From Russia with Love #3: Allez Les Bleu

 

Champions du Monde – Hugo Lloris lifts the World Cup

It’s been a week since the final whistle was blown in the 2018 World Cup Final and even though I did have a small post-tournament depression, now that the dust has settled, it’s time for us to look back on what was one of the best World Cups ever.

For those who haven’t been on the journey with us, I have already reviewed the group stages and that article can be found here.

After a Group Stage that provided more twists and turns than Space Mountain, you could be forgiven in thinking that the knockout matches wouldn’t match the previous round for drama, excitement and goals. How wrong we were!

The Round of 16 begins where the Group Stage left off with France and Argentina playing out what I now going to dub the Classic in Kazan. The lead changed three times, Angel Di Maria and Benjamin Pavard tried to out-do each other in the Goal of the Tournament stakes and Kylian Mbappe announced himself on the world stage (if he hadn’t already) by becoming the first teenager in 60 years to score two goals in a single World Cup match. The last player to do that? A 17-year old Pele. Not much to live up to then young man.

Later that day Uruguay and Portugal took to the pitch in Sochi, with some of the world’s greatest attacking talent on show. In the end it was the South Americans who took home the spoils, with two Edinson Cavani goals enough to overcome Ronaldo and co., continuing the Uruguayan’s unbeaten start to the World Cup. The last time that Uruguay won their first four games was in their successful 1930 campaign and at this point they would’ve been hoping to keep their momentum going.

In typical Cristiano Ronaldo fashion, it wouldn’t be the last time we heard his name during this tournament, with a fantastically timed £99.2m/$116.6m transfer to Italian giants Juventus right before the first semi-final.

After Germany were unceremoniously dumped out at the first hurdle, the shocks kept coming in Moscow when host Russia withstood quasi-pressure from Spain for 120 minutes before they went 4/4 in the shoot-out to knockout the 2010 champions. I say quasi-pressure not to be disparaging to Spain in any way as Russia set out to suffocate the Spanish build-up play and did so excellently and to the point where Spain could only pass in a curve across midfield. This gave Spain a lot of possession and made it look like they were piling on the pressure, but in reality, they couldn’t breakdown the Russian defensive line. Russia got their tactics 100% correct for this game and came away with the W.

Game 4 of the Last 16 was another battle of attrition between Croatia and Denmark. This game, whilst not as scintillating as the games prior to it, it did have a lot of talking points. Denmark opened the scoring within the first minute, only to be pegged back by a Mario Mandzukic strike from close range three minutes later. What followed was 116 goalless minutes, before two outstanding goalkeeping performances in the shootout. In the end it was Croatia that took the spoils, winning 3-2 in the shootout to progress to their first Quarter Final since 1998.

The ever confident Neymar looking to lead Brazil to glory

The second half of the last 16 began with the favourites going into this stage Brazil taking on the conquerors of Germany, Mexico. Brazil put in a commanding and professional performance to sweep aside the Mexicans 2-0, confining the losers to their 7th consecutive Round of 16 defeat.

Match 6 came to life in the second half with one of the best 45 minutes of football in World Cup history. One of the pre-tournament favourites Belgium looked comfortable in the first half but were shell shocked within 7 minutes of the restart as Japan took a surprise 2-0 lead. Then, in a crazy last 20 minutes Belgium through everything at the Japanese, eventually scoring with the very last kick of game with a counter attack finished by Nacer Chadli. This goal won the BBC Sport Goal of the Tournament, which was shows how exceptional the breakaway was.

In what was expected to be a tight affair before the game, Sweden defeated Switzerland 1-0 in Saint Petersburg in a game which lived up to the pre-match predictions. Emil Forsberg, who was meant to be Sweden’s main man in the absence of the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was lacklustre in the group stage but his goal after 66 minutes was enough to send his country through to their first Quarter Final since 1994.

