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Diary of the 2018 FIFA World Cup: Glory Awaits

July 15, 2018

Zero hour is upon us as the Final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, France versus Croatia, beckons. I’m sticking with my pre-tournament pick France, as I believe their manager Didier Deschamps and the seven (7) veterans from that Euros 2016 runner-up squad that will likely start tomorrow have learned the right lessons from their “French Mistake” in the 2016 Euros Final, and that they have the necessary mettle to emerge victorious.  But what can Croatia learn from that 2016 Euro Final? What pages can the Croats take out of Portugal’s book, what can they divine from the workmanlike blueprint that the reigning European Champions laid down against a favored, more talented Les Bleus side two years ago?

I’ve no doubt Croatia – the second-smallest nation in World Cup history to make the Final – has the requisite commitment, and will stick to the same plan of steady defensive pressure and outside-in attacks that has landed them in the Final. I do wonder if they’ll have the legs, having played the equivalent of an extra full games-worth of soccer in the Knockout stage compared to France. As good as Luka Modric and Ivan Raketic are, they might have met their match in Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, and whomever wins the majority of this skirmishes in the midfield will likely win the day and the Jules Rimet trophy.

Once again, we look back to look forward …

7/10

France 1:0 Belgium – Anticipation for this match was thicker than the ketchup we Americans put on our frites. Belgium started as the aggressor, briefly neutralizing the French midfield through simple possession, as the first of many close calls came in the 15th, Eden Hazard fizzing just wide right of Hugo Lloris’ goal. France replied by invading Belgium’s box the next minute, then Belgium responded in kind, the tit-for-tat providing end-to-end action as The Red Devils were slightly more dangerous on offense, and slightly more welcoming defensively. France turned the tide as the 1st Half progressed, accumulating an 11-3 shot edge despite ceding 58% of the possession (the trend holding for the match, Belgium was outshot 19-9 overall despite 60% possession). That French engine of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante won more balls in the center of the pitch, while Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann took turns running at the Belgian fortifications. France took advantage of a set piece in the 51st to grab a lead that would ultimately stand, Samuel Umtiti beating Marouane Fellaini to Griezmann’s corner with a glancing header that blazed past Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois. France continued to show their savoir faire in the 56th, a 4-touch passing sequence that had Belgium’s Mousa Dembélé scurrying to divert. Belgium Manager Roberto Martinez replaced the ineffective Dembélé in the 60th, attempting to overload France’s left flank with sub Dries Mertens and Kevin DeBruyne. The result was more crosses into France’s box and increased pressure for the last half hour plus stoppage, but no joy as Les Bleus were content to absorb it all and run the clock out on Belgium’s Golden Generation. Martinez’s men showed desire and moxie throughout this tournament, and Courtois was a man between the posts, but today they lacked that final touch to ripple the net #ThirdPlaceMatch #IlsSontAllésPêcher. Olivier Giroud is clearly having a crisis of confidence, his timing completely off as he squandered several opportunities. He does a lot of good work that goes unnoticed and makes some things easier for Griezmann and Mbappé, but can France afford another seven (7) misfires in front of goal with the World Cup one win away? I think France Manager Didier Deschamps stays the course, but it’s something to note as Sunday’s Final approaches.

Everyone loves to talk about the plethora of French attacking talent, but defensively this was France’s best performance, Kante patrolling in front of a sturdy and dynamic backline, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris at his acrobatic best. I still believe they haven’t hit their collective peak yet, which is a scary proposition for Croatia.

7/11

Croatia 2:1 England – To quote Sir Paul, this game was a long and winding road. Kieran Trippier got The Three Lions off to a flying start with his clinical free kick bender in the 5th, and all was possible for England, but little did we know that would be their only shot on goal. Croatia meanwhile took their time to announce their presence, logging their first shot in the 19th, my choice for Man of the Match Ivan Perisic firing just wide left of England’s goal. From there, the Croats began knocking on England’s door more frequently, upping the direct midfield pressure on England’s possession. Dejan Lovren should have been yellow carded in twice in the 1st Half, but the lack of action only increased the impunity with which Lovren and his teammates acted. Still, England probably should have extended their lead with golden chances in the 30th and 36th. Needing a heightened sense of urgency, Croatia went into the 2nd Half with their hair on fire, the match becoming chippier as Lovren continued his extracurricular aggression, while England settled for sparse counterattacks. Perisic foreshadowed the equalizer with a strike in the 65th blocked by Kyle Walker and The Family Jewels, these two tangling again three minutes later as Croatia got level through Perisic off a diagonal cross from Sime Vrsaljko, beating Walker’s head to the ball with a potentially high kick that was not called. Perisic’s persistence almost put Croatia ahead as he punted off the post in the 72nd, England’s backline stuck in analysis paralysis with equally poor back passes and indecisive clearance, and their midfield wilting under Croatian pressure, unable to string passes together and falling into a ballwatching stasis. Both teams had chances to score a winner in regulation, only for extra time to be needed for the third successive Croatia game. The Iron Men of Croatia looked the fresher team, continuing to turn over England in the midfield; You’d never know the Croats were the side that played two consecutive extra time games, and had all four subs available for the added half hour. In the second minute of stoppage in the first half of extra time (technically the 105th+2, bear with me here) “Super”Mario Mandzukic collided with Jordan Pickford in front of the English goal, Pickford deflecting a Mandzukic shot off a cross that could have been called a foul were it not the goalkeeper late to that challenge. Mandzukic’s revenge wouldn’t wait long however, as Croatia scored the winner in the 109th off a poor clearance, Perisic backwards heading(!) a ball into Super Mario’s path who one touches it past Pickford inside the far post, England defender John Stones switching off just long enough for Mandzukic to show why he gets paid the big bucks at Juventus (then show why he’s called “The Sour One” spending much of the five minutes thereafter on the ground feigning cramps, but I digress). England used their last sub in the 112th, the Jamie Vardy Party in for Walker, soon after which Trippier went out with a groin injury leaving England a man down for the remainder and their World Cup hopes stranded another four years. England have only themselves to blame, mentally relaxing after their goal, and seeming to run out of ideas in the face of Croatia’s increased pressure. So close, and yet so far away #FishAndChips #ItsNotComingHome. 

