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