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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 Day Two

Quarter-finals Day Two

Sweden 0-2 England

The Three Lions looked to push very high with a fluid and wide 3-1-4-2 attacking formation, hoping to keep the Swedes on their heels with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard making attacking runs through the middle, Kieren Trippier and Ashley Young driving forward on the flanks, cultured striker Harry Kane hoping to tuck in in the box without having to come back to get the ball, and Raheem Sterling using his speed to bring the ball into the box and draw defenders away from Kane, Alli and Lingard.

Sweden has lost only once in fifteen competitive international fixtures against England, so they come into this one with a confident yet cautious 4-4-2, looking to close down the middle with Albin Ekdal protecting the back four. Their attack is centered around talisman Emil Forsberg coming in from the left, but they can bring the attack forward with Viktor Claesson tucking in underneath on the right. Ola Toivonen is the reliable scorer up top so far, because his strike partner Marcus Berg has been erratic.

Sweden chose not to press early, instead sitting back and waiting for England to bring the game to them. Sweden looked to play off their front men, bringing in Forsberg and Toivonen once the ball was in the box. England wanted to probe the center of the pitch with Alli, Lingard and Sterling, but that was right at Sweden’s defensive strength. Sweden prides itself on defending set pieces, but they got outplayed on a corner in the 30th minute when Forsberg was mismatched defending Harry Maguire, who put it in the back of the net. Sweden were 6’s and 7’s at the back when Sterling made his solo runs into the box.

In the second half, England were going to close down the middle and keep using their speed advantage with Sterling through the middle, keeping Sweden confused in the back. Sweden was at their best when they got their outside attacking midfielders inside. England’s possession kept Sweden pinned in their own third, and England’s patient buildup finally paid off with a 58th minute header by Alli. Knowing that Sweden like to intercept the ball in the middle of the field and quickly counter, England spread the field and moved the ball around. English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was massive in this game, picking off a few surefire Swedish attempts. This was a clinical dismantling by England, who totally handcuffed the Swedes at every turn, picking them off in the midfield, and shutting down the Swedish attack before it had any chance to build up.

Russia 2-2 Croatia (3-4 pen)

The Russians went with a standard and compact 4-2-3-1 that played like a 5-3-2 when they dropped defensive midfielder Roman Zobnin back in defense and is hard to break down, with Denis Cheryshev running in from the left flank expected to quickly find Artem Dzyuba up top so Aleksandr Samedov from the right and attacking midfielder Aleksandr Golovin would trail in and help in the box.

The best midfield in the tournament belonged to Croatia, also using standard 4-2-3-1 formation that was a little more fluid than Russia’s. The key to the Croatian attack was Luka Modric, spreading the field, sitting deep, hitting long balls, finding pockets of space, coordinating the attack with Ivan Perisic coming from the left and Ante Rebic coming in from the right, both frequently switching sides; Mario Mandzukic is the lone player up top holding up play waiting for Modric, Rebic and box-to-box midfielder Ivan Rakitic to trail in.

A tight game early, both teams looking to find their rhythm and tempo. A lot of movement both on and off the ball by Croatia, but Russia stayed disciplined and compact. The game took a predictable route: Croatia possessed looking for spaces and angles, Russia intercepted the ball down low, then went route one over-the-top to Dzyuba. Croatia got way too comfortable in the back and played way too high a line; they feared nothing coming from Russia offensively. Fatal error: Cheryshev with a long range shot as the ball fell to his feet in the 32nd minute.

Finally a good attacking buildup from Croatia going through the center as Andrej Kramaric made a late run into the box and got on the end of a Mandzukic pass for a header in the 39th minute, just like they drew it up. Croatia’s midfield got more active and involved in attack in the second half, chasing down balls and finding space in the middle third. Croatian possession kept Russia pinned in their own end. Even when Russia got the ball and sent a long diagonal ball over the top into the attacking end, there were Croatian defenders surrounding Dzyuba to take it away.

Obviously not unlike with Spain, Russia’s game plan was to survive the onslaught. The longer this game went on the deeper and deeper Russia dropped back. But unlike the Spanish, Croatia was eventually able to use all that possession in extra time to find space in front for a redirect from center back Domagoj Vida in the 100th minute. I found it funny that after going down, Russia finally found its possession gene. Russia clearly are not that good of a futbol team, but they just won’t go away; a set piece header by winger Mario Fernandez in the 115th minute ties things up. It should have never gotten to penalties, but I’m glad the team that should have won did.

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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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