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World Cup 2022: The Finals

3rd Place Game: Croatia 2 – 1 Morocco

This is the rare repeat in the World Cup. They met in the first Group F game, which resulted in a nil-nil tie. Neither was expected to make it to one of the final games, so while the 3rd place game is pretty meaningless, both squads will want to cement their tournament with a victory. With nothing really to lose, 3rd place games also usually open up offensively.

Croatia starts in a 3-5-2 formation feeding Livaja and Kramaric up top. Morocco comes out in the standard 4-3-3 with Ziyech, En-Nesyri and Boufal on the front line.

In just the 2nd minute, Perisic put one into the box where Bounou nearly had an own goal. On Majer’s subsequent corner, it’s knocked out, but Kovacic put it back in though it’s too high for Kramaric. Croatia continued to press and earned a free kick in 7th minute from outside of the box. Modric’s kick found Perisic at the left of the post. He deftly flicked a header to the center of the box, where Gvardiol made an excellent diving header into the left side of goal. Croatia had the early lead after coming out on the offensive.

A couple of minutes later, Gvardiol went from hero to goat, by committing a foul that resulted in a Moroccan free kick from the right side of the middle third. Ziyech delivered a good kick bouncing it off Majer in the Croatian wall to Dari who got behind the defense and headed it down past Livakovic and in. Morocco was right back in it and we already had two goals not 10 minutes into the game.

Several good shots by Croatia in the next five minutes, but both were a little off target. Orsic came down the wing and cut inside, but his shot was wide. Then Gvardiol tried to drop a long pass to Perisic, but it was just a little too long. Morocco was working with a compact defense, so Croatia was working the flanks.

After a poor clearance by Morocco in the 24th minute, Modric dazzled with a little dribbling magic around top of box. His left-footer in traffic was blocked by Bounou, but it bounced off him and he had to scramble to push it out past an on-rushing Perisic. Perisic was a constant menace in the box.

Hakimi had a good run down the right side in the 30th minute, but his cross was behind a wide-open Boufal in the box. Several minutes later, there was a sweet give and go in the box between Boufal and El Khannouss, but Sutalo got a foot on it and it went off Boufal and out of play. Morocco was feeling the momentum though and earned another set piece opportunity soon thereafter. Ziyech’s put his free kick into the box looking for En-Nesyri, but Perisic was able to head it out. The resulting throw-in led to a shot that was blocked out over the end line. Ziyech’s corner went nowhere, but resulted in another corner. This time, Ziyech’s kick found En-Nesyri who headed it to the back post, but no Moroccans were there for what would have been an easy goal and the ball harmlessly rolled out.

Croatia roared back with more pressure in the next few minutes down the wings, but wasn’t getting good centers or strikes. Then Ziyech beat Modric in space and delivered a long shot in 41st minute, but it was just barely wide right of the Croatian goal.

Croatia came right back in the 42nd minute, pushing the ball into the Moroccan box where it got cleared out. However, it found its way to Livaja who controlled it and pushed it wide to the left to Orsic. Bounou likely expected a shot at the near left post, but with a difficult angle, Orsic opened his body to take an arcing shot over a leaping Bounou and hit the right post with just the right angle to bounce in. Bounou maybe got a finger on it. It was a really terrific shot by Orsic.

The 1st half ended after a lot of back and forth in the waning minutes. Both teams were finding success pushing up with wide attacks.

Early in the 2nd half, Orsic made a run in from the left side and fired a shot near top of the box, that just glanced off El Yamiq for a corner. Two corners ensued, but Modric’s kicks couldn’t find Croatian heads in the box.

Some nice passing in traffic by Croatia in the Moroccan box in 53rd minute. Majer got a chip back into the middle, but no one was there. Moroccan couldn’t clear it though and Croatia pressed a second attack that resulted in a corner. Modric’s kick was cleared though. Croatia quickly pushed yet another attack, but couldn’t get the centering kick.

Kramaric centered one to the goal in the 59th minute, but no one was there and Bounou gathered it in. Kramaric pulled up lame and had to get medical attention and leave the pitch and was replaced by Vlasic. Both teams soon made two more lineup changes.
In the 74th minute, a great through pass to Gvardiol and his run into the Moroccan box finds him face to face with the Bounou, but his trailing foot got kicked from behind by Amrabat and he went down. Somehow no penalty was called. A minute later, a poor clear by Gvardiol in his own box allowed En-Nesyri to take a half-volley shot that Livakovic managed to gather in. Then, as Hakimi looked to get a shot off from edge of Croatian box, he got bumped off the ball by Pekovic. Again, no foul called. The ref was letting a lot of rough play go unpunished.

Amallah did get a yellow card in the 84th minute after going up for a header and slightly bumping a Croatian player. There did not appear to be any foul on the play, but Amallah said something to ref that he didn’t like. So, the ref wasn’t going to award yellows or fouls on take downs, but don’t speak up to him. It was unfortunate that poor officiating was affecting the game.

In the 87th minute, Kovacic got past Amrabat in the box and fired a shot just off-target to the right. Kovacic will kick himself for not getting a good foot on it as it should have been an easy goal.

In stoppage time, Ziyech quickly took a free kick deep on the right side for Hakimi to run onto. Hakimi lifted a good cross into the box where En-Nesyri’s header just barely went over the top post. The final whistle sounded seconds later.

