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FIFA World Cup 2018: Championship Preview

Championship Preview

FRANCE vs. CROATIA

This is not the World Cup final people were expecting and could have been a round of 16 match-up if Group play had gone to form.  Instead, Croatia surprisingly won Group D by upsetting Argentina and thus got to face the 2nd place finisher in Group C, Denmark, instead of Group C winner France in the round of 16.  The French barely got by in their high-scoring round of 16 win over Argentina, while the Croatians survived on penalty kicks against the Danes.  Since then, France hasn’t allowed a goal, beating Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinals and Belgium 1-0 in the semis.  Croatia went to extra time in both rounds, again getting by on penalty kicks against Russia and netting a winning goal against England in the semis in the second extra period.  France was one of the favorites to get to the final all along, while Croatia was viewed as a team that might make it out of group play, but not likely to go any further.  France is considered a strong favorite for Sunday’s championship game, which is a rematch of their 1998 World Cup semifinal game.

France has been on a mission since losing the Euro 2016 final on its home soil to Portugal.  France’s speed, particularly Paul Pogba in the midfield and Kilian Mbappe up front, has proved to be unsettling for opposing defenses, but Mbappe has not scored since the Argentina game.  Les Bleus have instead had to rely on winning goals coming from defenders pushing forward during set pieces in the last two games.  The French have won regardless of winning the possession battle because their defense has been indomitable and has shut downs attacks before shots can even be taken.  In the semis, Belgium controlled the ball 64% of the time, made nearly twice as many passes as France with better accuracy.  Yet, the French took twice as many shots with more on goal because their defense closed down attacks quickly and efficiently.  Except for the outlier game against Argentina, the French defense has given up only one goal in the tournament.

Croatia’s journey to the Cup final has been quixotic.  Their national federation has been plagued by scandal and corruption.  The team’s coach was fired before their last qualifier and they had to beat Greece in a playoff to even qualify for the World Cup.  They got placed in a group with 2014 second-place finisher Argentina, the always tough Nigerian team, and the rising Icelandic squad.  Getting out of the group was no sure thing, but Croatia crushed the group stage, winning all three games while scoring seven goals and only giving up one.  The knockout rounds have been a different story, with all three games requiring extra periods, two of them going to penalty kicks.  Croatia faced adversity in each one, giving up the first goal in each knockout game.  In fact, they gave up very early goals to Denmark in the round of 16 game (and missed a late spot kick) and England in the semis, as well as very late equalizer to Russia in the quarterfinals.  Every time though, the Croatians showed their mettle and persevered.

France is a huge favorite in the championship game and it is easy to understand why.  They possess greater speed, play great defense, have a strong midfield, and have a lot of experience on the big stage.  They have beaten two teams ranked in the top five of the world rankings in the knockout rounds and have not given up a goal in their last two games.  Croatia, on the other hand, has just barely survived at each phase of the knockout round against lesser competition than the French have faced.  However, they have one of the best shot creators in the world in talisman Luka Modric and an attack that can come down the middle or through either wing.  Eight different players have scored goals for Croatia.  France may be the favorite, but they have not faced the adversity that Croatia has faced to get here.  Croatia has a resilience that no other team, including the French, has.  I am picking the upset here.  Croatia has found a way to win every game they’ve played in this tournament so far and I think they do so one last time on Sunday.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Semifinals Preview

Semi-Finals Preview

The semi-finals finds four squads left competing for the World Cup championship. With Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, and Germany in 2014, this year’s winner will once again come from UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). The recent European dominance extends past just the championship: including this year, 7 of the last 8 finalists and 13 of the last 16 semifinalists will have been from Europe. Why has Europe risen to such domination? The best theory seems to be the amount of money flowing through the European soccer leagues.  The major European leagues, the English Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A, make and spend huge amounts of money, bring in the best players in the world, and have the leading youth development programs. Even the lesser European leagues are awash in money. When you can pay and develop the best talent, you are a step up on other countries and leagues.

