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My Diary of the World Cup Runneth Over …

July 10, 2018

We are down to what many American sports fans refer to a “Final Four”, the semifinals of the FIFA 2018 World Cup.  France plays Belgium today in St. Petersburg, while Croatia and England meet in Moscow tomorrow, the winners playing each other on Sunday for the trophy.  An all-European Final Four for only the 3rd time since 1970 (Spain 1982 and Germany 2006 the other times), and while historically European teams win World Cups held in Europe – Brazil in Sweden 1958 is the only non-European team to win on European soil – the influencing factors are a bit more specific now, as much of the top talent for the South American contenders and Mexico also play in Europe.

More pointedly, with 40 of the 92 players left in Russia plying their professional trade in the English Premier League (EPL), it’s no coincidence that the teams with large contingents of English Premier League players – all of England’s 23, plus 11 on Belgium’s squad, 5 on France and 1 on Croatia, not to mention several other players who have EPL experience – have met with success in Russia. Fresher legs often win games, and aside from the four players from Liverpool (England’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson, Croatia’s Dejan Lovren, and Belgium’s Simon Mignolet), all of those EPL players, and their national team as a result, benefited from not playing Champions League games in April or May, the consequence of every EPL team besides Liverpool being eliminated before the semis.

At this point, with the stakes raised again, factors like geography and professional affiliation fade away. So, what will happen now? Once again, to my diary of the quarterfinals, in search of clues …

7/6

Uruguay 0:2 France – I might have mentioned this before, but Uruguay’s national anthem is quite the toe-tapper! An assertive La Celeste had several opportunities to get that early goal in the first 35 minutes but failed to capitalize while France’s defense ran a grade-school fire drill in front of their own goal. France shook their slumber in the 40th, scoring from a set piece off a free kick, when Antoine Griezmann stutter-stepped his run-up to see if Uruguay would tip their hand defensively. They obliged, freezing momentarily as Raphaël Varane snuck behind a diving line and headed the floater home. Uruguay barely missed their chance to equalize in the 44th, Hugo Lloris diving at the right post to keep Martin Caceres’ header out with Diego Godin skying the rebound. Uruguay in the 2nd Half continued to press and stunt Les Bleus’ attack until the 61st when Paul Pogba made a galloping run down the heart of the Uruguayan resistance, laying off to Corentin Tolisso, who left it for Griezmann. Uruguay goalie Fernando Muslera couldn’t deal with the velocity or knuckle of Griezmann’s volley, batting it into the net, virtually sealing the win for France. From there, it felt like the match went on “Señor Chompers Watch” waiting for Suarez The Impaler to once again let his teeth run amok. Yet he remained a non-factor as he had been throughout the match, zero shots on goal and often left stranded in the French box. Kylian Mbappé, his wings clipped by a combative and physical Uruguay midfield, embellished a shiver to his midsection from Christian Rodriguez that started a kerfuffle in the 67th which lasted several minutes and got both players yellow carded. That turned out to be Uruguay’s last salvo, as France closed out the match rather calmly, Uruguay seemingly resigned to their fate. #FueronAPescar. Not to belabor the obvious, but Uruguay really missed Edinson Cavani, not only his world class ability but his institutional knowledge of the French squad as a member of Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue One … France continues their Napoleonic march towards Moscow, this time in the summer. 

Brazil 1:2 Belgium – Probably the most anticipated potential matchup of the knockouts when the groups were drawn and the schedule announced last December, “Ordem E Progresso” lacked order or progress against the Belgian Argyle. Roberto Martinez made the obvious lineup changes demanded by their win over Japan: Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens out, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Felkaini deservedly in, causing a formational shift that pushed Kevin DeBruyne up to the forward line, which ultimately paid dividends. Marcelo returned from his back injury that forced him to miss the win over Mexico, which also paid dividends for Belgium. Both teams extended their ball press, as Brazil had the first great chance early, Thiago Silva’s header bouncing off the post softly for Thibaut Courtois to cover in the 8th. Brazil had another chance off the corner in the 10th, but it was Belgium who opened the books in the 13th, Fernandinho, deputizing for the suspended Casemiro, elbowing Vincent Kompany’s glancing header into his own net. Off a counterattack started by a Romelu Lukaku 30-yard run, DeBruyne unleashed a rocket through the space Marcelo ran past in the 31st to put Belgium up 2-0, the precision with which Brazil was being carved up bringing flashbacks of four years ago. Yet Brazil showed their steel, Courtois keeping them at bay in the opening half, saving or deflecting shots twice in the 15th, the 19th, 26th, and twice in the 37th. The Neymar Who Cried Wolf got no benefit of the doubt on any of his simulation attempts, often trying to take Belgium on by himself, attempting to dribble through 3-5 defenders at a time, to no avail … While Belgium remained ever dangerous on the counter, they became too comfortable in the 2nd Half. Courtois stoned the Samba Kings 55th, 62nd, 71st, and 75th, before finally letting newly substituted Renato Augusto head a beautiful cross from Phillipe Coutinho into the net in the 76th. Back to life, Brazil swarmed Belgium’s box, a gassed Red Devils backline allowing close calls in the 81st, 84th, 92nd, and 94th, Martinez making his first sub in the 83rd to insert defender Thomas Vermaelen and go with 5 in the back, which seemed to slow the bleeding just enough … Brazil, despite creating 26 shots, 9 on goal (to Belgium’s 8 overall), and accruing much of their 57% possession edge in the 2nd, were unable to turn their activity into achievement, exiting again in the Quarters for the third time in the last four World Cups despite being perennial favorites.  Proving all that is gold, does not glitter #ForamPescar … Fitting that the most “European” city in Russia, St. Petersburg, holds the Battle of Crepes vs. Waffles (or is it Wine vs. Beer?) as the best two teams left face off. 

