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FIFA World Cup 2018: The Final

The Final

There’s only one game left – and it’s about to change everything…

France 4-2 Croatia

Les Bleus came into this with a slightly different 4-4-1-1 formation that could play like a 4-2-3-1 if they needed to clog up the middle a little more. Diminutive defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté was key to France’s attack, stopping the Croatian attack in front of the back four, allowing box-to-box midfielder Paul Pogba to get forward in a more advanced role. Target man Olivier Giroud has not score in this tournament, but his holding up the ball in the box for talisman Antoine Greizmann to trail in through the center and Killian Mbappe and Blaise Matuidi to attack from the flanks was invaluable.

They key for Croatia was going to be left fullback Ivan Strinic in their 4-3-3 formation and his ability to shut down the speedy French wonderkid Mbappe. Holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic’s inclusion in the lineup meant that sideline-to-sideline midfielder Ivan Rakitic and midfield maestro Luka Modric could play at lot more advanced through the center. Mario Mandzukic has been one of the best target men in this tournament, finding the energy late in games to get on the end of service and using his all-around skill and smarts to bring Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic into the attack from the flanks, switching sides frequently.

The key to this game was going to be in the midfield. Croatia wanted to keep the ball away from France and make them run on defense, whereas France wanted to play a little more direct through the center, but were getting pinned back in their own end early, even in possession because Croatia were pressing France high. What else is new; a set piece leads to the opening score. Greizmann free kick into the box that Mandzukic gets on the end of for an own goal in the 18th minute. But to their credit, there was no panic on Croatia’s game, pressing high, reasserting possession, and showing lots of energy and quick combination play through the center. It paid off in the 29th minute on a great buildup on a set piece, finding Perisic just outside the box for a bullet into the lower right corner.

Perisic then slaps at the ball for a France penalty; Greizmann converts in the 39th minute. Still no panic from Croatia, who were getting forward on the left, then getting the ball in combination into the box, and keeping France 6’s and 7’s defending set pieces. Other than defending set pieces, Croatia has played their game and played well. If the French were going to give up as much possession to as organized and confident an attacking team as Croatia, they needed to be a lot more organized in the back than they were, but they gave up way too many good chances to Croatia finding space to take shots in the final third.

Incredible work rate and heart from Mandzukic, who along with Rakitic and Perisic made runs in space through the heart of the French defense and got on the end of service for chances on goal. The one time Mbappe got loose on the right side France made a great combination attack, getting the ball in the box for Pogba to finish a laser in the 59th minute (until then Strinic was actually doing a good job on Mbappe). France’s quality finally showed out in the 65th minute when Croatia opened up things, allowing France to get the ball into open spaces in the attacking end; left winger Mario Fernandez found Mbappe running through the center for another laser shot outside the box.

France’s Hugo Lloris lost the Golden Glove award in the 69th minute when he botched a goal kick and let Mandzukic plant one in the goal behind him. Mandzukic and Giroud (even though he never scored) were workhorses for their respective sides, doing all the dirty work it takes to win. France finally settled down and organized defensively, killing the game off, becoming a roadblock and making Croatia bring the game to them. Croatia was a great come-from-behind team this entire tournament, but coming back from three goals down was a bridge too far, even with a brain fart by Lloris.

I never thought I saw France at their best, but they didn’t need to be, not in this incarnation of the World Cup. We all thought that France’s best was to come four years from now in Qatar; they had other ideas. That’s the best thing about youth, they don’t know they are supposed to lose, they think they can win right now – and they did. France, the second youngest team in Russia, are the world champions. MADD PROPS to Croatia, who did more than anyone thought they could, and quite frankly played better than anybody in this tournament.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Second Semifinal

The Second Semi-Final

Croatia 2-1 England (aet)

Croatia utilized a slightly different 4-2-3-1 formation than their previous matches. When it played like a 4-1-4-1, Marcelo Brozovic slotted inside in front of the back four, leaving talisman Luka Modric free to play a more advanced role through the center to get closer to goal to make attacking runs into the box for target man Mario Mandzukuc already up top to get on service, or bring in Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic from the flanks to help in attack, with box-to-box midfielder Ivan Rakitic trailing in.

The Three Lions used the same 3-1-4-2 formation they’ve been using to success so far that can morph into a 3-5-2 when they needed to get forward. While wingers Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier brought the ball forward on the wings, the key to England’s attack was the speedy, quick forward runs into the final third by Dele Alli on the right and Raheem Sterling through the center, and sideline-to-sideline runs by Jesse Lingard, all servicing Harry Kane in the box, who was either going to come back deep and bring the ball forward or stay in the box tucked in behind the back-line to take shots on target. Because England were using a risky three-man backline, holding midfielder Jordan Henderson became exceptionally important linking up with the forward attack. Expected Croatian right back Sime Vrsaljko to sit deep to better deal with English flankers Alli and Sterling on the left.

