2018 FIFA World Cup Review

It’s all over. A brilliant World Cup filled with excitement has ended with France taking their second World Cup title as many of football’s traditional giants crashed out earlier than expected. A semi-final line-up without Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina was certainly unexpected, but the teams that came through in their place delivered plenty of excitement and some quality performances. England looked a rejuvenated side under Gareth Southgate, and Belgium’s best ever side looked very dangerous on their way to the final four. Croatia had a dream run through to the final, showing resolve, skill and plenty of verve as they slugged it out with the consistent French in the tournament’s decider. It was a tournament full of excitement, and plenty of good memories will come from it. This review will take a look at the tournament, with the players and teams that impressed and the teams whose campaigns fell flat.

Best Team: France

It’s not often that a team wins the trophy as comfortably as the French did. They only trailed their opponents at one point during the tournament, with Argentina leading them 2-1 for less than 10 minutes. France then scored three goals in about 10 minutes, and that finished the Argentinians off. Everyone played well, with scarily young players standing tall (19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé was particularly impressive) and all of France’s proven performers delivering when they needed to. They scored first in every game they played, and they breezed past some very dangerous opponents on their way to the title.

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France celebrate after their World Cup final win over Croatia. The French were comfortably the best side at the tournament, and their march to the trophy was as comfortable as it gets.

Best Fairytale: Croatia

There wasn’t a clear cut fairytale side at this tournament, but there was no shortage of contenders. England, with their young talents and newfound enthusiasm, made it further than any English side in 28 years and captivated a nation in the process. Russia, with the public just hoping the hosts didn’t embarrass themselves, made it all the way to the quarter-finals and knocked out Spain along the way. Sweden made a quarter-final despite having little more than a good system and exemplary team spirit, and Japan defied expectations to nearly make the last eight in spite of a managerial change just two months out from the tournament. In the end, though, Croatia’s journey was more impressive. They had skill, but they needed all of their resilience to go the distance against Denmark, Russia and England, and the 4-2 scoreline of the final didn’t really do them justice. They fought right to the end, and they put in some remarkable efforts along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

There were plenty of sides who disappointed at this tournament. Portugal and Argentina, despite being powered by two of the world’s biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just scraped through to the round of 16 and found themselves exiting early. Spain were thrust into turmoil days out from the tournament when they sacked Julen Lopetegui, and they failed to fire amidst reports of division in the squad. Brazil were ominously solid in their first four games, but it all fell apart against the determined Belgians in the quarter-finals. In the end, however, all of these teams at least made the knockout stage. Germany didn’t. They looked uninterested and a shadow of the team which won the World Cup four years before, and they never really recovered from a shock opening defeat to Mexico. Their limp exit will have huge ramifications, as the Germans search for the reasons behind their dismal showing.

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South Korea’s players celebrate after upsetting Germany and eliminating them from the World Cup. Germany’s poor performance was unexpected, and it will have ramifications for the future.

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

There were plenty of teams who could be considered unlucky not to go further in this World Cup. Peru looked brilliant against Denmark, held their own against eventual champions France and beat Australia comfortably, and yet they couldn’t pass the group stage. In Group H, Senegal fell foul of the new fair play tiebreaker, thus squandering their chance to become the only African team to make it through. It was another African team, however, who were completely luckless. Morocco were the better team in all of their three games, but the Atlas Lions finished with just one point to show for it. They never took a backwards step, but a 95th minute own goal against Iran (who were also hard-done-by in the end) and a 1-0 loss to Portugal sealed their fate before the final game had been played. They were one of a few unlucky African sides, as none of the five CAF nations made it past the group stage.

Team of the Tournament

Picking the best combined team of the tournament was a difficult task. There were plenty of players who put in strong performances throughout the tournament, with plenty of attackers proving very difficult to separate. The team is picked in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and France’s dominance is reflected in the selection of six of their players in the side.

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Thibaut Courtois makes a diving save during Belgium’s quarter-final win over Brazil. Courtois won the golden glove for his performances as Belgium progressed to the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois is a classy player. It’s not often a goalkeeper can be described in such terms, but Courtois is no regular goalkeeper. His unflustered air allows him to move with incredible grace, and his extraordinary reach allows him to make difficult saves look incredibly easy. In the end, he was the best of the goalkeepers who featured in the tournament’s final stages, and although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel had brilliant tournaments neither of their sides made it far enough to warrant their selection.
Honourable mentions: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Right-back: Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
There were two standout right-backs at this tournament, with Meunier playing some brilliant football on Belgium’s right-flank and Kieran Trippier performing a similar role for England with plenty of skill. The two shone at all stages of the tournament, with Trippier’s set piece delivery becoming an integral part of England’s game plan and Meunier’s crosses from the right causing plenty of issues for opposing defences, but in the end the third-place play-off between the teams decided the selection issue in Meunier’s favour. Fresh after missing the semi-final against France (his loss was a massive one) Meunier scored a goal against the English and showcased his attacking and defensive qualities in a brilliant performance.
Honourable mention: Kieran Trippier (England)

Centre-backs: Raphaël Varane (France) and Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Much like the French, Varane got better as the tournament progressed, and he had a big hand in their success with his aerial strength and his ability to match the world’s top strikers. He even provided a threat at the other end, scoring a couple of very nice goals. Granqvist was even more important for Sweden. He picked up a couple of goals from the penalty spot, and he used his imposing physique to good effect in some dominant defensive performances, and he thoroughly deserves his spot in this side. Others could have easily won a spot, with Diego Godín holding Uruguay’s defence together and Swiss young gun Manuel Akanji playing with a composure that belied his lack of international experience, but neither were quite able to get a spot.
Honourable mentions: Diego Godín (Uruguay) and Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)

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Andreas Granqvist celebrates after scoring Sweden’s first goal against South Korea. Granqvist was the main man in Sweden’s defence, and he was the key reason for their success.

Left-back: Lucas Hernández (France)
Of all the positions, left-back was one of the hardest to pick due to a lack of strongly performing players in the position. Hernández, however, was consistent throughout and gave France plenty with his excellent all-round performances. He was able to push forward when required and he swung in some dangerous crosses, but his defensive work stood out. He was composed under pressure, displaying an ability to cleverly draw fouls when France were in need of a breather. He had no real competition, and deserves a spot in this team.
Honourable mention: Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)

Central midfielders: Paul Pogba (France) and N’Golo Kanté (France)
Pogba and Kanté’s brilliant midfield performances ensured both men basically picked themselves, and there wasn’t anyone who really came close to dislodging either. Kanté was brilliant despite an underwhelming effort in the final, and no other holding midfielder was able to exact his level of influence on matches. Alongside Pogba, who pushed forward well and managed to score a key goal in the final, Kanté led the best midfield duo in the tournament – by some distance. Paulinho was good for Brazil, and some, like Ivan Rakitić and Aleksandr Golovin, showed some skills, but Pogba and Kanté’s consistency was unmatched.
Honourable mentions: Paulinho (Brazil), Aleksandr Golovin (Russia) and Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)

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N’Golo Kanté (left) and Paul Pogba (centre) chase Belgian captain Eden Hazard during France’s semi-final win. Kanté and Pogba complemented each other perfectly, and their efforts were a key part of France’s success.

Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé was so good that he was the only possible winner of the award for best young player of the tournament, and he announced himself on the world stage with some breathtaking efforts. In two short bursts he brought Argentina to their knees, and he consistently made opposing defences nervous with his unbelievable pace and well-honed skills. He seemingly has it all, and his brilliant efforts allowed him to win a place in the team over all-action Croatian winger Ante Rebić. He already is a star, and at 19 it’s scary how good a player he could become.
Honourable mention: Ante Rebić (Croatia)

Attacking midfielder: Luka Modrić (Croatia, captain)
Modrić was a deserving winner of the golden ball for the tournament’s best player as he led Croatia to the final with his typically dependable performances. When he is in the zone, he can take a game by the scruff of the neck without anyone realising it, and his exceptional vision allowed Croatia’s talented attackers to thrive. Philippe Coutinho was brilliant in Brazil’s run to the last eight, but he was no match for Croatia’s captain and midfield star.
Honourable mention: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

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Luka Modrić (left) battles for the ball with Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final. Modrić’s efforts in taking Croatia to the final earned him the golden ball, while Mbappé was the tournament’s best young player and burst onto the scene with some dynamic performances.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann (France)
There were plenty of dangerous wingers who could accompany Mbappé, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard playing well throughout, Russian winger Denis Cheryshev bursting onto the scene with some great performances and Croatia’s Ivan Perišić delivering massive efforts in the semi-finals and the final. In the end, however, the berth went to Griezmann. Griezmann didn’t actually play on the left-wing, instead starting centrally and drifting wherever he want, but he had a massive impact and he was simply too good to leave out.
Honourable mentions: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Ivan Perišić (Croatia)

Centre-forward: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani scored three goals in four matches at the tournament, sending Uruguay into the quarter-finals with two sublime goals against Portugal and then missing the match with a calf injury. The impact his loss had on Uruguay’s play showed just how important his hard work in both defence and attack was, and makes him a deserving leader of the line over the more prolific but less influential Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane. His effort was remarkable, and he brought plenty of class to Uruguay’s attack.
Honourable mention: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

France lift the trophy against enterprising Croatians

Lucas Hernández worked his way into space on the left wing. The French left-back had neatly broken away from his marker, and he followed up by picking out Kylian Mbappé on the edge of the area. Mbappé, with no other option, had a shot. It wasn’t the 19-year-old prodigy’s best effort, but it was well-directed and it slipped through Danijel Subašić’s slightly limp dive, all but confirming France’s status as the winners of the 2018 World Cup. With 25 minutes to go, Mbappé’s strike put France ahead 4-1. That moment, with Mbappé standing in his trademark cross-armed celebratory pose and teammates flooding in from all angles, was as good as it got for Les Bleus.

Things weren’t so rosy in the opening stages of the final. Croatia, playing like they had nothing to lose, took the early initiative, stringing together some nice passing moves and putting France under pressure without creating any concrete chances. Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić showed signs of their effortlessly brilliant passing, but they couldn’t turn it into anything more concrete. Ivan Perišić, the hero of Croatia’s historic semi-final defeat of England, was at his most menacing, making barnstorming runs and nearly creating something on a few occasions. Unfortunately for Croatia, nearly creating something on a few occasions wasn’t going to cut it against the clinical France.

Just under 20 minutes in, France got a chance and put it away. Antoine Greizmann drew a soft free-kick on the edge of the box, and he had the chance to curl the ball towards goal with his lethal left boot. His kick didn’t pick out one of France’s rapidly moving centre-backs, both of whom were scrambling to get a head on the ball, but it did clip big Croatian frontman Mario Mandžukić on the way through. The inadvertent deflection left Subašić with no time to react, and Croatia were on the back foot despite their control of general play.

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Ivan Perišić is mobbed by teammates after scoring Croatia’s first goal. Perišić’s equaliser put Croatia back in the game, and his handball a few minutes later ultimately took the game away from them.

If France had thought that their goal would be enough to seal the World Cup, they were wrong. Less than 10 minutes after Mandžukić’s own goal they were back on level terms, thanks to a screamer from Perišić. Modrić delivered the initial ball, finding Šime Vrsaljko on the extreme right side of the penalty area. Vrsaljko headed the ball back into the centre, where it fell on Mandžukić’s head and bobbed up for Lovren and sat up for Vida and was diverted towards Perišić. After it’s convoluted journey Perišić was closed down quickly, and he immediately realised that a right-footed shot would be closed down by the quick-thinking N’Golo Kanté. Instead of attempting the shot, he just tapped it into space. With his left, he unleashed a shot towards the bottom corner, unstoppably driving it past Hugo Lloris with tremendous force. It took a slight deflection from Raphaël Varane, but it wasn’t as if Lloris would have saved it without his centre-back’s tiny intervention.

Croatia kept pushing, playing with admirable spirit and plenty of enterprise. Then the video assistant referee got involved, and the Croatians were dealt a blow from which they never recovered. The VAR hadn’t been much of a factor in the knockout stages, with few incidents being referred and few controversies arising as a result. Now, in the biggest game of them all, it decided to rear its head once more. Blaise Matuidi was the intended recipient of a corner swung in towards the near post, and although he couldn’t force his flick-on header past Perišić’s hand. France claimed the handball was illegal, Croatia argued that it was unavoidable. In the end, the French view was the one taken by referee Néstor Pitana, a penalty was awarded and Griezmann coolly retook the lead from the spot.

Croatia came agonisingly close to levelling on a few occasions as the half drew to a close, but they could never quite find the deft touch they needed to put their chances away. Everything they did looked threatening, but nothing they did quite managed to test Lloris and France continued to clear the ball away shakily before regrouping to rebuff Croatia’s next attack. The pattern began to repeat itself as the second half began, with Croatia asserting their control over proceedings and France seemingly struggling to keep up. They had the occasional counter-attack, but they mostly turned the ball over in their own half and resigned themselves to Croatia’s relentless onslaught.

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Kylian Mbappé (in blue) runs at the Croatian defence. Mbappé’s pace gave the Croatians plenty of issues, and he managed to cap off a great tournament with the match-sealing goal.

Then Paul Pogba stepped up. Pogba had been quiet in midfield, unable to exert his usual attacking influence and barely even receiving the ball as his midfield partner, N’Golo Kanté, had an unprecedented off day. Kanté, the running, intercepting machine holding France together, was even substituted, a sure sign that things were not right. With France under increasing pressure, Pogba finally conjured up a moment of brilliance which put them two ahead, scoring in the laconic style that can make him so enrapturing when his form is good and so infuriating when it is bad. He started the move, passing the ball from inside his own half and finding the pacey Mbappé in plenty of space. Mbappé ran himself into a corner and sought to pull the ball back for Griezmann, who received it and passed it backwards, to Pogba. Pogba had run a fair distance to regain possession on the edge of the box, and he looked to finish it off with a hard-hit shot. The first effort was solidly blocked, but Croatia weren’t so lucky when the curling follow-up (hit from the same spot with his “weaker” left foot) nestled itself in the back of the net.

