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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 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: Knockout Round of 16 Preview

The Round of Sixteen

Group play is done and the round of 16 knockout stage is set.  Group play went pretty much as expected, except for two major surprises.  The top seeds in Groups F (Germany) and H (Poland) were both unexpectedly eliminated.  This was particularly startling for defending World Cup champion Germany in Group F, which lost to Mexico in its opening match and then, needing a win to advance in its final group game against South Korea, the third lowest-ranked team in the tournament, not only failed to win the contest, but allowed two late goals to lose 2-0. 

The Germans had never before failed to advance out of group play.  This was one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history and will surely cause all kinds of changes in Germany’s World Cup management, likely starting with coach Jogi Low’s job.  Overall, it should come as no surprise that 10 of 14 European squads and 4 of 5 South American squads advanced.  Only Mexico and Japan represent other continents and neither are likely to advance much further.

So what to expect now that the knockout rounds are starting?  Here’s a look at the Round of 16 matchups.  In each case, the team listed first won their group and the team listed second finished second in another group.

Uruguay vs. Portugal

Uruguay was one of 3 teams to win all three group matches.  Of course, this was to be expected given that Group A was statistically the easiest group of all time.  Despite the lack of real competition, La Celeste managed just five goals.  By way of comparison, Russia in the same group scored 8 goals despite getting none against Uruguay.  Strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have nearly 100 international goals between them, but are both 31 and slowing down.  Against tougher defenses in the knockout rounds, Uruguay may be hard pressed to find the back of the net. 

Portugal, despite the presence of one of the greatest players of all time in reigning FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, is a perennially underachieving World Cup Squad.  After an exciting 3-3 draw with Spain in their first group game, Portugal did not inspire in a 1-0 win over Morocco and 1-1 draw with Iran.  I can see this match going either way, but give a slight overall advantage to Portugal and I think they will edge Uruguay.

France vs. Argentina

This is a match-up of two former champions who were both the top seed in their group.  Neither looked at their best in group play.  France managed just three goals in three games, but a stout defense allowed just one goal.  Les Bleus beat the teams they were supposed to beat, while finishing in a nil-nil draw against a tough Denmark squad.  Argentina also only scored three times, while giving up five goal, including three in a stunning 3-0 loss to Croatia. 

The Argentines barely qualified for the tourney and barely made it out of group play.  Superstar Lionel Messi was unable to create as brilliantly as he usually does on offense and the defense was overwhelmed at times.  I think France prevails in the match-up because their defense will bottle up Messi and their offense will find opportunities against the leaky Argentina defense.

Brazil vs. Mexico

Perennial contender Brazil won their group as expected, but did not look  to be at their best.  Their star Neymar Jr. found himself getting beat up constantly and he looked the worse for the wear, but he doesn’t do himself any favors by taking dives at every opportunity.  Brazil’s chances at contending may depend on Neymar’s health. 

Despite winning their first two games, including their startling upset of Germany, Mexico needed help from South Korea in order to advance as Sweden dealt them a crushing 3-0 blow in their final group contest.  El Tri found success early in group play with passes down the flanks, letting their wingers outrace defenses to the ball.  The Swedes shut that down and Mexico may have to find new ways to score now that Sweden has shown how to defend them.  Brazil should easily prevail against Mexico because they know how to win at this level and Mexico does not.

Belgium vs. Japan

Belgium came into the tournament ranked #3 in the world after cruising easily through qualifying.  The Red Devils also made quick work of their group, ending with a +7 goal differential, the highest in group play.  Japan, on the other hand, was a surprise survivor in Group H.  Samurai Blue came in as one of the lowest ranked teams, but managed to beat eventual group champion Colombia in their first game, before drawing against Senegal and losing to Poland. 

They advanced over Senegal because they incurred fewer yellow cards.  That was the last tiebreaker before drawing lots.  This is called the fair play tiebreaker.  Yes, advancement to the knockout round was decided by which team was nicer on the field.  This game should be an easy win for Belgium.  That being said, Belgium showed some lapses in their defense during group play, particularly against Tunisia, and may find difficulty against a good offensive squad later in the knockout rounds.

Spain vs. Russia

Spain won the World Cup in 2010, but like Germany this year, failed to advance out of group play in 2014.  They redeemed themselves by winning Group B this year, but it wasn’t pretty with two draws and one win.  La Furia Roja found the back of the net often, but gave up almost as many goals, including one caused by an unforgivable error by Spanish goalie Daniel de Gea.  The best defenses usually fare well as the Cup goes on, so that does not bode well for the Spanish. 

The only reason Russia advanced out of the group stage was the historically bad group that they were in and probably bought.  They scored a lot of goals against bad teams before being shut down by Uruguay.  Unless the refs throw the game Russia’s way, their tournament ends against Spain.

Croatia vs. Denmark

Croatia was the surprise winner of Group D, but they earned it with their utter domination of Argentina, a balanced scoring attack, and allowance of only one goal in three games.  Croatia was the lowest ranked team to win all their group matches and looked far better than their ranking.  Manager Zlatko Dalic was brought on late in qualifying and has made a huge positive impact on the squad. 

Denmark managed just two goals while only allowing one in their one win and two draws in group play.  This is a team that plays a compact defense and waits and waits and waits for opportunities.  They are not very creative, preferring to play solid defense and hoping for the best on offense.  With Croatia’s far better attack, they should prevail against the Danes.

Sweden vs. Switzerland

Sweden was the one team that the disappointing German team actually beat, when the Swedes allowed a late goal by a man down German squad.  Sweden throttled Mexico and South Korea to win the group, but they are not a ball possession squad, instead preferring to hold their ground on defense and finding counterattack opportunities.  Their defense will serve them well in the knockout rounds, but they may lack enough offense to go far. 

Switzerland scored the same number of goals (5) as Sweden in group matches, but did so in the Group of Death and with an attack that showed greater creativity and ball possession.  The Swedes scored three of their five goals in the second half against a Mexican team that was falling apart.  Although Sweden is the group winner here, the Swiss should win this matchup by controlling the middle of the field and getting more scoring opportunities.

Colombia vs. England:

Colombia needed a win in their final group match to advance and managed to hold on for a 1-0 win, despite a furious Senegal attack.  The Colombians showed inconsistency in the group, losing to the low-ranked Japanese team, while crushing the group favorite Poland.  That does not bode well for further advancement.  England roughed up Tunisia and Panama in the group stage, as expected, before running into the Belgian juggernaut. 

Only the Belgians scored more goals than the English and the English captain, Harry Kane, is currently the Golden Boot leader.  Although they lost to Belgium 1-0, it was a hard fought game in which the English acquitted themselves well while playing many reserves.  The English look like the better squad here and I expect them to outscore the Colombians.

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