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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

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: 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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