After going two ahead, France seemed to flick a switch. Blaise Matuidi’s cross found Olivier Giroud in the centre, and the big striker attempted a bicycle kick across goal which nearly found Griezmann. Then Mbappé scored, and France could finally bask in the knowledge that the World Cup was theirs. The win was slightly tarnished a few minutes later, when Lloris had delusions of grandeur, tried to dribble past Mandžukić and allowed the striker to tackle the ball into the back of the net. Croatia didn’t recover, or even look like recovering, but the gaffe forced France to retreat back into their shell and make absolutely sure of their second World Cup triumph.

After the final whistle, the French players ran around the field joyously, waving their little French flags and embracing whichever teammate was in sight. Eventually, after the pomp and ceremony of the hurriedly set up stage and presentation, they got to hold their coveted prize. The rain had begun to set in, and the visiting dignitaries were quickly shielded by umbrellas, but the weather couldn’t dampen France’s celebrations as they lifted the trophy aloft and celebrated with pure, unadulterated joy. In quieter moments, they may reflect that Croatia controlled possession and territory, were the better side for much of the match and could have easily won the match. As the French revelled in their triumph such nuanced analysis of the match couldn’t have been further from their minds.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
France 4 (Mandžukić 19 og, Griezmann 38 pen, Pogba 59, Mbappé 65)
Croatia 2 (Perišić 28, Mandžukić 69)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté (N’Zonzi 55); Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 73); Giroud (Fekir 81).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pjaca 82); Rakitić, Brozović; Rebić (Kramarić 71), Modrić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

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Antoine Griezmann celebrates with the World Cup trophy after France’s win. Griezmann had a hand in three of France’s four goals in a strong attacking performance.

Top 5
1. Antoine Griezmann (France)
With a goal, an assist and an assist to an own goal (Mandžukić may have provided the deflection, but Griezmann did most of the work) Griezmann capped off his World Cup with a strong performance. He built into the game as it went on, and he had a big impact working into small pockets of space.
2. Ivan Perišić (Croatia)
Perišić was in good form from the start, displaying his usually brash run down the left wing and putting plenty of pressure on the French. After a brilliant semi-final effort, he backed it up with a stunning leveller and some very dangerous attacking play. He conceded an unlucky penalty, but that moment shouldn’t detract from a great effort.
3. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
With player of the tournament Modrić struggling to have his usual impact, Rakitić stepped up and began to replicate his captain’s exploits. With the occasional cross-field pass, the occasional through ball and the occasional nice-looking dribble Rakitić managed to create some of Croatia’s best chances, and he can hold his head high.
4. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé’s breakout tournament finished on a suitably high note, with the young gun scoring a goal and capping off his night by being named best young player of the World Cup (if there was any competition). His speed was on display, and he badgered the Croatian defence on a few occasions before he finally broke through.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba’s final looked set to be a disappointment on an individual level. Approaching the end of the first hour, he had been largely anonymous as France were besieged by the confident Croatians. Then he found a window of opportunity, and he exploited it with incredible poise and stunning skill. His goal firmly tilted the match back in France’s favour, and it allowed him to regain some of his touch.

2018 World Cup Final Preview – France vs Croatia

It all comes down to this. Just 90 minutes (or 120, if Croatia’s form holds) of football remains in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the tournament’s last match promises to be a thriller. On one side, France are looking to add to their 1998 triumph, and their consistency has ensured they go in as favourites. Then there’s Croatia. They have needed extra time to see off all of their knockout stage opponents, and they have overcome situations in which lesser sides would have wilted. Now, in pursuit of their first World Cup title, Croatia have a side with incredible resolve and plenty of talent, and they could easily knock off the dangerous French. Whatever the outcome, this one should provide plenty of excitement.

Form Guide

France
Group Stage
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Quarter-Finals
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Semi-Finals
France 1 (Umtiti 51), Belgium 0

Croatia
Group Stage
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen), Nigeria 0
Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Iceland 1 (G Sigurðsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Round of 16
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4), Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Semi-Finals
Croatia 2 (Perišić 68, Mandžukić 109), England 1 (Trippier 5) (a.e.t)

Game Plan

France have only made minor strategic adjustments over the course of this tournament, and Didier Deschamps isn’t the kind of coach to make wholesale changes before such a big match. The defence of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, centre-backs Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane and full-backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández has grown into this tournament, and France will rely on their continued solidity. In midfield, brash midfield enforcer Paul Pogba and unassuming defensive foil N’Golo Kanté complement each other perfectly, and the front three of Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé is sure to give Croatia’s defence plenty of problems.

Zlatko Dalić is not likely to change Croatia’s shape for the match, but he may have to make some changes in light of Croatia’s increasing injury toll. Left-back Ivan Strinić and semi-final hero Ivan Perišić have been added to the burgeoning injury list, but given Croatia’s record at this tournament (three players carried injuries into their semi-final) it seems likely that they will attempt to play through the pain. Croatia will attempt to control possession against the French, and they will be relying on star midfielders Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić to play the ball through the French defence. Either Marcelo Brozović or Andrej Kramarić will join the pair in the middle, with Brozović representing a more defensive option and Kramarić providing an extra attacker alongside Perišić, Ante Rebić and Mario Mandžukić. The identity of the third member of the midfield trio will give a clear indication of Croatia’s approach to the match.

Key Questions

1. Can Croatia survive another extra time?
Croatia’s players have shown remarkable mental and physical endurance on their way to the final, but three marathon matches in a row have taken their toll. With plenty of injuries and shorter turnarounds than their opponents, another extra time may just push them over the edge. The French are sure to be fresher, having won all their knockout matches in 90 minutes and having progressed with little fuss, and it will be up to Croatia’s leaders to ensure that they are able to hold on should the game go the distance. Of course, the same things were said about Croatia before their semi-final, so they can’t be written off.
2. Who will win the midfield?
The midfield battle may be the most crucial aspect of this game. France’s midfield is strong, with Kanté and Pogba complementing each other well and providing defensive solidity and attacking flair. For the first time in this tournament, however, they will clash with a midfield that is possibly their equal. Modrić and Rakitić are experienced campaigners, and if both of them fire there could be plenty of trouble for the French. Kanté may be jokingly renowned for his apparent ability to be in two places at once, but if the Croatian midfield is on song it may be too great a task for France’s holding midfielder. The team that claims the upper hand in midfield will go a long way to winning the game.
3. Can Croatia handle France’s pace?
England may have looked toothless for large periods of their semi-final clash with Croatia, but they did come close to exposing Croatia’s potential Achilles heel: their ability to handle quick attackers. On a few occasions Raheem Sterling threatened to break through, and it will be interesting to see whether the similarly rapid Mbappé gives Croatia similar problems. Mbappé demonstrated his ability to expose defences with a barnstorming performance against Argentina, and if he or Griezmann manage to find space on the break Croatia could find themselves in serious trouble.

Key Players

Kylian Mbappé seemingly has it all. He has an eye for goal, an incredible turn of speed and an exquisite first touch which belies his dynamism with the ball at his feet. He’s also only 19. Mbappé’s rare combination of speed, smarts and skill has made him the ideal counter-attacking weapon for the French at this tournament, and he will have a chance of seriously testing the Croatian defence with his many talents. If he can fire on the biggest stage of his budding career then he has the potential to take France to the trophy. He is France’s x-factor, and in conjunction with Griezmann he can really test Croatia out.