England scored 8 of their 11 goals coming into this game on set pieces: In the 5th minute, it became 9 of 12 on a set piece direct kick from Trippier (the result of a quick direct run by Sterling). Alli found lots of pockets of space behind the Croatian back four, making moves from side to side. As soon as England won the ball, Sterling was up front as the quick outlet into the final third. Croatia’s midfield took a lot of time getting off the schneid in the first half, their movements just seemed to be a little off, like they were getting frustrated early. Keeping Croatia from an organized buildup with their world-class midfield was England’s quick runs and passes forward, forcing Croatia to transition back in defense.

It took 30 minutes, but Croatia realized that if they tried a patient attacking buildup then England were transitioning back in numbers to organize a disciplined defense, but if Croatia were a little more direct with their attack, England were left a little unprepared and less organized in the back. Because they got behind early, Croatia had to press England high. If Croatia was going to continue putting crosses in the box, they had to commit more numbers forward than just Mandzukic.

The break refreshed the Croatians, and they started the second half with greater energy and purpose. That’s exactly what finally happened for Croatia; a long diagonal ball into the box by Sime Vrsaljko, England central defender Kyle Walker is caught flat-footed, and Perisic gets on the end of a one-timer in the 68th minute. England quickly got out of sorts in the back, and Croatia dialed it up a notch. Not much of this game was played in the middle third after that. When they had the possession England had Croatia pinned in their end defending, but when they gave up possession to Croatia they tended to get lulled into a false sense of security; Croatia’s midfield is just too good not to make an impact at some point.

Croatia’s remarkable level of energy was also key, with this game the third time they have been forced to negotiate extra time in Russia. Modric, who looked exhausted for much of the game, still ended up as the conductor for Croatia. Jordan Henderson was being asked to do the job of two men, and it was punishing work, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dictating play. When Southgate finally made the change late in the second half, it was to replace Henderson with Eric Dier rather than support him. Perisic, who switched between left and right flanks on several occasions during the game, was a constant threat with his pace, direct running and finishing. And that was when Mandzukuc finally showed up in the box in the 109th minute on a cross by Perisc, catching the England back three switched off at just the right moment (England’s Alli just couldn’t keep up with him the entire match).

This incredible run by the Three Lions came to an unceremonious end. Croatia’s superior quality and command of the ball told in the Luzhniki Stadium, and now the unexpected national side get a date in this same stadium on Sunday for the World Cup.

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FIFA World Cup: First Semifinal France Belgium

Semi-Final One

And then there were four…

France 1-0 Belgium

France played their standard, fluid 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 in attack, with N’Golo Kante the best defensive midfielder in the tournament protecting the center of defense. The key to this game was box-to-box midfielder Paul Pogba having the space to create going forward, speedy winger Kilian Mbappe’ having room to make his runs from the right, and Olivier Giroud holding up play in the box as the target man giving time for attacking midfielder Antoine Greizmann to help him in front of goal.

Belgium were taking a risk with just a three-man backline with a 3-5-2 formation with no natural fullbacks and no wingbacks against this fast an opponent. That they played box-to-box midfielder Marouane Fellaini instead of Driers Mertens meant that the Belgians were going to try and close down the middle of the field to France’s Pogba, with Axel Witsel was the protection in front of the backline. The crux of the Belgian attack is get the ball long to target man Romelu Lukaku up top, let him bring in talisman Eden Hazard who is in the box with him, and get support from flankers Nacer Chadli and Kevin De Bruyne.

From the outset, Belgium switched to a four-man backline when not in possession, with Mousa Dembele dropping back deep. But as soon as they got possession they immediately switched to their wide 3-5-2. Chadli found space to operate on the right, frequently getting the ball into the final third. Surprising how possession-minded Belgium was, after a good spell, then letting France settle in defense. Belgium’s best chances early were when Hazard got the ball in the final third, so France needed to limit his space. Fallaini’s big body was causing a lot of problems in the box. Giroud actually got on the end of a lot balls in the box, but he was just an inch or two short of putting a quality chance on goal.

Belgium wasn’t getting anywhere in attack through the center; France’s Kante did a good job of cutting off their buildup in the middle. Neither team was able to get their counter going as both teams did a good job of transitioning and organizing in the back once they lost possession. Didn’t hear much from Lukaku in the first half; France central defenders Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane closed him down effectively. As has become common in this World Cup, a set piece opens the scoring in this game; Umtiti with a header in the 51st minute. Trying to get Hazard the ball, Belgium started sending Fellaini out to wide spots hoping to open up space for Hazard in the center. Bringing on Mertens meant that Belgium were going to try and turn this into a track meet, getting into a forward position on the right side putting cross after cross into the box while still keeping Fellaini in midfield. Belgium with all kinds of chances to score but just couldn’t get on the end of good shots.

Was this Belgium’s last best chance to win this tournament?

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