Short of calling this the “Real Final”, as I believe any of the four teams left can win it all, the winner of France-Belgium will be a definitive favorite on Sunday.  Since my post-group stage predictions for the knockout phase have mostly come to fruition, including all four semi-finalists, I have no reason to deviate from that. France still has another gear, and Belgium’s defense has looked better than it is thanks to the stellar work of Courtois in goal. I’m not sure what tactic or trick Roberto Martinez has up his sleeve to prevent France’s Pogba and N’Golo Kante from winning most of the balls in midfield, and give France 26 shots, they will score more than one goal.

7/7

Sweden 0:2 England – What was scheduled to be a tight affair began as such, both teams threatening to threaten the other goal early on, until almost exactly the half-hour mark when the “World Cup of Set Pieces” lived up to the moniker (66 of 153 goals scored through this game came off set pieces) with Harry Maguire’s smashing header off the Ashley Young corner putting England up One-Nil. Sweden is not built to chase games, yet that was the position in which they found themselves… Raheem Sterling continued his awful finishing, blowing a sterling (no pun intended) breakaway opportunity in the 45th, and despite doing good legwork to occupy the attention of the Swedish backline, squandered several  opportunities throughout. Dele Alli had also had a mediocre tournament, but his tide turned with an authoritative header off a Jesse Lingard cross just short of the hour mark, the look of relief more than joy washing over his face as he half-assed a Fortnite celebration. Time ran out on Clockwork Yellow, forcing three saves out of Jordan Pickford, yet the final result was all but assured after Alli’s finish #DeHarFiskat. Meanwhile, England will party like its 1990, the last time they made the World Cup Semis, with the rest of the world having to celebrate, tolerate or mock EnglandFan’s assertions that “Football’s Coming Home!”, at least until Wednesday …

Russia 2:2; 3:4 Croatia – Not for nothing, but Croatia Manager Zlatko Dalić looks like the head waiter you would ask for more wine at your favorite restaurant (who is not quite a sommelier). Like any second his boss is going to walk by him and tell him to close the top button of his shirt. “Yes, we do sell a lot of the Pinot …” Again Croatia started a match slowly, as Russia was more comfortable on the ball in the first 5 minutes than they ever were against Spain. Even when Russia settled in and started waiting for the counterattack, they looked more dangerous. Denis Cherysev brought that to fruition when out of nowhere, he fired a 25-yard airbender to put the Hosts up 1-0 in the 31st. Croatia responded in the 39th, breaking down the Russian defense off a goal kick, “Super” Mario Mandzukic finding Andrej Kramaric with a neat cross for the tying goal. A cautious 2nd Half played out as if extra time was in the script, Croatia trying to stretch out a more compact and retreating Russian side … Croatian keeper Danijel Subasic, prostrate with hamstring cramps in the 90th, a metaphorical microcosm of the 2nd Half. A hobbling Croatia struck first in the added half-hour, as The Croat Spicoli, Domagoj Vida scored a blind header off a Luka Modric corner in the 101st to set the table for a roaring Russian retort. The feeling thereafter that Croatia was holding on for dear life was inescapable, Russia pouring forward to produce a tying goal by any means. A stupid hand ball – At this point, are there any non-stupid handballs? – by Croatia’s Josip Pivaric in the 113th set up a free kick just outside the right corner of Croatia’s 18-yard box, which sub Alan Dzagoev subsequently chipped to an unmarked Mario Fernandes, the Brazilian naturalized Russian citizen redirecting it into the net to tie it 2-2 in the 115th. Kicks from the mark would decide fates in consecutive rounds for both teams … After trading misses, extra time hero Fernandes opened the door for Croatia, his strike fizzing wide. Modric with just enough pace pinballed his 3rd round kick in off Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev and the post, Vida’s 4th round kick was Pura, and Ivan Raketic, cool as you like, was the hero again to send the exhausted and jubilant Croatian Sensations to their first World Cup semifinal since France 1998. Russia earned a lot of my respect with their play, putting together far and away their best game of the tournament, and honoring their role as host #Dasvidanya #OниOтправилисьHаPыбалку. Croatia meets England next Wednesday, a match that few predicted but everyone deserves. 

I’ll be rooting for a resumption of the War of the Roses, wanting The Three Lions to see their first World Cup Final since they hosted in 1966. Nevertheless, I look again to the midfield, and with apologies to France’s Pogba and Kante, Croatia has the best central midfield pairing in the world in Modric and Raketic; I suspect England’s midfield will have a difficult time coping with their enterprise defensively. France-Croatia for all the marbles would be a rematch of the France 1998 semifinals, while Belgium-England in the Third Place Match would be the 2nd time they would meet at this World Cup with little but pride at stake (hopefully the A-Teams would play each other this time).

However, that’s getting ahead of oneself.  Frankly, I wouldn’t be mad at any of these four teams taking home the Jules Rimet trophy. While I wouldn’t go as far as parroting the Fox Sports party line that this has been the “Best World Cup Ever!!”, any of the Final Four would be a deserving champion, which is all any non-partisan should want.

 

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