Luka Modrić is Croatia’s star, but Ivan Rakitić will be just as critical to Croatia’s fortunes. Rakitić was in brilliant form as the tournament began, but his form has waned in the knockouts and Croatia will need him to complement Modrić’s extraordinary vision if they are to break down a French defence which has already seen off some of the world’s most dynamic attacks. Rakitić can step up his game, and if he does Croatia will be very difficult to beat. Whether he will find that next level, however, is another question entirely.

Teams

France have no injury worries after their semi-final win over Belgium, and they are not likely to alter their starting line-up from that match. They are mostly in form, and the settled nature of their side makes them a dangerous opponent.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.

Strinić and Perišić are both in doubt, but Croatia have been able to get players over the line all tournament and it would be no surprise if those two were available. Of the pair, Strinić may be the least likely to play thanks to the dangers of playing a half-fit defender against Mbappé and the fact that Josip Pivarić provides a like-for-like replacement. The other question is whether Brozović or Kramarić will get to start. Brozović started against the English, but Dalić may decide a more attacking presence is necessary against France’s solid defence and it will be no surprise if Kramarić comes in.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Pivarić; Modrić, Rakitić; Rebić, Kramarić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Prediction

Both teams have plenty of big game experience and undeniable quality, and neither is likely to wilt under the pressure of a World Cup final. Croatia are likely to control the majority of possession, but France have been the more consistent side throughout and their favouritism in this final is well-deserved. Croatia have shown plenty of fight during the knockout stages, and they are a very good chance of causing an upset, but France’s all-round quality should be enough to get them over the line. France 2-1.

Belgium claim bronze in forgettable but decent affair

The unfortunate nature of third-placed play-offs is that their intrigue is based on things which are not relevant to the outcome of the tournament. Both sides are already eliminated when the clash takes place, and the nature of semi-final defeat means that they have often come from agonising losses. This particular third-placed play-off, between England and Belgium, didn’t look any different. England had a chance to avenge their group stage defeat to the Belgians, but they hadn’t looked too worried when they were losing and it hardly seemed likely that they had been waiting for their opportunity to exact revenge. In the end they didn’t get their revenge, and they didn’t seem to care too deeply. There was also the golden boot battle, although it hardly seemed likely that Romelu Lukaku would score the two goals needed to wrest the title of the tournament’s top scorer from slightly lucky English skipper Harry Kane. He didn’t score any.

Bizarrely, neither side took the field in their traditional colours, even though it was hard to see any clash between Belgium’s traditional red and England’s traditional white. Still, FIFA decided a kit clash existed, so Belgium wore yellow and England, oddly, wore red. Such bureaucratic matters didn’t seem to trouble Belgium, and it didn’t take them long to find the back of the net. Lukaku received the ball in the centre of the field, and one well-placed ball unlocked England’s defence and picked out Nacer Chadli. Chadli was streaming into space on the left, and his cross fell perfectly for Thomas Meunier in a dangerous position. Meunier’s incisive run allowed him to receive the ball on the edge of the six-yard box, and he had no trouble putting it past Jordan Pickford from such close range.

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Thomas Meunier (right) scores Belgium’s first goal past Jordan Pickford. The goal left England needing to chase the game, a task they didn’t apply themselves to until the last 20 minutes.

Then the game broke down a little, as neither team really threatened. Mainly, Belgium’s moves looked dangerous and then fell apart after attempts at telepathic passing which left a lot to be desired. The prime example of this was Kevin de Bruyne’s no-look backheel for Lukaku, which was delivered into a dangerous spot. It would have been a brilliant play, had the big striker not been positioned some five metres from where de Bruyne’s pass was aimed. One chance came when Lukaku’s pass somehow slipped through to de Bruyne, who seemed surprised to be receiving the ball, let off a half-hearted shot and nearly scored with the half-hearted shot as said shot was deflected dangerously. In defence, Vincent Kompany perfectly split the middle of Jan Vertonghen and Chadli, and everyone could only watch in disbelief and slight disinterest as the ball rolled out for a throw-in. In the middle of it all, Lukaku had a genuine chance one-on-one with Pickford, but he fluffed his lines with a heavy touch and the ball was claimed easily by the English goalkeeper.

As it progressed, the game developed into a collection of disjointed moments which didn’t really take a defined pattern. Belgium were mostly on top, but they never really broke past England’s five-man defence, and sometimes England looked decent too. Both teams gave the impression that the score didn’t really matter, and it was easy to forget that Belgium were ahead 1-0 as the teams went about their business. They weren’t exactly uncaring, and it wasn’t exactly poor quality, but it was easily forgettable football punctuated by the occasional moment of skill or the occasional attacking gaffe. Such gaffes were usually met with indifference, and such moments of skill inevitably came to nothing. There weren’t many chances, but those that did come often arrived with no warning, and were sometimes even accidents (like when Youri Tielemans miscued a shot and presented Toby Alderweireld with an unexpected chance to volley inside the box).

The start of the second half didn’t represent much of a deviation from the haphazard pattern of the first. Any chances, like Jesse Lingard’s dangerous ball across goal which missed Kane’s diving attempt at volleying it home, weren’t telegraphed, and both teams were about as sloppy as ever. Belgium took a particularly pointless corner as Eden Hazard rolled the ball to Dries Mertens, who attempted a cross. It was blocked by the man given the role of blocking the cross: and flew out for another corner. In short, a few seconds had been wasted, and absolutely nothing had been gained by either side. A few minutes later, both Kane and Kompany ended up on the ground after Kane attempted a volley and just fell on his backside. It wasn’t clear why Kompany was down, but there was little time to dwell on it as Belgium attempted a dangerous-looking counter-attack which fell through.

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Eric Dier (left) watches as club teammate Toby Alderweireld (centre) clears his chip off the goal line and out. Dier’s shot was the closest England came to getting an equaliser.

Suddenly (neither side was exerting enough pressure on the other to actually create anything that wasn’t sudden), England nearly scored. Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford combined beautifully to play Dier through, and the powerful midfielder managed to chip Thibaut Courtois. Unfortunately for him, Alderweireld reacted quicker than anyone, and he was already sliding in to clear the shot off the line. At that point, the momentum of the game turned. Belgium had been turning the ball over all game and suffering no consequences. Then England, 70 minutes in, finally started to look threatening after receiving errant passes, and the results were instantaneous. They had some dangerous set pieces and a few good chances, and they looked set to break through.

Counter-intuitively, England’s late offensive tipped the balance of the match firmly in Belgium’s favour. Space began to open up when they won the ball back, and they looked increasingly dangerous on the break. De Bruyne, Hazard and Mertens started to combine, and Meunier nearly nabbed a second when he slammed a volley to Pickford’s right and forced the English goalkeeper into an excellent save. Pickford’s face was a mix of exasperation and petulance as the ball moved back up the field. Eventually, one of Belgium’s counter-attacks broke through, killing off England’s hopes once and for all. De Bruyne provided the pass, splitting the defence open and picking out the run of Hazard, who gave Pickford no chance as he stroked the ball into the bottom corner.