Morocco was ramping up the pressure in the final minutes, but could not find the angles for good shots as Croatia was pulling everyone back into the defensive third. For the second time in their World Cup history, Croatia won the 3rd place game. The last time they did it was in 1998, when France won its first World Cup title. We will see if this portends anything for France in the final. – AW

The Championship: Argentina 3 (4-2 pens) 3 France

France began with their 4-2-3-1 that has Giroud in front and Mbappe playing the left wing. Argentina ran with the 4-4-2 formation again with Messi and Alvarez as the strikers. Di Maria is among the starters for the first time in the knockout rounds. He had been coming off the bench after suffering a slight injury in the group stage.

Just five minutes in, a poor clearance by Kounde bounced off Griezman’s foot to Alvarez, who found an open MacAllister. However, his long shot was right at Lloris. Argentina was controlling early possession and in the 8th minute, Di Maria angled a cross from near the goal line to De Paul at the top of the box, who tried to find Messi, but had it blocked. After the ensuing corner by Messi, the ball got crossed into box and was headed high. Lloris didn’t go for it initially and the ball bounced high again. Lloris finally went for it, but a teammate pushed Romero into him and he went down and had to get some medical help.

More pressure by Argentina moments later with Messi feeding Di Maria on the left wing, who tried to get it back to Messi, but had it blocked back to him. He then tried to play it in to Alvarez, but Hernandez was able to clear it.

Finally in the 15th minute, France got its first pressure. Mbappe played the give and go with Rabiot, but the return pass wass just too long and Martinez was able to fall on it.
France cannot relax though as Argetnina responded with yet another attack, Messi was behind it, but a teammate was offside. De Paul intercepted a pass and played it to Messi, who put it back to him. De Paul’s attempted to get it back to Messi, but it got pushed to Di Maria at the edge of box. The ball bounced up on him as he shot it though and he sent it high.

Minutes later, Mbappe laid out a leading pass to Hernandez on the left wing, but he was taken down by De Paul just outside the box near the end line. Griezmann’s kick was perfect into the box, but Giroud climbed over Otamendi’s back to head it high and got called for a foul to boot.

Argentina remained on the attack as Alvarez switched over to Di Maria who beat Dembele on the left wing and dribbled into box. Dembele reacted poorly to getting beat and shoved Di Maria in the back and the ref awarded a penalty kick. Dembele threw his hand up after the shove to plead that he didn’t touch him, but he clearly did. On the penalty kick in the 23rd minute, Messi hesitated on his approach to read Lloris’ dive. Lloris dove toward the left post and Messi buried it by the right post. Argentina had been in control of the whole game to this point and was finally rewarded for its efforts.

Just a few minutes later, Giroud was dumped about 10 yards outside of box. Griezmann’s kick was headed down to Messi, but he and a defender collided going up for another header and both went down while the ball was cleared. France still had no shots at this point, but this was their closest one. They had no control over the midfield which made it hard to create chances.

Argentina broke for a quick counterattack in the 36th minute. Messi played a deft outside of the foot touch to MacAllister to get the run started and he finished with a run toward the goal before playing it across to a wide-open Di Maria on the left side. His one-touch shot easily beat Lloris. Argentina had a two-goal lead and it could have been more with their level of domination.

The French manager took out Dembele and Giroud out of game in 41st minute for two fresh strikers, Thuram and Kolo Muani. Dembele’s poor defense led to first Argentina goal, so his removal was not surprising. Giroud had been one of France’s better players throughout the Cup, so his removal was surprising, but it will allow Mbappe more operating room in the middle.

A late foul in 1st half stoppage time—Fernandez brought Thuram down—led to another France free kick. While Griezmann’s kick sailed into the box, no teammate could run onto it. The first half mercifully ended for France. It was utter domination by Argentina throughout the half. They were running circles around France and France couldn’t even manage a shot in the 1st half, much less a shot on goal. That’s the first goose egg laid by any team in the 1st half of a World Cup final. One had to wonder if the illness that ran through the French team the week leading up to the game had taken its toll on them.

There’s no let-up by Argentina as the 2nd half began. Fernandez played one in that Lloris just beats Alvarez to. Not sitting on their lead, Romero then intercepted a France pass, and the ball was pushed ahead leading Di Maria down the left. His cross finds De Paul on the right, but the one-touch strike was right at Lloris.

In the 51st minute, France earned its first corner of the night. However, Griezmann’s in-swinging corner was easily caught by Martinez. The Argentine goalie was having a very boring night to that point. At the 59th minute, Tagliafico cut off a Kolo Muani pass and De Paul ran onto the pass. He fired a tough angle shot from left side that Lloris was able to get a hand on. A minute later, Di Maria again beat Kounde deep on the left side, before reversing course and crossing to Messi on the right side. Messi’s shot looks like it was partially deflected and went wide. No corner was given though and Messi wasn’t arguing.
A few minutes later, there was another Argentine combo play started by Messi to MacAllister, who put it back into the middle for Messi, but Upamecano shielded him away and Lloris barely beat him to the ball. Argentina then subbed out Di Maria in the 64th minute for Acuna to provide more defense.