This World Cup has already seen a number of surprises. The reigning champions and #1 ranked team, Germany, failed to advance out of the group stage. The #2 ranked Brazilian squad got bounced in the quarterfinals. 70th ranked Russia made a run all the way to the quarterfinals. We are now left with 3rd ranked Belgium, 7th ranked France, 12th ranked England and 20th ranked Croatia.  Here’s what to look for in the semi-final match-ups.

France vs. Belgium

France got here by a 2-0 victory over a Uruguayan team playing without star forward Edinson Cavani. Except for giving up three goals to Argentina in the round of 16, the French defense has been stalwart, allowing only one other goal. They feature great speed on offense with Kilian Mbappe and Paul Pogba and have Antoine Griezmann patrolling and controlling the midfield. France has proven to be one of the most complete teams in the tournament.

Belgium was one of the hottest teams coming into the Cup and continued that streak through group play. In the knockout rounds though, Belgian form has been a bit confounding.  Facing a surprising Japanese team in the round of 16, Belgium fell behind 2-0, before a furious three goal rally in the final 25 minutes got them through. As underdogs against the highly skilled Brazilians, the Belgians quick attacks netted two first half goals which held up for the win. Belgium is the highest ranked team left, but has shown some inconsistency in the knockout games.

France and Belgium should prove to be a good game to watch. Both defenses are good and both offenses have excellent creators, Griezmann for the French and Eden Hazard for the Belgians. However, the Belgian defense has shown some vulnerability to especially fast attackers and France has the speed to take advantage of that. Look for the French to try to play some through balls or over the top balls that Mbappe can run onto. Belgium will look to a more patient buildup with Hazard delivering balls to Romelu Lukaku to cross into the box, where they have been effective using their height. This game will be a tight one and it would not be surprising if it came down to penalty kicks. I like the French speed to prevail in the end.

Croatia vs. England

For the first time since the Golden Generation squad of 1998, Croatia returns to the semi-finals by outlasting Russia on penalty kicks. After they marched through group play, including a surprisingly dominant upset of Argentina, Croatia has squeaked through knockout round play on penalty kicks in both games. Still, Croatia showed great resilience in those games after missing a penalty kick late in the round of 16 game and giving up a late equalizer in the quarter-final game.

England is the sole group stage 2nd place finisher to get this far in the tourney. The English, despite a history of failure at PKs, overcame it to edge out Colombia in the round of 16, before taking apart Sweden in the quarterfinals, thanks in part to some incredible goalkeeping by Jordan Pickford. The Sweden game was their best showing against quality competition and the English seem to be rounding into form at the right time.

The Croatia-England game should be an interesting one. Both teams like to control the midfield with Croatian star Luka Modric a master at creating scoring opportunities while the English are among the best at scoring off of set pieces. Ball possession or the ability to deal with the lack of it may prove to be the difference. Both teams have the possession battle in all of their games but one. In the one game where the English lost the ball control battle, they lost to Belgium. The Croatians, on the other hand, lost the possession battle against Argentina, but did not let that faze them and used their opportunities to cruise to a 3-0 win.  This is further evidence of the resilience that Croatia has shown throughout. I think this resilience proves to be the difference with Croatia edging out England.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Quarterfinals Preview

World Cup Trophy

The Quarterfinals

The Round of 16 found 6 group winners moving forward.  The two second-place finishers that won, Russia and England, did not look particularly impressive in doing so, each squeaking through on penalty kicks.  The two sides of the quarterfinals bracket have some slight differences in the quality of the competition.  One side of the bracket has no team ranked lower than 14th in the world rankings.  The highest ranked team on the other side of the bracket is 12th ranked England and all the other teams in that bracket are ranked 20th or lower, in one case, much lower.  So what do we have to look forward to in the quarterfinals?