After that, there was very little to play for, as Belgium commanded the rest of the game and continued to look the more dangerous side as the increasingly ragged-looking English stretched themselves further and further in pursuit of a goal that would never come. At one point Kompany surged forward from his home in the heart of defence, pushing into the box and hoping for a cross from Hazard. Hazard’s cross wasn’t great, and Kompany’s avaricious attempt to hunt a goal left him caught out of position. It didn’t matter too much, as England’s slow build-up allowed the veteran defender to sheepishly trot back into place. Belgium’s win was a nice way to finish their tournament, and the bronze medals they received are a nice trinket to mark a truly great generation of Belgian footballers. For England, who had nothing to lose and have a bright future ahead of them, the loss is unlikely to sting too badly. In the end, it didn’t really matter to anyone, but the game wasn’t too bad. That’s about as good as third-place play-offs get.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Belgium 2 (Meunier 4, E Hazard 82)
England 0
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Tielemans (Dembélé 78), Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 39); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Mertens 60), E Hazard.
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Jones, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Loftus-Cheek (Alli 84), Dier, Delph, Rose (Lingard 46); Sterling (Rashford 46), Kane.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after receiving their bronze medals. The medals will be a nice trinket for a great Belgian team, but they won’t make up for the disappointment of a semi-final defeat.

Top 5
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier wasn’t always as clinical as he could have been, but he looked fresher than anyone else thanks to the suspension that ruled him out of the semi-final and he had a massive impact on the game as a result. He found the scoresheet early, and he created plenty of opportunities for Belgium with his hard running.
2. John Stones (England)
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Stones was responsible for England’s semi-final defeat, but he was certainly responsible for Croatia’s winning goal. The third-place play-off gave him a chance to atone for his costly error, and he did so with a strong defensive performance. If something needed blocking, he was there, and he denied Belgium on a few occasions.
3. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne’s plans didn’t always come off, mostly because his teammates often failed to understand their role in them, but he had the ball in the final third more than any other Belgian and he was always dangerous. He was the only Belgian capable of breaking down England’s massed defence, and when he caught them on the break Belgium always threatened to score.
4. Eric Dier (England)
Dier played more of a back seat role throughout the tournament, and he seized his chance when he was drafted into the team for Jordan Henderson. He came into his own in the second half, bossing the midfield and using his physicality and skill to give Belgium some real problems.
5. Youri Tielemans (Belgium)
This game may mark the end of Belgium’s golden generation, with most of their starters set to be past their prime when Qatar 2022 rolls around. In Tielemans, however, the Belgians may have found someone who can become one of their key players in years to come. His influence waned in the second half, but Tielemans showed that Belgian football still has a bright future with a good effort.

Croatia seal historic extra time win over tamed Lions

After 124 minutes of end-to-end drama, one free-kick was all that stood between Croatia and a historic victory. Marcus Rashford, having come on as a late substitute, stood over the ball preparing to deliver the free-kick that had the potential to make or break England’s deep World Cup run buoyed by their youthful exuberance. Normally Kieran Trippier would have delivered the kick, but he was sitting on the bench having picked up an injury which reduced the substitute-less English to ten men in the dying moments. The ball went into the box, and Croatian centre-back Dejan Lovren rose to head the ball away. It was over, and Croatia’s bench rushed onto the field, making no effort to hide their euphoria.

It started well for England, who came into the game full of confidence after a dream run through the tournament. The Three Lions had the lead within five minutes, courtesy of a perfect free-kick. The chance was created when Dele Alli was brought down on the edge of the area, and Trippier had the chance to shoot from a dangerous position. He made no mistake, curling the ball over Croatia’s wall and burying it in the top corner. It was an emphatic finish despite the class and finesse required to place the ball with such precision, and Danijel Subašić couldn’t get near it.

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Kieran Trippier (left) curls in the opening goal from a free-kick. The goal came within five minutes of kick-off, and it got England off to an ideal start.

Croatia had come from behind in their previous two matches, but those games had a different feel. Against a confident English side, Croatia didn’t look like drawing level in the moments that followed the goal. Instead, they only looked like falling further behind. Croatia survived against the danger posed by England’s prowess at corners, but they were obviously troubled by Raheem Sterling’s pace and their attacking play was riddled with incautious errors. Eventually, they began to work into the match, with star playmaker Luka Modrić looking particularly dangerous, but they never quite got to the point of seriously testing Jordan Pickford in the English goal.

The game began to open up as both sides settled into the match. Somehow, England didn’t score again just before the half hour when they broke through the Croatian defence with a surgically precise passing move. The move left Harry Kane facing off with Subašić in a position from which England’s captain has scored plenty of goals. His shot was saved, and his follow-up effort was hit into the post from an acute angle before rebounding against Subašić’s knee and floating across the face of goal. Croatia barely survived.

At the other end, Modrić, Šime Vrsaljko and Ante Rebić combined to create problems for England, but Rebić’s cross from the right wing was deflected away and his follow-up shot was easily stopped by Jordan Pickford. A good sliding challenge from Ashley Young saved England moments later as Ivan Perišić’s ball managed to slip past the English back three. Rebić was in position to capitalise, but the English wing-back just diverted the ball away and the corner was harmlessly dealt with. A few minutes later, Alli won the ball on the edge of the box, drew the defence in by standing completely still and gave Jesse Lingard a chance to shoot. He missed.

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Ivan Perišić wheels away in celebration as England’s defence try to make sense of Croatia’s opening goal. The equaliser allowed Croatia to get back into their game, and it drove them to deliver some of their best football of the tournament.

Croatia had some more chances as the half wound down, and Dejan Lovren’s clash with Harry Maguire in the box could have led to a penalty on the stroke of half time, but Croatia didn’t really seem like scoring. They had more of the ball in the early stages of the second half, but the spark was missing from their play. Passes were misplaced, and their most promising moves broke down in the decisive moments. They needed some kind of cutting edge against an English side that was looking increasingly comfortable. They needed a hero.

They got one. It wasn’t Modrić, or main striker Mario Mandžukić, or key midfielder Ivan Rakitić. It was Perišić. Vrsaljko provided the cross, receiving the ball in space and whipping it in towards the back post. The dynamic winger did the rest. Perišić timed his run to perfection, slipping past Trippier and approaching the unsuspecting Kyle Walker from behind. Walker dived forwards in an attempt to clear the ball, oblivious to the presence of a dangerous attacker behind him. The only indication of Perišić’s presence he received came when a leg was wrapped around him and the ball was raked into the back of the net. Croatia celebrated wildly, but Perišić wasn’t done just yet.

Soon after, he nearly shed tears of exasperation after missing a golden opportunity to hand Croatia the lead. Perišić pounced as Pickford and his defenders confusedly cleared a long ball, and he found the space to run into the box and fire off an unstoppable shot as Pickford scrambled back into position. Unfortunately for Croatia, the shot hit the post and bounced out, and England managed to survive. Perišić didn’t relent, however, and soon Croatia’s play had gone to another level. Modrić had been good, but suddenly he was calling the shots and making England’s midfield look completely inadequate. Rebić and Mandžukić were providing support, and the team was suddenly working like the well-oiled machine they had been in the tournament’s early stages. England had chances, but they weren’t looking like scoring.

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Mario Mandžukić (centre) gives Croatia the lead in the second half of extra time with a nice finish. It was the most important goal ever scored in Croatia’s footballing history, and it allowed them to reach the final for the first time.