France gets its second corner in the 68th minute, but Griezann’s corner bounced off Kolo Muani’s shoulder and went wide. Finally, Mbappe got an actual shot off after some fancy dribbling along the top of box, but it sailed over net. France then made two substitutions, bringing in Camavinga and Coman for Hernandez and Griezmann to add offense. It is Argentina with the next opportunity though as Messi dribbled around some defenders before feeding an De Paul, but his shot or cross—unclear which it was—went right to Lloris.

To this point, the game had been entirely Argentina doing pretty much whatever they wanted to do. France looked like it was getting blown out and was not making any dents in the Argentine defense. Time was running out on their chance to repeat as champions. So down two goals with a little over 10 minutes and stoppage time remaining, what do you do? You turn, of course, to the best player in the world.

In the 79th minute, Kolo Muani’s run down the left forced Otamendi to get his hands on him, taking him down in the box. Mbappe, of course, to take the penalty kick. His hard strike into the left corner blows by Martinez, even though he guessed right and got a finger on it. France has some life left in them.

Just a minute later, Messi had his pocket picked and France executes a perfect give and go with Mbappe laying it out to Thuram, who, in turn, placed a one touch pass right back to Mbappe on the left. Mbappe perfectly hit a one-touch volley deep into the right side of net to even things up. Argentina was stunned. Just like Netherlands game, Argentina had given up two late goals, this time the goals coming barely a minute apart.

At the 85th minute, another breakout led to a Mbappe center into box, but it’s just over Kolo Muani’s head. Argentina’s defense looked shell-shocked. A few minutes later, Fernandez brought down Thuram in the box, but no foul was called and, instead, a yellow was given to Thuram for diving. Thuram was dragging his leg, but Fernandez clearly took out his feet. A bit surprising that there was no VAR review on the play.

It was a completely different game as stoppage time began. Eight minutes were added and France was in control of game. Mbappe had another run at the top of box in the 93rd minute, but his shot was deflected out for a corner. After the corner was cleared, France pushed it right back in and Coman was taken down just outside box. The ref allowed advantage play though and Camavinga pushed the ball over to Kolo Muani, but his shot is saved by Martinez. The French bench was up in arms over the foul and Giroud got a yellow for coming on the pitch and arguing.

Finally, Argentina showed some new life. In the 97th minute, Acuna passed to Messi just outside the box. He dribbled to an open spot and fired a shot forcing Lloris to make a leaping save. Messi’s ensuing corner was knocked out and France started a quick counterattack which forced Acuna to commit a yellow card foul to halt it. As stoppage time was ending, one final Argentina attack found the ball bouncing around at the top of box, but they couldn’t get a shot off. There would be at least 30 more minutes to try to decide what had become a really exciting game after Argentina had dominated much of the match.

Argentina pressed the attack early in the first extra period, but this only resulted in some off-target shots. France picked up a free kick from the far left in 100th minute. The ball was knocked out and pushed right back in, resulting in corner that also got cleared and France was offside. Acuna fired one high in the 104th minute. Just after that, Messi set up Lautaro Martinez beautifully, but he couldn’t one-touch it and the half-beat before his shot allowed the defender to block it. Then Acuna set up Lautaro Martinez again running into the box and shot was deflected out, but the ref missed that and no corner was awarded. The first extra period ended with Argentina showing more life again.

Early in the second extra period, a free throw went into Messi and he fired a half-volley that Lloris managed to push away. A minute later, a furious Argentine attack resulted in Lloris knocking down Lautraro Martinez’s shot. However, Messi was right there and got a foot on it, rolling it just over the goal line before Upamecano cleared out. Pandemonium briefly reigned and the VAR confirmed that there was no offside and the ball was over the line. Argentina was back on top!

It would not last though. On a French corner in the 115th minute, the ball found Mbappe who was firing away. His blast glanced off Montiel’s arm for a penalty. Mbappe nailed it into the left side as Martinez dove the other way. Mbappe had a hat trick and France had evened it up again with time running out.

Messi took a corner in the 120th minute, but Argentina couldn’t get a shot off. On the immediate French counterattack, Mbappe tried to feed one to Kolo Muani near the goal, but it was just over his head and ball rolled just wide right. Argentina nearly had breakaway attack in 123rd minute, but two players were offside. Another immediate French counterattack resulted in a really great Martinez kick save on Kolo Muani’s nearly point-blank shot. Argentina came right back to get a Lautaro Martinez header inside the box that was a little wide. Then it was Mbappe’s turn to dazzle again with some dribbling magic on the deep left side, but after beating a couple of defenders the ball was cleared and time ran out

So it would come down to penalty kicks in what the announcers are calling the best World Cup final ever. They may not be wrong. It looked to be advantage Argentina as the French goalie Lloris has acknowledged that he does not defend penalty kicks well, while Argentine goalie Martinez has already come up big on penalty kicks in this Cup. France got the advantageous first kick position, however that advantage has not worked well in the knockout rounds this year.

Both teams lead with their best. Mbappe started things by burying the ball in the left side of the net. Martinez got a hand on it, but couldn’t stop it. Up stepped Messi and he read the goalie moving toward the right post and rolled it to the left side for an easy goal.

