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FIFA World Cup 2022: Players to watch in the semifinals

Doha, Qatar; Argentina forward Lionel Messi (10) moves the ball during the second half against Poland in a group stage match during the 2022 World Cup at Stadium 974. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

After a tumultuous set of games in the quarterfinals, the FIFA World Cup is down to its final four. Will we see the same final as the previous World Cup,  France vs. Croatia? Is Morocco able to stun the world once more and become the first African country to reach the final? Or will Lionel Messi reach the final in his ultimate quest to become world champion?

In this article, we use PFF grades to predict performance in the semifinals and pick one player to watch from each country.

The model is trained on data from the big five European leagues: Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy) and Ligue 1 (France). It takes each player’s performance in his last four games into account to predict his average grade in the next game, both in terms of quantity (number of events) and quality (sum of grades).

ARGENTINA: LIONEL MESSI, PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN

We tried to pick outside the obvious in previous rounds, but we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. Lionel Messi is on a mission to bring World Cup glory back to Argentina, and he has brought his A-game to Qatar. The 35-year-old is the only player in the tournament with 80.0-plus grades for dribbling, passing and shooting. Based on his performance in the previous games, he is predicted to have the highest average grade for both shooting and dribbling in the semifinals.

Will Messi succeed and get another chance to win a World Cup final?

CROATIA: LUKA MODRIĆ, REAL MADRID

There is an argument to be made that Croatia is the best soccer nation in the world. After gaining independence in 1991, and with a population of only 3.9 million, it is remarkable that Croatia has already managed a third place (1998) and second place (2018) at the World Cup. But who's to say that they won’t get that missing gold medal this year?

The team has proven tough to beat and is once again led by the tireless Luka Modrić. The 37-year-old is predicted to have the second-highest average grade for passing, behind only France's Antoine Griezmann.

FRANCE: OUSMANE DEMBÉLÉ, FC BARCELONA

Not too long ago, Dembélé was out of favor at both club and country. The once-rising star failed to meet expectations after his $165 million move to FC Barcelona in 2017 but seems to be back on track since the start of this calendar year. His speed, in combination with his ability to use both feet, makes the 25-year-old winger totally unpredictable for opposition defenders.

Dembélé is predicted to have the second-highest average grade for crossing behind teammate Antoine Griezmann, our player to watch in the Round of 16.

MOROCCO: SOFIANE BOUFAL, ANGERS SCO

For the first time in history, an African nation has reached the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup. And even though Morocco conceded only one goal so far — an own-goal against Canada — one of their key players is winger Sofiane Boufal.

The former Southampton forward is the highest-graded dribbler still active in the tournament, and despite not scoring or assisting a goal so far, he has been a constant threat down the left wing. The 29-year-old is predicted to have the second-highest average grade for dribbling, behind only Argentina's Lionel Messi.

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