Both sides sparred in the final stages of normal time, but neither could quite find the opening they needed to settle the match in their favour. For the third match in succession, Croatia were going to extra time, and a third consecutive penalty shootout was on the cards. The English started the extra period brightly, and they looked to have scored when John Stones’ header beat Subašić. Vrsaljko acted quickly to clear the ball off the line, and Croatia began to push in the other direction. Perišić bobbed up again to feed Mandžukić’s dangerous run as the first half of extra time drew to a close, drawing Pickford into a brilliant close range save. It was a sign of things to come.

Perišić found Mandžukić again a few minutes after play resumed for the last time, and the consequences were devastating. Josip Pivarić’s cross into the box was cleared by Walker, but he was only able to parry it to the edge of the area. Perišić and Trippier awaited the ball’s arrival, and Perišić’s height won out as he rose above the diminutive wing-back and headed the ball into the open space around the six-yard box. None of this would have been too harmful had it not been for Stones. The centre-back was caught napping by Mandžukić, and his belated response was not going to atone for his catastrophic loss of concentration while at the wheel. Croatia’s frontman slammed the ball past Pickford’s dive, and Croatia were through. Photographers were kissed as a huge and joyous scrum formed, and Croatia had one foot in the final.

They managed to hold on. The Croatians professionally ran down the clock, even managing to mount some dangerous counter-attacks as Trippier’s injury left England a man down and dangerously exposed. Rashford’s free-kick was the last roll of the dice, and England’s hopes were extinguished as the attack was snuffed out emphatically. England are still young, and they may well push for the title again four years from now, but four years is a long time. They may not get a better chance to lift the trophy that has proved so elusive in the last 50 years. For Croatia, a date with France, their semi-final opponents in 1998, awaits. They have already eclipsed the famous team of 20 years ago, and the final will give them another chance to make history. They have the players to do it.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Croatia 2 (Perišić 68, Mandžukić 109)
England 1 (Trippier 5) (a.e.t)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 95); Rakitić, Brozović; Rebić (Kramarić 101), Modrić (Badelj 119), Perišić; Mandžukić (Ćorluka 115).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker (Vardy 112), Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli, Henderson (Dier 97), Lingard, Young (Rose 91); Sterling (Rashford 74), Kane.

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Ivan Perišić reacts after the final whistle. Perišić stood up with the game on the line, scoring and providing an assist in Croatia’s historic victory.

Top 5
1. Ivan Perišić (Croatia)
When Croatia needed someone to break the game open, Perišić stepped up. His smart positioning allowed him to capitalise on Vrsaljko’s dangerous ball into the box, and he continued to break the English defence open with a series of dangerous runs and incisive passes. is HHis assist for Mandžukić’s extra time winner was a fitting way to cap off a devastating performance.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Perišić was the cutting edge that finally allowed Croatia to realise their potential and beat the English, but Modrić was the man pulling the strings. Croatia’s captain showed his experience with a masterful midfield display which put England on the back foot and allowed Croatia’s talent to shine through.
3. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s brilliant individual tournament ended rather unsatisfactorily, with the wing-back sitting on the bench as his team slumped to a heartbreaking defeat. He was, however, the man who put them in the box seat with a brilliant free-kick, and his performance was a good one until it was cruelly curtailed.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
England had looked solid in their previous matches, but Mandžukić highlighted their lack of defensive experience with some wily runs and clever forward play. His winning goal will go down in Croatian footballing history, and it capped off a great performance in which he used his skills to good effect and combined perfectly with his attacking teammates.
5. Šime Vrsaljko (Croatia)
Vrsaljko wasn’t expected to feature in the semi-final after injuring himself during Croatia’s quarter-final clash with Russia, but he managed to get up for the game and he showed that he is an important part of Croatia’s success. He assisted the first goal, and he managed to push up the field and joining to the attack while making some key defensive contributions.

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final Preview – Croatia vs England

Croatia vs England

Form Guide

Croatia
Group Stage
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen), Nigeria 0
Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Iceland 1 (Sigurðsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Round of 16
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4), Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)

England
Group Stage
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen), England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
England 6 (Stones 8, 40, Kane 22 pen, 45+1 pen, 62, Lingard 36), Panama 1 (Baloy 78)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Colombia 1 (Mina 90+3), England 1 (Kane 57 pen) (a.e.t, England won 4-3 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Sweden 0, England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)

Game Plan

Croatia have kept the same system in all of their games, and although they have some injury concerns Zlatko Dalić is unlikely to change his 4-2-3-1 formation. With the team unlikely to change too much ahead of Croatia’s biggest game for 20 years, Dalić can focus on getting the best out of his players, who haven’t quite found their rhythm in two long and tiring penalty shootout victories. They have fought very hard, and there were positive signs in their win over Russia. Luka Modrić looked good in a deep midfield role, and Croatia’s front four of Ivan Perišić, Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić and Andrej Kramarić is very dangerous. Dalić’s biggest concern going in will be injuries to his defence, and Croatia may look to dominate possession to keep England out of the game. They have the talent, and if their high-level European players stand up they will have a very good chance of victory.

Like their opponents, the English haven’t made any changes to their system throughout the tournament. Gareth Southgate’s side is full of confidence, and their approach is based on pace and physicality. Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard are England’s key threats in open play, and both will look to slip in behind the Croatian defence. Then there’s England’s second, and more potent, threat: set pieces. Kieran Trippier has been brilliant, and his delivery (as well as Ashley Young’s) has been dangerous all tournament. Harry Maguire, John Stones and Harry Kane are rarely beaten in the air, and most of England’s goals at this tournament have come from corners, free-kicks or penalties derived from corners or free-kicks. Kane has profited from the penalty situation, and although England’s captain leads all scorers at this tournament he is yet to find his best form. If he can do that, England will be tough to beat. With a solid three-man defence of Kyle Walker, Stones and Maguire and a talented midfield of Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli, the English are a well-rounded side who can do some damage.

Key Questions

1. Who will feature in the Croatian defence?
Croatia’s gutsy quarter-final victory over Russia could have come at a heavy cost. Šime Vrsaljko is unlikely to take his place in the team, and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić is also doubtful after playing through a hamstring injury and saving a penalty in the shootout. With Dejan Lovren coming in under an injury cloud, there’s a chance that Croatia could go into the match with three significant defensive changes. Against a dangerous English attack with the all-round quality of Kane and the pace of Sterling and Lingard, this defensive upheaval could cost Croatia their place in the competition.
2. Can England go all the way?
The obvious answer to this question is yes. In the final four, and with a good chance of eliminating the Croatians, the English have the ability to win this tournament. Despite their success, however, it remains unclear how well they’ve played. Much of the support for the theory that England can win it all comes from the fact that they ended up in the softer side of the draw, avoiding powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France and Belgium. The flip side of this, however, is that the English are yet to prove themselves against top-level opposition. They did play Belgium in the group stage, but it’s worth noting that neither side was at full strength (and England’s reserves lost in a very dull match). In the knockouts, they played a Colombian side who made themselves too angry to play with any fluency and a Swedish team that, while disciplined, didn’t provide too much of a test. Croatia are different. They’re spirited, and very dangerous, and this game will give a good indication of whether England have the quality to beat the French should they go through.
3. Will fatigue be a factor?
Croatia and England couldn’t have had more different quarter-final wins. While England swept Sweden aside with contemptuous ease, Croatia battled hard and eventually eliminated Russia in a 120-minute slugfest and penalty shootout. Croatia come into this match off two shootout wins, and aside from the injury toll of their win over Russia they are not likely to be as mentally fresh as their opponents. It’s worth noting that England did go through a shootout of their own against Colombia, but it’s likely that they will have recovered from that difficult game and their preparation for this match will have been helped by their comfortable quarter-final victory. If Croatia can’t recover physically or mentally victory will be very difficult to achieve.