Uruguay vs. France

Uruguay got past Portugal in the round of 16 despite the Portuguese dominating possession and shots because they played a deep and disciplined backline and bet on their attackers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to get the job done up front, which they did.  France has a new star in the making, Kylian Mbappe, and topped Argentina in the round of 16 by making good use of his explosiveness.  However, the French gave up more goals to Argentina than they did in three group games because Messi and the Argentines were the first offensively proficient team they faced.

Unlike Portugal who had difficulty breaking through Uruguay’s defense, France has the speed and one-on-one ability in Mbappe up front and Paul Pogba in the midfield to find the seams even though Uruguay does not concede many shots.  Unlike most players, Mbappe can make his runs to either side of the field, so Uruguay can’t overplay him to one side or the other.  On the other end, Suarez and Cavani have the ability and experience to give the French backline a rough time.  However, Cavani’s left calf is ailing, which could put them at a disadvantage.  France has the more complete squad and should prevail anyway, but if Cavani doesn’t play or is playing hurt, it will be that much easier for France.

Brazil vs. Belgium

Brazil topped Mexico 2-0 in the round of 16 by sending waves of attackers and trusting their defense.  Brazil has some of the best one-on-one players in the world and are patient on the attack till the find the cracks to exploit.  Belgium was expected to run Japan off the field in their game, but the Japanese played them evenly through the first half and when Belgium pressed the attack in the second half, Japan used their quickness, particularly on the wings to run up two quick goals.  Belgium kept up their attack though and quickly got the two goals back.  Both teams attacked back and forth looking for the winning goal.  Belgium prevailed on a quick counterattack late in extra time.

Brazil and Belgium are the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams in the world, respectively.  However, Belgium’s defense has shown cracks against teams with creative offenses and Brazil will be the most creative offense they have faced yet.  Brazil has been getting better each game in this Cup and their veteran defense has given up only one goal so far.  Brazil ends Belgium’s World Cup run here.

Sweden vs. England

Sweden managed to get by Switzerland last round by playing stout defense and patiently waiting for Emil Forsberg to make some magic on the offensive end.  The Swiss also looked to defend heavily and find their spots on offense.  It made for a boring game.  Despite the Swiss controlling the ball more of the game, Forsberg made the difference late.  England survived its bout with Colombia on penalty kicks.  Colombia played without their star James Rodriguez, but still played England tough.  England has not shown much creativity in their offense in this tournament, but has done well on penalty and free kicks.

Sweden and England figures to be a boring game with little scoring.  Neither team creates well enough against stiff defenses.  Sweden will have to watch its fouls in the defensive third lest they give the English the edge they need with a set piece.  The English defense will have to keep a close eye on Forsberg.  This game could go either way and figures to be won by the team that makes the least mistakes.  I give England the slight edge to be that team.

Russia vs. Croatia

Russia managed to get by Spain in the round of 16 by way of Spain’s inability to create in the offensive third and some questionable referee calls and non-calls.  The Russians spent the entire second half and the extra periods surviving by pulling everyone back on defense.  Their goalie then bailed them out in the penalty kicks phase.  Croatia also got to the quarterfinals via penalty kicks against Denmark.  Croatia gave up a first minute goal to Denmark, but struck back minutes later and then settled down on both ends of the field.  They created a number of scoring opportunities, but couldn’t finish.  They showed some backbone though winning the shootout after star Luka Modric couldn’t convert a penalty kick late in the game.

Croatia and Russia appears to be a mismatch in the Croats favor, but then, so did Spain and Russia.  As with every other game against superior teams, Russia will play a patient defense-heavy game and hope for a breakdown by Croatia or penalty kicks.  Croatia will control the midfield and count on the attacking front of Mandzukic, Pericic, Rebic, and Modric to do a better job of creating opportunities than Spain did.  Modric creates a lot of scoring opportunities and he will need to ramp it up a notch against Russia’s 11-man defense.  Croatia should end Russia’s surprising World Cup run barring another run of fortunate refereeing.

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