Next up was Coman for France. His shot was at the left post, but Martinez correctly guessed it and cleanly blocked it. Dybal then went straight down the middle as Lloris dove toward the right post. Argentina had the early advantage.

With France now down, Tchoumeni rocketed one wide left. Martinez guessed the right way, but didn’t have to make the save. Paredes then blew one by Lloris’ hands on the left side. With a two-goal deficit after the third PK, France was about done.

Kolo Muani kept things alive by smashing one into the center top of the goal. Martinez had no chance. It was for naught though as Montiel won it by burying his shot in left side as Lloris guessed the other way.

Argentina is the champion of the world again for the first time in 36 years. Messi had the only championship that had eluded him in his illustrious career. Mbappe deservedly won the Golden Boot with his incredible goal-scoring performance, but Messi got the Golden Ball as MVP of the tournament. Argentina and France came into this Cup as two of the favorites and their finals match-up lived up to the hype. It was unfortunate that France was without injured stars Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, but they nearly pulled it off anyway. – AW

Four years from now, the World Cup returns to North America with the U.S., Mexico, and Canada co-hosting the tournament. The Cup will also increase from 32 to 48 nations competing in it. It remains to be seen how a 48-team tourney will work, but we can only hope that the 2026 Cup ends just as brilliantly. – AW

FIFA World Cup 2022: Semifinals

Argentina 3 – 0 Croatia

In the quarterfinals, Croatia knocked off one South American powerhouse. Can they do it again? Argentina is looking to nail the elusive world championship that is the one thing missing from Leo Messi’s stellar career and they’ve never lost a World Cup semi-final game. Will history repeat for them?

Argentina opens with a 4-4-2 formation. They’ve been playing in a number of different formations throughout the Cup, but have come back to the 4-4-2 with Messi and Alvarez up top. Croatia is still in their 4-3-3 that they’ve started with in every game of the tournament. The Perisic-Modric combo on the left side has played very well so far.

Argentina had an early opportunity for Tagliafico making a run into the left side of the box to catch up to long pass, but it was just a little too far beyond him and Livakovic got there first. Messi complained about a no-call after he got tripped up just outside of the box. However, he would not have caught up to the pass anyway, so no harm done. Minutes later, Messi seemed to be massaging his leg, causing speculation of an injury, but followed with some fancy dribbling and passing, so all the worry was for naught. However, Croatia controlled the midfield fairly well early on.

Midway through the first half, Fernandez fired a curling shot from distance that Livakovic had to save, the first good shot of the game. About 30 minutes in, a great pass through, led to an Alvarez breakaway at the goal. He flicked the ball over the onrushing Livakovic, just before they collided. Alvarez got no oomph on the ball and a defender cleared it. However, a foul was called on Livakovic for the collision, though he was just reacting to ball and not trying to take out Alvarez. Messi took the penalty kick and made sure there was no doubt, blasting it into the upper right corner. Croatia was behind, but this was a familiar position for them.

Several minutes later, a quick counterattack by Argentina after a poor Croatian corner got nudged up to Alvarez in the middle of the field. Despite two converging defenders, he maintained control into the box and then got a lucky bounce off a defender and was able to flick it by Livakovic for a second goal. All Croatia’s good possession work early on had gone out the window.

Argentina nearly had a 3rd goal several minutes later with ball deflecting of Croatian arm in the box. No handball was called though it looked like it should have been. A great header on the ensuing corner forced Livakovic to make a great save and led to yet another corner. This time Livakovic was forced to punch out Messi’s great corner into the middle of box. Croatia’s defense was really on its heels before the half mercifully came to an end.

Croatia started the 2nd half with a couple of subs, Vlasic in the midfield and Orsic at striker, designed to add some offense. They had an almost impossible job ahead of them.
10 minutes into the 2nd half, Argentina had several really good opportunities, but one was broken up by the Croatia defense and the other had Livakovic stopping a Messi shot that he couldn’t fully connect with. Argentina was making good use of long passes out of pressure in their own end.

In the 61st minute, Modric’s in-swinging corner gets to Lovren’s head in the box. He actually had two opportunities, but Olomendi finally cleared it. Argentina was dropping one of the midfielders as a fifth fullback at this point.

Despite the more defensive formation, Argentina continued to make runs. In the 69th minute, Messi made a run down the right side into the box and then dribbled circles around Gvardiol before dropping a deft pass to Alvarez who had a point-blank easy shot for goal. With 20 minutes left and a three-goal lead, the game is effectively finished.

Croatia got a free kick 73 minutes in from about 15 yards outside of box. Perisic put a low screamer through a poorly formed wall, but Martinez was there to make his first save of the night. A couple of minutes later, Perisic attempts another shot from 30 yards out, but sailed way high. Then it was Orsic’s turn. After some nifty dribbling inside the Argentine box, he also shot high (and wide). Croatia simply wasn’t taking good shots all day long.

In what amounted to a concession, Croatia subbed out star Luka Modric in the 81st minute. Argentina did a much better job controlling possession in the second half.

Argentina had yet another opportunity in the 82nd minute, but MacAllister pushed it just wide right. A couple of minutes later, Perisic had a really great back flick header off of Majer’s corner into the middle of box. Two of his teammates just barely missed being able to run onto it for potential easy goal. Another lost Croatian opportunity. With time running out, Croatia created a few more opportunities, but it was nothing that Martinez couldn’t handle.

