he is in, it would not be surprising to see him produce something special in the final as well.