And so, the Final I predicted after the group stage has become a reality, a rematch of the France 1998 Semifinal between France and the Croatian Sensations. While most observers didn’t see this coming before the World Cup started, it was evident in the Group stage that along with Belgium, these were two of the best three teams playing in Russia.

More than anything, what this tournament and this particular Final shows is the global shift in effective tactics that had begun in the big confederation tournaments of Europe (UEFA) and South America (CONMEBOL) in 2016. France, Croatia, Belgium, and to a lesser extent the relative success of England, Sweden, Denmark, Mexico and Uruguay signals a switch from the Barcelona/Spain inspired “tiki-taka” and their derivations, soccer’s equivalent of Death by 1,000 Paper Cuts, to a variable possession-based attack that actively seeks the direct and surgical finish and values set pieces, the difference between trench warfare and bombing sorties. Spain were ushered out by the hosts Russia in the Round of 16 despite having three-quarters of the possession and completing 829 more passes than their opponents.  A distracted and ultimately deficient Defending World Champion Germany bounced out in the group stage. Tikitalia (Italy) and Total Football 2.0 (Netherlands) couldn’t even qualify for this World Cup with their possession-based strategy. Once the vanguard, they are now among the giants of the game who will have to find new answers during qualification for the next big tournaments.

As such, I think we’ll see a mix of midfield possession and long balls into the box from all over the field today, both teams poised to spring on the counter with dangerous wingers and incisive playmakers. Croatia might do well to ugly it up a bit when France has the ball, although they will need to be even more careful than they were in the Semifinal at allowing corners and free kicks near their own box – England only had five free kicks in Croatia’s half last Wednesday, and still scored on one of them.  Give France an early set piece goal, and they might make that stand as they did against Belgium.

Finally, some thoughts about yesterday’s Third Place Match, which Belgium won 2-0 over England, earning the Red Devils their best World Cup finish. Nothing demonstrates the difference between the USA Sports Fan and the rest of the world’s sports fans than attitudes towards the World Cup’s Third Place Match. Most Americans wonder why it’s even played, while many fans around the world both welcome the extra match and appreciate the determination of a Third Place team on the field. Wearing the American on my sleeve, I was a touch surprised that both teams fielded relatively strong lineups, but I applaud them for going out to try and win this game, as there was nothing to lose in the bigger picture, beyond the game itself. Typically, these games break one of two ways, verging towards the rather boring or extremely open and exciting with little room in between. Our clue as to which way this game would break came in the 4th minute as Belgium got their winner through Thomas Meunier, who had completed a shockingly efficient 4-pass sequence from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to the back of England’s net. England did not lack for endeavor, with 57% of the possession and three more shots (15-12), but relegating Belgium to running the World’s Most Dangerous counterattack would ultimately be a losing proposition, Eden Hazard netting the door-shutter off such a counter in the 82nd. Both these teams will now turn their attention towards the 2020 Euros, where they will be among the favorites.

As will today’s combatants.  Before then though, some business to finish today; France can win their 2nd World Cup, or Croatia can become the 9th country to win it all.  To the victor, go the spoils.

 

P.S. – Not to harp on this subject, but Raheem Sterling is still yesterday’s detritus. I don’t care what the “experts” have to say about what he does to opposing defenses with his speed and how he occupies their minds, he still does next to nothing with the ball. No surprise that England Manager Gareth Southgate (to whom they should hand over a 4-year contract extension forthwith) pulled Sterling off at the half yesterday. England’s prospects for the next few big tournaments are especially bright, as they had one of the younger rosters in Russia, and their youth teams have accumulated a lot of tournament hardware in the prior cycle; Maybe they can find a more clinical option on the wing than Sterling from the youth ranks this next cycle.

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