Argentina’s win meant Messi will set the record for most World Cup games played in Sunday’s final. It has been 36 years since Argentina’s last championship and eight years since they lost the 2014 final to Germany. Can Argentina win one for the great Messi? – AW

France 2 – 0 Morocco

This is exactly where France was supposed to be—trying to repeat as champion—and is not where anyone expected Morocco to be. Morocco is carrying the weight and support of both Africa and the Middle East into this game. France seeks to join fellow two-time winner Argentina in the final and become the first nation to repeat since Brazil in 1962.

France comes out in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Giroud up top being supported by Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele, a formidable front line. Morocco was taking no chances with its heavily defensive 5-4-1. En-Nesyri was the sole man up top.

After the tip-off, it took just a few minutes for France to get on the board. On the first real attack of the game, the Griezmann played through to a cutting Mbappe into the box. Centering attempts went poorly, but the ball rebounded out to the left side where Theo Hernandez sat alone. As the ball bounced high, Hernandez did a leaping high left kick to get over the ball and direct it down past the goalie into the net. Morocco was behind for the first time in the tournament.

In the 10th minute, Morocco almost struck back as Ouahi fired a long curling shot at the right side of the net. Lloris had to dive to keep it out. Then, Morocco sprung a good counterattack in the 16th minute, but the left-footed Ziyech had the ball on the right side and couldn’t get a good shot off. Almost immediately, France pushed the ball ahead to Giroud running down the left side unimpeded. He turned toward the goal and struck a blazing left-footer off the left post.

Morocco captain and defender Saiss left the quarterfinal match with a hamstring injury. He only made it through the first 20 minutes of this semi before he had to ask out of the game. With Morocco already behind, they replaced him with a midfielder, Amallah.

Hernandez was making a lot of runs out of the defensive backfield for France, but was getting beat up in the process and taken down several times midway through the first half. The first time results in a yellow card for Boufal and Hernandez had to stay down for a while. The second time should have resulted in a yellow card for Dari, who basically stepped on Hernandez’s shin, but the ref apparently didn’t see it.

In the 35th minute, France got two good opportunities. First Griezmann centered through past Giroud to Fofana, but he hit it high. Then a great playthrough to Mbappe on the left, but his shot was blocked and bounced out to midfield, where Hernandez immediately played it right back into the box to Giroud, whose one-timer sailed wide and high left. Morocco was actually controlling possession early on in the game, but as the half went on, France began to dominate and placed a lot of pressure on the Moroccan defense.

A Moroccan corner kick in the 44th minute was headed out, but El Yamiq at the edge of box bicycle kicked a shot at left corner of net. Lloris barely got a hand on it, though it might have hit post anyway. A minute later, another Moroccan corner by Ziyech came down in the middle of box where a Moroccan player sailed high to head it. Once again, Lloris was again able to get a hand on it and push it out, before falling on it. A minute later, a Boufal foul gave Morocco a free kick. Ziyech’s kick came down in the box and forced Lloris to punch out. One final Ziyech free kick before the half ended was put over the defense, but just beyond the on-rushing Amallah. Morocco really ended the half with momentum. Only down one goal, they had to feel pretty good going into the 2nd half.

A couple of minutes into the 2nd half, Mbappe did his magic down the left side to the end line. However, his centering pass was behind the attackers. A minute later, a through pass to Mbappe was just beyond his reach. He tried to draw a foul, but the ref wasn’t having it. A few minutes later, Mbappe was taken down by Amrabat just outside the box by the end line. Again, no foul was called and Mbappe seemed to have hurt his ankle and had to go to the sideline.

While Mbappe was off the pitch, Morocco pushed the attack down the right side and got a good center from Hakimi that Varane just barely beat En-Nesyri to. Morocco immediately pushed another attack, where Boufal also can’t get his center to a striker. A few minutes later, another Moroccan attack found Hakimi in the middle but he was unable to turn to make the shot in time. Morocco was overloading the left side, where they pushed a couple more attacks. Time and again though, their centering passes could not find a Moroccan foot. Nevertheless, Morocco seemed to have taken control of this game and the French defense was a bit on its heels. The French defense was fortunate that Moroccan passes were not finding targets.

France finally was able to push an attack in the 68th minute off a free kick from left sideline. Griezemann’s kick was wide right, but was pushed back into Mbappe, who made some moves, but has his shot was blocked. Thuram was taken down a minute later by while on another run. Griezman’s kick from 10 yards outside the box was a little wide to the right and Thuram couldn’t quite direct the header on goal. France seemed to have turned the tide, with yet another Thuram run down the left. He pushed a through ball, but the shot was wide left.

In the 79th minute, another attack by France down the left featured a Mbappe-Thuram give and go. Mbappe dribbled through several defenders in the box and fired a shot that was deflected. However, it worked as a crossing pass to Muani who literally had just subbed into the game. Muani who beat the defender to the ball and buried the point-blank shot. Mbappe basically drew so much of the Moroccan defense that Muani was lost in the shuffle.
The match was basically over at this point. Morocco tried to press, but couldn’t string passes, while France was playing keep away. Mbappe had a nice nutmeg in the midfield and tried to go solo, but a defender was able to tackle the ball away.

