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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 One

Quarter-finals Day One

Uruguay 0-2 France

This was not going to be as potent a squad in attack for Uruguay without Edinson Cavani partnering up front with Luis Suarez in the box due to injury, so less reliable Christian Stuani came in to play just behind Suarez in a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation that played like a 4-4-2. But they did still have the best defense in the tournament with Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at the heart of the four-man backline, Lucas Torreira providing them cover, and the thrust of their attack is to get the ball to Suarez as quickly as they can, getting help from flankers Matías Vecino and Nahitan Nández and trailing help from attacking midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur up the middle. France started out with a standard 4-2-3-1 formation that could morph into a 4-5-1, N’Golo Kanté the hard man in front of the four-man backline, with box-to-box center midfielder Paul Pogba winning the ball and introducing the attack, center midfielder Antoine Griezmann making attacking runs through the center, Olivier Girould the target man up top and speedy scorer Kilian Mbappé coming in from the right.

The key match-up was how Uruguayan left back Diego Laxalt handled Kilian Mbappé, and if Laxalt was going to make overlapping runs given the responsibilities he had in the back. Uruguay were going to challenge France high, not giving them a chance to build up that quick transition attack; they surrounded Pogba and made him work for every possession. Pressure from both sides defensively but choppy going forward; neither side was going to allow the other to build up a head of steam in attack, breaking up each other’s offensive rhythm and tempo. Godin is a dying breed, an old-fashioned defender, thinks nothing but defense, always organizing the backline, never comes up to attack.

The pace of the game favored Uruguay; France just couldn’t get into their fast buildup. Even when the ball made it into the box for France, there just wasn’t any panic in Uruguay’s game. On a 40th minute set piece, Griezmann stutter-stepped a free kick, freezing Uruguay and opening up Raphaël Varane to head one in, the only time Uruguay were 6’s and 7’s at any time in this tournament. Then Griezmann with a shot with some cheese on it that goalkeeper Fernando Muslera can’t handle and puts in his own goal in the 61st minute.

It changed everything for Uruguay, who up until then had controlled pace and tempo, but now they had to chase the game and put numbers forward, opening up all kinds of lanes for France to pass and run into in counter. But France started dropping players back into their own end in defense and maintain possession. Good effort by Uruguay, but they didn’t looked even close to getting on the scoreboard. I thought the best organized team in this tournament was Uruguay, but two fatal errors in the back did them in, plus without Cavani they weren’t able to play the way they wanted to play. Not the best from France, but they did enough to get through.

Brazil 1-2 Belgium

Quite a few changes for the Selacao in this one, going with a spread 3-4-3 formation, Marcelo on the left wing assisting talisman flanker Neymar, with Willian flanking in the box on the right. Cultured striker Gabriel Jesus in the box, but the important player trailing in through the center is Philippe Coutinho. A number of significant changes for the Belgians as well in a risky yet attacking 4-3-3 formation. Box-to-box midfielder Marouane Fallaini comes in to introduce the attack from the center as well as provide cover when Axel Witsel abandons the center. Talisman Eden Hazard providing service into the box, Kevin De Bruyne providing crosses from the right with Romelu Lukaku the sole target man up front looking to get on the end of service to either score or bring in trailing help.

A three-man backline and emphasis on service through the center meant that Nacer Chadli and Thomas Meunier had a lot of responsibilities on the sides. Belgium was most likely to sit back and counter, hoping that Lukaku would occupy center backs Mirando and Thiago Silva enough to bring in De Bruyne and Hazard. Both teams pressed high from the outset, looking to build from the back, although Belgium would have loved to have turned it into a track meet. Whether through a patient buildup or a quick strike, not much of this game was spent in the middle third.

Belgium looked to use their size advantage, and it paid off in the 13th minute on a set piece corner from Chadli to Vincent Kompany. A track meet is what Belgium were able to turn this into; a clinical attack by Lukaku through the middle brings in De Bruyne to hit a laser to the back post in the 31st minute. Same attack for Belgium coming out of halftime; interception by their defense deep, getting the ball to De Bruyne to find Lukaku cutting on the inside with an outlet pass on the break. Surprisingly Belgium did all of this without much help from Hazard.

Good combination play from Brazil the last 45 minutes, but they were getting interrupted in the final third and having to transition back quickly to thwart the Belgium counterattack. Roberto Firmino came in after the half and provided much better attacking on the right side, as well as switching play much more effectively. Renato Augusto was subbed into the game to make deep runs through the center of the defense into the box and get on the end of crosses; that’s exactly what happened in his goal in the 76th minute on an assist by Coutinho.

Long switches by Brazil from side to side were causing all kinds of problems for Belgium. In an attempt to hold on, Belgium brought on Youri Tielemans to clog up the middle and interrupt the Selacao attack. Belgiun head coach Roberto Martinez got his tactics right on the day, his big time players showed up big time and got it done.

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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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