The shocks of the Group Stage resulted in the knockout stages being extremely lopsided in terms of strength of the remaining sides, which gave England and Colombia a fantastic chance of going very far in the competition. England’s young (three) lions started to believe, and despite a rocky second half, were able to exorcize demons of Italia ’90, France ’98 and Germany 2006, along with another three European Championship, and won England’s first ever penalty shootout at a World Cup to knock out an underwhelming Colombian side. Was football about to come home?

They still believe – Was football finally about to come home?

The Quarter Finals kicked off with a battle of former champions as France took on Uruguay. An injury ruled Edinson Cavani out of the match, but in all honesty, Uruguay were toothless in attack meaning and Cavani would’ve had a tough time getting anything out of the strong French defense. France never looked under any threat and professionally brushed the Uruguayans aside, to become only the second side to beat three South American nations in the one tournament after Holland in 1974.

Second on the bill was the stand out match of the round when Belgium took on Brazil. I had said to anyone that listened that I believed that this was the match that the winners would come from, and as seen in my knockout round preview, I firmly believe that it would be Brazil. So, you can imagine the shock that I felt, along with everyone in the pub I watched the game in, when Belgium came out all guns blazing and stunned the favourites. An own goal and a stunning Kevin De Bruyne strike was enough to brush aside the Brazilians, who despite a late Renato Augusto consolation, looked very poor.

With the favourites looking out their passports, the tournament was thrown wide open, and an England side growing in confidence grabbed the bull by the horns and trumped a lacklustre Sweden side. England, who didn’t threaten a great deal, did exactly what they had to do and put in a solid and professional performance to dump the Swedes out.

England would have a long wait to see who they would play in their first Semi-Final since 1990, as Russia and Croatia go to penalties for the second consecutive match for both teams. While the game itself wasn’t particularly good from a technical standpoint, it was a fascinating watch from start to finish. Denis Cheryshev scored one of the goals of the tournament in the first half for the hosts, who then soaked up waves of Croatian attacks.

When Croatia took the lead in extra time all looked lost for the Russians, but Mario Fernandes (who has 1 cap for Brazil in a friendly and was given citizenship only by a presidential decree) scored with 5 mins of extra time to go, to send the crowd into raptures and the game into penalties. Once again, Croatia were clinical from twelve yards and were through to the Semis.

Denis Cheryshev doesn’t do tap ins

With Brazil and Uruguay exiting the tournament in the last round, we are left with only the 5th all-European semi-final and the first since 2006. It also guaranteed that we would have a winner from Europe for the fourth consecutive time.

The two matches were nicely poised as both games were between a former champion and a nation who had never played in the showpiece match, and any once of the teams could become World Champions. In a cagey and tight first semi-final France overcame Belgium after a Samuel Umtiti header to reach their first final since the infamous 2006 final in Berlin.

This was Belgium’s first defeat since September 2016 and this may be the last tournament their golden generation play together, leaving them with a feeling of what could’ve been. All is not lost for them as they still have the 3rd place playoff, but they’d rather have been on the plane to Moscow as opposed to Saint Petersburg.

The second semi-final was a between Croatia, a nation younger than some of their experienced squad, and England, full of belief and youthful exuberance, both of whom were chomping at the bit to make the best of the golden opportunity in front of them. Kieren Trippier put England ahead with a stunning free kick after just 5 minutes, and then England set out to defend their lead which is a good idea in theory but difficult in practice when you score so early.

Ivan Perisic equalised after 69 minutes after sneaking in at the back post to take the game to extra time for the third straight time for Croatia. Ironically, the last team to play extra time in three consecutive World Cup games was England. In the end, it was Croatia who dug deep, winning with a 109th minute Mario Mandzukic strike to send them to their first World Cup final.

Mario Mandzukic celebrates his historic semi-final goal

The night before the final comes the damp squib of the tournament – the 3rd/4th place playoff. Both Belgium and England had extremely good chances to win their semi-finals and indeed the final but alas they are left to play out to determine their final positions in the tournament. Belgium would ultimately come out on top with a 2-0 win to finish third, their new best performance in a World Cup.