Key Players

Luka Modrić has been central to Croatia’s hopes since his international debut in 2006, and he is still at the centre of their success 12 years on. He dictates the tempo of the game, he rarely makes a mistake and he is capable of playing a killer ball which can unlock a defence in a second. Complemented by the brilliance of Ivan Rakitić and the work of his dangerous attack, Modrić is the man England need to stop if they are going to progress to their first World Cup decider since 1966. The midfield is shaping as a key battleground, and if Modrić can take control in the centre then Croatia will go a long way to winning this match.

Raheem Sterling has all the weapons. He’s quick, he has good skills and he can threaten in wide areas and in the centre. He should be the kind of player who can breach any defence. Somehow, he can’t. Despite his best efforts, he hasn’t been able to add to his meagre tally of two international goals at this tournament, and he will be desperate to change that against Croatia. He has found himself in so many brilliant positions that his place is not under threat, and a goal in the semi-final could make all the questions about his performance for England go away.

Teams

Croatia’s front six is likely stay the same, with Kramarić excelling in the quarter-final after replacing Marcelo Brozović and the rest of the attack performing well. The defence, however, is a different question. Vrsaljko seems unlikely to start, and Domagoj Vida is likely to shift to the right of defence with Vedran Ćorluka set to take his place. Lovren should start, although should he fail to make it Duje Ćaleta-Car would come in to partner Ćorluka in central defence. The other question surrounds Subašić, who is in more serious doubt than Lovren. If the goalkeeper doesn’t start then Lovre Kalinić would be the most likely replacement, although Subašić’s form means that Dalić will be very unlikely to make a change unless the injury is very serious.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vida, Lovren, Ćorluka, Strinić; Modrić, Rakitić; Rebić, Kramarić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Unlike their opponents, England have few selection worries. It would be surprising if Southgate was to tweak his side given his players’ performance against Sweden and the efficiency of his 3-5-2 formation throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson, Alli, Young; Kane, Sterling.

Prediction

This game could be a very even contest, and the possibility of extra time and penalties is a very real one. Both sides have quality, and although Croatia are probably the more talented side they may struggle due to the settled nature of England’s team and the fatigue of two long and arduous knockout games. The deeper the game goes the better England’s chances will be due to their greater physical and mental freshness, but Croatia’s resolve to reach this point shouldn’t be underestimated and they are a very good chance of winning. England 2-1 (a.e.t).

France hold firm to keep Belgium at bay

In the dying moments of Belgium’s highly-anticipated semi-final clash with France, French midfield enforcer Paul Pogba stood in the corner. The French were seeking to rule out a Belgian comeback, and Pogba was straddling the ball with a number of Belgians attempting to shove him out of the way so they could force the ball upfield. They never got the chance. Eventually, Pogba committed a foul. A few seconds later, the final whistle blew. France were in the World Cup final. In the end, it was a rather anticlimactic finish, with Belgium never really testing France after going behind. A well-taken corner and a simple header was the foundation on which a simple win was built.

France went on the front foot from the first blast of Andrés Cunha’s whistle, with Kylian Mbappé attempting an enterprising run down the right wing just seconds after kick-off. It was Belgium, however, who seized the early initiative. The Belgians took control of possession and territory, with France happy to sit back and absorb the pressure. Eventually, chances began to arrive. Eden Hazard had a couple of dangerous shots, one of which was just deflected over the bar by Raphaël Varane’s header. A Belgian corner fell for Toby Alderweireld, who tested Hugo Lloris by wheeling around onto his left foot and sending a one-time shot fizzing towards goal, but the French keeper’s diving save prevented him from finding the back of the net. Belgium were starting to ramp up the pressure and France needed to respond.

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Samuel Umtiti celebrates after scoring France’s first goal from a well-delivered corner. Belgium weren’t able to recover the deficit as France held on for a 1-0 win.

They did. The French started to find their touch on the break as the match went on, and Olivier Giroud had a series of particularly dangerous chances. Giroud’s frustration, borne from not scoring in the tournament despite his key role as France’s central striker, only increased as chances were missed and the scores stayed level. As the half drew to a close, French right-back Benjamin Pavard combined with Mbappé and forced Thibaut Courtois into a tough save, but it was France’s hulking frontman who had the lion’s share of the chances. It was still scoreless at half-time, but it seemed inevitable that someone would find the back of the net in the second half. It was the French who broke through.

A few minutes after half time, France won a corner, which allowed Antoine Griezmann to whip the ball into the box. He drove his corner close to goal, where two teammates were waiting. Pogba didn’t get a touch on it. Samuel Umtiti did. The French centre-back managed to beat Marouane Fellaini in the air, and his glancing, close-range header was impossible for Courtois to stop. Shortly after Umtiti’s header, the French threatened again, finding space thanks to Mbappé and manufacturing a series of opportunities. Mbappé’s ball for Blaise Matuidi allowed Matuidi to shoot from the edge of the box, and when Belgium failed to adequately clear the blocked shot France threatened again. Mbappé’s backheel for Giroud gave the big striker some space, but his luck was out and his shot was desperately blocked.

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Hugo Lloris (left) flies to punch the ball away from Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini was Belgium’s main target for their crosses, but France did well to ensure that he, and striker Romelu Lukaku, weren’t able to impact the match.

A couple of crosses into the box provided Belgium’s best chances for redemption. Kevin de Bruyne managed to hit his volley goalward from just inside the box, but his side-footed shot was poorly hit and Lloris gathered it comfortably. Lloris wasn’t quite so comfortable a few minutes later as he dived in an attempt to stop Fellaini’s header, but the header missed and the deficit remained. Crosses had soon become Belgium’s primary mode of attack, with Dries Mertens, de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld all whipping the ball into the box but not finding enough targets in the middle to really trouble the French defence. Most of the time, Paul Pogba, Umtiti or Varane managed to head them away.

