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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: Championship Preview

Championship Preview


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: 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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