As previously mentioned, this Belgian golden generation may have played their last World Cup together and they will go home having given up what could be their best chance to win the ultimate prize. Conversely, this England team is only getting started, and the vast majority of this squad should be on the plane to Qatar and will be firm favourites to win their 2nd World Cup in the Gulf nation.

32 teams arrived, two remain looking to lift this famous trophy

When Asian nations Timor-Leste and Mongolia took to the field on March 12th 2015, the journey to the World Cup officially began, and in the 1222 days that followed, all roads led to the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 15th July for the World Cup Final.

It could not be argued that throughout the tournament that neither of these teams deserved to be there. France were put in professional performances, doing what the needed to do to get through the group stages before progressively getting better as the tournament went on. On the other hand, Croatia were fantastic in the group stage, and while they didn’t get worse as they went through the later rounds, they had to work harder to grind out results in the latter stages of the competition.

After a back and forth first half, France were awarded a very harsh penalty through the video assistant referee. Antione Griezmann converted the spot kick to take a 2-1 lead into the break, which could be argued was against the run of play. It was after half time that France really kicked on, and two quick fire goals from Paul Pogba and soon to be crowned Young Player of the Tournament Kylian Mbappe gave France a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 lead.

Mario Mandzukic would give Croatia a glimmer of hope by chasing down Hugo Lloris, nicking the ball away from the French goalie which help the ball trickle into the net to cut the deficit to 4-2. In the end however, the three lots of extra time and two emotionally draining penalty shootouts eventually took its toll on the Croatians, who were unable to muster up any more energy to complete the comeback.

France professionally run down the clock, and when the 64th final whistle of the tournament sounded, they were crowned champions of the world. Hugo Lloris lifted the trophy amid a rainstorm of biblical proportions, and the squad that left as heroes returned to their homeland as legends. Croatia received a heroes welcome also when they touched down in Zagreb, with 550,000 people greeting the squad, the largest public gathering in the history of the country.

Kylian Mbappe – Wonderkid, World Cup Winner, and only 19 years old

Finally, to round off the tournament and to take a leaf out of the playbook of the Mothership Place to Be Podcast, I’d like to give out some awards. So, without further ado:

  • Player of the Tournament – KYLIAN MBAPPE – The youngster had a decent start to the tournament but got better and better the more minutes he played and finished as the outstanding player of the tournament in my eyes.
  • Surprise Package of the Tournament – HARRY MAGUIRE – The England centre back put is stamp on the starting berth in Gareth Southgate’s back three, contributing with two goals to boot – a future England captain no doubt.
  • Team of the Tournament – CROATIA – With the exception of the winners, Croatia were well worth their 2nd place, dominating their group and thumping Argentina in the process. The were great in grinding out their wins through the knock out stages before running out of energy in the final.
  • Disappointment of the Tournament – GERMANY – The defending champions were poor from the outset, needing a late goal in to secure their only win and producing two drab performances in defeats to Mexico and South Korea. Thanks to Nation member Steve Bennett for this stat – Germany are the latest in the line of defending champions to be eliminated in the group stage, with only Brazil progressing from the first round in their championship defence in 1998 and 2006.
  • Goal of the Tournament – BENJAMIN PAVARD VS ARGENTINA – The right foot thunderbolt from the French right back turned the tide back in favour of his side and would ultimately keep them on the road to greatness.

After 64 matches and 169 goals the 2018 FIFA World Cup comes to a close where Russia has given us a tournament to remember, one of the most exciting competitions in recent memory. And so, we move on to Qatar in four and a half years’ time, which will be an entirely different prospect. It will be held in November and December, the first tournament not to be held in summer months and could even be host to the first 48 nation tournament. What is for sure though, is that it will need to be one hell of a tournament to match what we’ve seen in the last five weeks.

Author: Calum McDougall