Morocco’s last gasp came three minutes into stoppage time as Attiyat-Allah’s strong run toward the left post and good center resulted in shot that couldn’t get through defense, but the defense couldn’t clear either. Ounahi struck a half-volley that was blocked by Hernandez. The ball got kicked around a bit in front of net before Kounde’s clear finally comes. The final whistle sounded shortly thereafter. – AW

France is returning to defend its World Cup title. This final is really no surprise. France and Argentina were two of the three pre-Cup favorites. Messi and Mbappe are neck-and-neck for both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball. Whoever’s team wins the final is likely to net the Golden Ball MVP award. They are currently tied in the Golden Boot race for top scorer with five goals apiece. Sunday’s final should be a doozy.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Quarterfinals

We’re down to 8 teams left.  These quarterfinals would turn out to be some of the best futbol of this World Cup so far.

Croatia 1 (4-2 pen) 1 Brazil: Five-time winner Brazil is looking to get back to the finals for the first time since facing Germany on their home soil eight years ago. Other than that disastrous appearance, they’ve been bounced out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal level in 3 of the last 4 tourneys. Can A Seleção avoid the quarterfinal curse this time? Croatia was a surprise finalist four years ago in Russia and this is likely superstar Luka Modric’s last go-round on the World Cup stage. Can the Vatreni shock the world against the heavily-favored Brazilians? Croatia plays a 4-1-2-3 formation with a dangerous left side that has Perisic at wing and Modric at left mid. Brazil runs 4-2-3-1 with Richarlison up top and Neymar in the prime distribution area behind him.

Brazil had the better first half shots, but was putting everything right at Livakovic in goal. Croatia clogs the goal box whenever Brazil threatens. Croatia’s best first half opportunity came on a cross into the box for Perisic about the 12-minute mark, but he couldn’t quite get a good foot on it. Still Croatia had to feel good about keeping Brazil goalless in the first half.

Brazil came out in the 2nd half putting tremendous pressure on the Croatian defense with better shots, but a great save by Livakovic keeps his sheet clean. Another build-up results in great opportunity for Neymar but he couldn’t get a good foot on it. Croatia is fortunate that an inadvertent handball in the box was negated by an offsides call. Croatia’s defense time and again prevents good angles on shots by Brazil.

Brazil subbed out Richarlison for Pedro at the 83-minute mark. Richarlison had two fantastic goals in this tournament, one of which is the goal of the Cup so far, and is Brazil’s most dangerous finisher. Don’t understand why they would take him out. The game was scoreless at the end of 90, but you had the feeling that Croatia was comfortable in this position as they have been tied at the end of regulation quite a lot in this tournament. With the way that Livakovic shut down Japan in PKs, they would be justifiably confident if they could get the game to penalty kicks.

In first extra period, Brazil maintained the pressure, but Croatia remained stout. Croatia’s best opportunity of game came toward end of the period when Petkovic split two defenders and laid one across for Brozovic, but he sailed his shot high. Toward the end of stoppage time in the period, Brazil finally executed some of their beautiful game. Neymar made a run up the middle and was rewarded with a deft give and go that had him breaking in free on the goalie. Rather than take the quick shot, he pushed the ball beyond the advancing Livakovic and hammered it home.

With only 15 minutes remaining in their tournament life, Croatia had to start taking some risks. About 11 minutes into the second extra period, a quick counterattack down the left side to Orsic is completed with a perfect delivery to the top of the box where Petkovic slammed a left-footer home. Penalty kicks here we come.

Livakovic stoned the first PK by Brazil. Croatia makes its first four shots, while Brazil made the next two. Marquinhos needed to make fourth Brazil kick to keep hope alive, but slammed it off the left post. Brazil overwhelmingly had the shot, shot on goal, and corner kick advantage, but were unable to make the most of those opportunities because of the suffocating defense and great goal-keeping by Livakovic. The Croatian goalie was the star of this match and Croatia is returning to the semi-finals for the second straight time and are looking for a repeat return to the finals. Meanwhile, Brazil, the number one team in the world is sent home in the quarters again. – AW

Netherlands 2 (3-4 pen) 2 Argentina: The Netherlands and Argentina have a long history at the World Cup, facing off in the 1978 finals and prior semis and quarters. The Oranje play the 3-4-1-2 and have 6’8”, but inexperienced Andries Noppert in goal. His only international experience has been in this World Cup. La Albiceleste run a 3-5-2 with Messi and Alvarez up front. Messi is likely playing in his last World Cup. Can he extend his time in the tournament?

Noppert nearly made a brutal mistake in the 7th minute, passing the ball out of the goal box just barely by an oncoming Argentine striker. Messi got his first shot at the 21st minute, but curled it up just a little high and wide. Argentina was really putting some early pressure on the Netherlands defense, but the Dutch settled in and are very quick to the ball, taking away angles and packing the middle to try to attempt to prevent Messi magic. Whenever Messi touched the ball near the box, he usually had 3-5 defenders surrounding him.
Although this game had similarities to the Brazil-Croatia game, it would not remain scoreless in regulation. In the 34th minute, Messi threaded a no-look pass to a cutting Molina up the middle past the defense. Molina struck his shot past Noppert into the left side of the net.

