The World Cup semi-finals are upon us, Argentina vs Croatia and France vs Morocco. Far from what most, or anyone, could have predicted. Will the upsets finally end here? Surely Morocco can’t do it again, this time against the world champions, can they? When we will stop doubting Croatia and give them the credit they deserve. Will it be World Cup finals rematch? Will Lionel Messi get to play on the grandest of stages in his last World Cup? The storylines are endless. Here's a deeper dive into each game ahead of the two semi finals matches this week.
Argentina vs Croatia
If Argentina win this World Cup, it will be Lionel Messi taking centre stage - and rightly so. But whilst the cameras focus on him, we should also be praising the team’s organisation in their defensive play. In five matches at this World Cup, Argentina have allowed just 22 shots on their goal to a total expected goals against figure of 1.83. To put it into context Croatia conceded 21 shots in their fixture with Brazil to an expected goals figure of 2.53. These insane numbers work out a per-90 minutes average of 4.4 shots conceded and 0.36 worth of expected goals against. Even Manchester City don't work at those sorts of defensive levels.
Somehow though Argentina have conceded five goals - two of those coming against Saudi Arabia, which is quickly becoming one of the most freakish results in World Cup history. I think that actual record is factored into the market too much here when assessing the expected goals against data, meaning backing an Argentina win without conceding in this match is a value play, especially against such a timid attacking outfit like Croatia. They simply don't possess the pace or attacking intent to truly trouble a team with such amazing defensive numbers like Argentina carry. Barring cutting loose against a woefully open Canada team, Croatia have scored just two goals across their other four games and even their late equaliser against Brazil - their first shot on target in the match – came out of nowhere.
Historically, goals are sparse at this stage of a World Cup with the 90-minute average hitting just 2.1 goals from the last 20 semi-finals. Clean sheets are common though with 13 teams keeping the gates closed from that sample size, working at a very appealing 65 per cent strike rate.
Prediction: Argentina 1-0
Best Bet: Both teams to score: NO
France vs Morocco
Is this the game where Morocco concedes a goal from an opposition player at this World Cup? They are taking on a French front four that have produced explosive attacking metrics in the four games they've started together. And even when Kylian Mbappe was tamed by Kyle Walker, Oliver Giroud and Antoine Griezmann stepped up. However, this is not a vintage France side. There are flaws in their shape without the ball that will provide opportunities for Morocco to exploit.
With this deadly French attack taken to find a way through, it's likely that the game-state is going to require Morocco to play with much more attacking intent as their tournament is on the line. Although semi-finals are low scoring affairs, from the past 20 matches, teams are averaging just over 13 shots per 90 minutes as the jeopardy when falling behind creates more risks being taken so the game can open up. I would suggest looking for an over/under for Morocco shots on goal and taking the over.
Also, France is not a team to go pressing and are happy to defend deep. That style does see plenty of opportunities for shots on goal for the opposition. England managed 16, Poland 12 and Denmark 10, suggesting that Morocco can follow suit if - as expected - they are having to chase the game at some point.
Prediction: France 1-1 Morocco (Morocco win 4-2 on penalties)
Best Bet: Morocco OVER shots on goal