Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni brushed off accusations of poor sportsmanship on Monday as the South Americans prepared for a World Cup semifinal showdown against Croatia.
After three weeks of pulsating action in Qatar, just four teams are left standing as the tournament heads into its home stretch.
Lionel Messi and Argentina face Croatia in the first semifinal on Tuesday, before 2018 champions France take on giant-killing Morocco on the following day.
At the cavernous Lusail Stadium, Messi will attempt to guide Argentina into a World Cup final for the second time in eight years.
Messi, looking to crown his career with victory on football’s biggest stage, was a pivotal figure in Friday’s stormy quarterfinal win over the Netherlands, when tempers on both sides flared and a record 18 yellow cards were shown.
An ill-tempered contest ended with Argentine players appearing to taunt their distraught Dutch opponents before sprinting away to celebrate after a penalty shootout win.
Even the normally mild-mannered Messi was caught up in the acrimony, appearing to shout abuse at unidentified Dutch players during a post-game interview.
But Scaloni defended his players’ conduct in an eve-of-game news conference on Monday, insisting his team had nothing to apologise for.
“The game the other day was played in the right way by both teams. That is football,” said the 44-year-old Argentina coach.
“I don’t buy this idea that we don’t know how to win. The game was played in the right way.”
Messi, who tasted bitter defeat in the 2014 final against Germany, likely has one final chance, at the age of 35, to match compatriot Diego Maradona and lift the World Cup.
CROATIA’S ‘GREATEST GAME?
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said he wanted the match to be remembered as the “greatest game” in the country’s history.
With a population of just four million people, Croatia, led on the pitch by Luka Modric, have again defied the odds and stand just 90 minutes from a return trip to the final.
“At back-to-back World Cups to be among the four best national teams, that’s an extraordinary success for Croatia,” said Dalic, whose side were beaten 4-2 by France in the final four years ago.
“However, we want more,” he added. “I’m optimistic and have full confidence in my players. They’ve shown their great quality and strength of character, and deserve to be in the final.”
Croatia, who beat Japan and fancied Brazil in penalty shootouts to reach the last four, have not won a knockout game in normal time at a major tournament since they came third at the 1998 World Cup.
But Dalic said despite the energy-sapping games in Qatar, exhaustion was not even being discussed.
“We are still strong, with energy and enthusiasm, without a doubt,” he said. “We are going to give it our all, just as we have done in previous games.
“Against Argentina we will do the same, we will give our all. We don’t have any injury problems. They don’t feel tired.”
France are strong favourites to beat Morocco and take a step closer to defending their title on Wednesday after overcoming England in the last eight.
But the African team’s run to the semis has caught the imagination of a continent and they have been vocally backed by legions of fans in Qatar.
Morocco, who beat Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the last round, are the first African or Arab team to qualify for a World Cup semifinal.
The match will have added spice — France was Morocco’s colonial power and hundreds of thousands of people with Moroccan roots live and work in the country.
Demand has been so great that Royal Air Maroc has announced it is laying on 30 extra return flights to take euphoric fans to the Gulf state.
France defender Raphael Varane has insisted that there would be no complacency from the World Cup holders.
“We know Morocco are not here by chance,” he said. “It is up to us experienced players to make sure everyone is prepared for another battle.”