On set pieces, Netherlands kept running two players toward the ball, with the first one running by ball and the second one kicking it. They were not faking anyone out and needed to vary their approach.

The referee seemed to lose control a bit of the match. A lot of yellow cards were issued, including several against the benches. Netherlands had no shots on goal in the first half. The Argentine defense spread itself wider than the Dutch defense, but still didn’t allow runs or passes through. Netherlands was not using their height advantage by putting any crosses high into the box for much of the game.

Early in the second half, Messi committed a very bad handball foul, but the referee didn’t book him. Did he get the superstar treatment? One of his teammates got a yellow for a similarly deliberate handball in the first half. This would become important later.
In the 60th minute, Messi got pulled down outside the box, but his resulting free kick was just barely high. Ten minutes later, Acuna tried cutting back in left side of box and got pulled down. The contact was pretty minimal, but a PK was declared. Messi did a little stutter step which appeared to freeze Noppert and he buried the penalty kick in the right side of the net. Argentina had to feel pretty good about a two-goal lead with about 20 minutes left.

The desperate Dutch immediately brought a forceful attack, but Argentine goalie Emiliano Martinez picked a long ball into the box out of the air and then stood over a fallen de Jong, much like LeBron James over Draymond Green in the NBA Finals some years ago. Tempers flared and players on both teams get booked. With the number of yellow cards, both coaches had to worry about players getting a 2nd yellow and ejected from game.
With the Dutch increasing their pressure, they finally remembered to use their height. In the 83rd minute, Berghuis curled a long cross from right side onto the head of 6’6” Weghorst in the middle of box and he banged it into left corner of net. The Dutch followed up with even more desperate pressure and Berghuis just barely missed with another shot minutes later that went into the side of net.

In the 88th minute, a near riot ensued after Paredes took down Van Dijk in front of the Dutch bench and then fired the ball into their bench. Numerous Dutch players came off bench and Paredes got knocked down. Paredes got one yellow card for the takedown, but probably should have been ejected for firing ball at the bench.

As game went into stoppage time, 10 extra minutes were announced because of frequent time-wasting and yellow-card knockdowns. The Dutch got an early free kick outside the box, but Berghuis couldn’t get his shot through the Argentine wall. With time running out, the Dutch got another free kick just outside the box. Messi gets a yellow for arguing the call. Had he gotten a yellow for the deliberate handball earlier, this would have resulted in his ejection. As the wall jumped, Koopmeiners instead rolled a slow ball to the side of the wall to Weghorst, who controlled with the first touch and turned to put a left footer into the left side of the net to tie it up. Finally, something different from one of their set pieces and it worked perfectly and just in time. The benches cleared again at end of regulation. The last second goal by the Dutch absolutely stunned the Argentines.

Each team has one good opportunity in first extra period, but couldn’t convert. There was also more fouling, but the ref kept the card in his pocket. However, the card came out early in the second extra period when Montiel said something that he shouldn’t have after a takedown. A few minutes later, Pezzella knocks Gakpo down on a breakaway and got booked. The free kick got through, but the Dutch can’t get a good foot on the ball.
Argentina threatened with a nice sequence where DiMaria set up Fernandez, who in turn delivered a perfectly placed ball to Martinez, but his shot was deflected. As time was running out, Argentina ramped up the pressure. They clearly did not want to go to penalty kicks. However, the Dutch defense would not wilt. Noppert shut down one good shot and punched out DiMaria’s attempt to curl in a corner kick. Argentina put another one off the left post. The rally was averted and for the second time today, we were going to penalty kicks. Noppert had never faced a penalty shootout in his professional career. Would that lack of experience cost the Dutch?

Martinez guessed right and blocked the first two Dutch penalty kicks. He made no saves during the game, but came up strong here. Messi, Paredes, and Montiel deliver on the first three Argentine kicks. Koopmeiners, Weghorst, and de Jong make the next three kicks for the Dutch, while Fernandez was wide left in the 4th position for Argentina. So, it came down to Lautaro Martinez with the 5th penalty kick for Argentina. He put a perfectly placed ball into the left side of net. Noppert’s inexperience likely was deadly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dutch arguing during the shootout resulted in two yellows for Dumfries and a yellow for Lang. None of it mattered as Argentina was through to the semis. – AW

Morocco 1 – 0 Portugal:  Morocco are the only non-European or South American team left in the tournament. Portugal has been a constant World Cup disappointment throughout the storied career of Cristiano Ronaldo. Both come into this game with something to prove. The Atlas Lions play a pretty standard 4-3-3 formation as does Os Navegadores. Portugal again starts with Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench.

Portugal controlled things early on, but Morocco brought everyone back on defense. However, Morocco would make quick counterattacks down the sides and was finding space to operate. In the 42nd minute, on a high cross into the box, En-Nesyri soared over a defender and the goalie and directed his header down and bounced it into the net.
In first half stoppage time, the referee did call a foul in the box against a Moroccan defender. Portugal rightly upset that they didn’t get a PK. However, they responded with an excellent opportunity that went off the top post. Morocco in turn had a great shot that was just barely wide left. Morocco went into the half with their one goal lead.

Minutes into the second half, a brilliant free kick from outside the box on the right by El Yamiq, into the goal box flooded with Moroccans. Costa was just able to make the save and a rebound went off a defender. Five minutes into the second half, Ronaldo subbed in. Portugal looked better without him in the first knockout game. Can Ronaldo now be the hero leading a comeback in this one?

A Ramos header goes just wide in the 58th minute, but both teams were finding some success on high crosses into the box. Morocco had a speed advantage that they were using to quickly counterattack, but were otherwise staying home to frustrate Portugal. In the 83rd minute, Ronaldo set us Felix for a left-footer just inside the goal box, but Bounou made a great save by just getting a hand on the ball to direct it out. As stoppage time began, Ronaldo got an opportunity, but fired it right at Bounou for another save.
A couple of minutes into stoppage time, Cheddira got a 2nd yellow and was ejected. If it was going to win the game, Morocco would have to do so with 10 players on pitch. Foul was not yellow-worthy in my opinion.

Portugal was getting really desperate and throwing numbers into the final 3rd. Five minutes into stoppage time, Morocco played a long pass into the Portugal side with a striker running onto it, but he couldn’t quite get a good foot on shot and hits it weakly at Costa. In their final chance, Pepe’s header on a cross from the left is wide. History is made as Morocco becomes the first African squad to make it to the semi-finals. Ronaldo was crying in the tunnels as he left realizing that his likely final World Cup was another disappointment. – AW

England 1 – 2 France:  It’s the English Channel game with England trying to erase over 50 years of World Cup frustration facing off against the defending champs. The Three Lions operate out of a 4-3-3 formation with captain and star Harry Kane as the center striker. Les Bleus create through a 4-3-2-1 formation with Oliver Giroud up top and player of the tournament so far, Killian Mbappe, on the left wing.

France pressed hard on the English defense early. In the 16th minute, France started a counterattack from deep in their own end and the ensuing run moved the ball all over the field stretching the defense. The ball found Mbappe who sent the it wide right to Griezmann, who pus it back to Tchouameni in the middle. From outside the box, the midfielder ripped a shot deep into the left side of the goal through traffic and under a defender’s legs.

Immediately after, England got a free kick outside, but close to the box. On the kick, the Englishmen next to the French wall duck and the shot goes through the hole, but Lloris played it perfectly for the easy save. Minutes later though he was forced to make a great save on a Kane shot. In the 25th minute, Kane got tripped up while dribbling into the box on right side. No foul was called, but there was a VAR review. Turned out that contact was just outside the box, so play was continued. It looked like Kane pushed off before trip in any event.

Lloris made another great save in 28th minute. On the resulting corner, ball is driven into middle of the box where it just sat for several seconds as players on both teams tried to kick it in or out. Finally, Rabiot pulled the ball out to the right and cleared it. Whenever Mbappe got the ball, he received a lot of attention. Clearly England did not want to give him room to create. The half ended with France holding onto the slim 1-nil lead.

Early in the 2nd half, Henderson set up Bellingham to rip a shot, but Lloris just got a hand on it to tip it over for another huge save. There was some confusion in the box on the resulting corner kick before the ball found Lloris. Five minutes in, the hero becomes the heavy as goal scorer Tchouameni tripped up Saka in box. Kane took the penalty kick and blasted it into the top left corner to even things up. No goalie could have stopped that even if they guessed the right direction. Perfectly placed.

On the ensuing kick-off, France dropped a deep pass to Ravio up the middle. He one-timed it, but couldn’t get quite enough on it. A minute later, Mbappe outraced the defense down the left side and played a good cross to the middle of the box, but it didn’t find any of the French strikers. On the other end, England was doing what no French opponent had done in the tourney. Put shots on goal. Lloris had 6 saves already in the 60th minute.

On a set piece in 69th minute, McGuire flicked a header toward the left post, but it was just barely wide, skidding off the post. England really changed the game in the 2nd half, controlling the midfield and finding space for shots. Pickford had his first big save in 76th minute. Giroud one-timed a header, but Pickford dove to his right to punch it out. On the ensuing corner, the ball was cleared out to the French midfield and they pushed it right back to Griezmann on the right side. He delivered what was essentially a second corner kick to the middle of the box. This time, Giroud used his noggin to find the left side of the net. France back on top.

Just minutes later, Hernandez ran through Mount on a cross into box. No foul was called initially, but the VAR review confirmed it. Hernandez got a yellow and England got a PK. Really stupid foul by Hernandez. Kane again took the kick, but it sailed high over the goal and France breathed a sigh of relief. Kane appeared to have let the goalie’s dive alter his plan and he will regret that mistake.

Lot of time lost in the second half with the VAR review and subs. 8 minutes of stoppage time was added. It was desperation time for England. Play was getting really rough, but ref was letting a lot go. In the 99th minute, McGuire was taken down just outside box. On potentially the last chance of the game for England, Rashford’s free kick was just barely high and the final whistle sounded. Lloris was the man of this match, time and time again with the saves and interceptions of crosses into the box. – AW

So the quarterfinals are now set with two former champions, the two finalists from the last World Cup, the first African country to make it this far, perhaps the final go-rounds for superstars Lionel Messi and Luka Modric, and the emergence of the next great star, Killian Mbappe. The semi-finals should be good.