When a couple of de Bruyne’s crosses caused a bit of chaos in the French box, it looked like the game was building to an exciting climax. It wasn’t. Belgium’s chances began to dry up, their frustrations mounted and France killed the game easily despite six minutes of additional time being allocated. They barely even had to defend, as space began to open up for them on the break and they began to target the Belgian defence with their dangerous counter-attacks. In the last few minutes, Courtois was forced into a couple of diving saves to keep France from doubling their lead. At the other end of the pitch, Lloris was a virtual spectator as Belgium’s golden generation couldn’t put it together. They came from 2-0 down against Japan, and they upset Brazil, but they couldn’t get past the final hurdle as France battle on. They weren’t spectacular, but 1-0 was enough. Didier Deschamps’ men know how to win, and now they’re in the final.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
France 1 (Umtiti 51)
Belgium 0
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 86); Giroud (N’Zonzi 85).
Belgium (3-5-2): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Chadli (Batshuayi 90+1), Dembélé (Mertens 60), Witsel, Fellaini (Carrasco 80), de Bruyne; Lukaku, E Hazard.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played a big role in the latter stages, when Belgium were attempting their aerial bombardment of the French goal. He made sure he was in the box for every cross, and he was always able to head the ball clear and keep his side’s lead safe. Combined with his usual brilliance in midfield, it made for a good performance.
2. Raphaël Varane (France)
His defensive partner may have scored the goal, but Varane was the man underpinning France’s solidity. He and Umtiti complemented each other well, and Varane did some good defensive work at key moments in the game to keep Belgium at bay. He defended Romelu Lukaku brilliantly, and made it look easy at the same time.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Umtiti seemed to find one of the few sure-fire ways of beating Courtois: slam it in from close range. Short of that, beating the Belgian keeper seems nearly impossible. France didn’t test him too much, but he was always in position to make the saves he needed to and he threw in some very high-quality stops to keep the deficit at one goal.
4. Hugo Lloris (France)
Like Courtois, Lloris didn’t have too much work to do despite Belgium’s control of the ball, but the French captain did it well and made sure that, on the rare occasion his defence was breached, he was around to make the save. His form, like that of his side, has been steadily improving and his strong performance will give him confidence for the final.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
Alderweireld was one of Belgium’s main ball carriers thanks to France’s solid defensive structure, and the centre-back managed to do more than most of his teammates. He provided their best chance of the game with a very tough but well-hit first-time shot and he was reliable when called upon to defend.

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final Preview – France vs Belgium

After 60 matches, 157 goals and plenty of excitement, only four teams remain in the battle for global football’s most coveted trophy. Many of the World Cup’s pre-tournament favourites have bowed out, and the final four consists of Belgium and Croatia (both of whom have never won the trophy) and England, who won in 1966 but haven’t looked like doing so again in the intervening years. Rounding out the quartet are the French, who are the only main pre-tournament favourite to make it this far but are no certainty to lift the trophy against some very dangerous opposition. The two semi-finals are very open, and there are certainly no guarantees as to who will be victorious when all is said and done. With two thrilling semi-finals contests to look forward to, and some brilliant players on display, the rest of this tournament won’t be short on excitement. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out, starting with the high-stakes clash between France and Belgium.

France vs Belgium

Form Guide

France
Group Stage
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Quarter-Finals
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)

Belgium
Group Stage
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75), Panama 0
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90), Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4), Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Quarter-Finals
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76), Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)

Game Plan

France have built into the tournament well, improving with every game and looking very well-drilled in a comfortable 2-0 win over Uruguay. Belgium are sure to present a sterner test, and it will be interesting to see how Didier Deschamps approaches the game. Under their former captain, France have displayed a tendency to sit back and hit their opposition on the break, a strategy which gives Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé the space to catch defenders out with their speed, smarts and skill. Holding it all together is main striker Olivier Giroud, who is yet to score a goal at this tournament but allows others to thrive by holding the ball up in attack and allowing his teammates to drift into dangerous positions. France’s key strength lies in midfield, where N’Golo Kanté provides a tireless screen for the defence and Paul Pogba combines an imposing physique with incredible skills. They are starting to work together well, and they will be hard to beat.

With Romelu Lukaku leading the line, and receiving brilliant service from Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, it’s not surprising that Belgium like to attack. In their first few matches they played a three-man defence and largely controlled the game, relying on their talent to break their opponents down. Then they came up against Brazil, after an unconvincing come-from-behind win over Japan. They weren’t expected to go through, but a switch to a more conventional four man defence paid dividends and the impact of de Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku on the break was enough to put two goals past Brazil. A suspension to Thomas Meunier, the only genuine right-back in the squad, means that changes will have to be made, and it will be interesting to see if Roberto Martínez reverts to his earlier approach against a French team that could be more potent than the Brazilians. The bare bones of the side are likely to remain the same, but the identity of Meunier’s replacement will dictate Martínez’s approach to the match.

Key Questions

1. Who will replace Thomas Meunier?
Belgium don’t have another proper right-back in their squad, so whoever comes in for the in-form Meunier will be a makeshift solution. Nacer Chadli’s versatility means he can deputise, but that will create a hole in the midfield trio (which Chadli was a part of). Either way, Chadli is not a natural right-back, and playing him in an unfamiliar position could cause big problems. Thomas Vermaelen could come into the side, and his selection would likely mean a reversion to a back three (this time with centre-back Jan Vertonghen in a more attacking and not necessarily natural role). The suspension of the only player in Belgium’s side without a natural replacement is sure to cause plenty of headaches for Martínez, and Meunier’s form means his absence will have ramifications.
2. Will either side take the game on?
Pre-tournament, the answer to this question would be a definite yes. France tend to invite their opponents to come at them, and Belgium’s strategy was defined by their attacking prowess and ability to exert pressure on their opponents. Then Belgium completely flipped their strategy to beat the Brazilians, and it worked wonders. As a result, Martínez will be very tempted to take a similar approach against France, based on a solid defence, a more powerful midfield (de Bruyne was moved forward against Brazil, allowing the more defensive-minded Marouane Fellaini to take his place) and a potent counter-attacking threat. If France decide to sit back as well, this game could become a defensive battle despite the attacking talent on display. It will be interesting to see which team looks to take control of possession and territory, or if neither is prepared to open themselves up to the other’s counter-attack.
3. Can France keep the Belgians out?
They may have beaten South American powerhouses Argentina and Uruguay on the way here, but France’s defence hasn’t yet come up against a top-quality attack. Argentina were off colour all tournament, and their three goals against the French belied their inability to really trouble Hugo Lloris’ goalHiHu, with said goals coming from a brilliant strike, a fortuitous deflection and an injury time header. Uruguay were missing Edinson Cavani, and without their star striker their attacking play fell apart. In Belgium, France will face an in-form attack with plenty of goals in them, and their largely untroubled defence will be in for a tough examination. If they can’t hold up, their hopes of lifting the World Cup will almost certainly fall by the wayside.

Key Players

N’Golo Kanté’s job description isn’t particularly spectacular: he runs around in midfield, attempts to win the ball, and passes it to an open player, then repeats the cycle for 90 minutes. It may sound simple, but it’s this hard work in midfield that holds the French together. Kanté can run all day while performing his key role, and his anticipation means that he keeps appearing wherever the ball is. His ability to continually pick off passes means that most of France’s opponents struggle to get past him, with their most dangerous attacks cut off before they can even reach the final third, and he also allows Pogba to thrive. France will be relying on him to perform at his best against Belgium, and such is his consistency that he probably will.

Kevin de Bruyne’s start to the tournament was underwhelming. Placed in the centre of midfield to accommodate the undeniable quality of Hazard, Lukaku and Dries Mertens, he was unable to have his usual impact on games and he struggled to show his unique attacking gifts. Then he got a chance in a more advanced role against Brazil, and he was brilliant. He brings other players into the action, and he caused massive issues for Brazil’s previously solid defence when he found space. He can play incredible passes, and his combination with Hazard will be a major concern for Deschamps.

Teams

Blaise Matuidi has returned from suspension, and he is likely to come back into the side with Corentin Tolisso making way. Otherwise, the French aren’t likely to make any changes to the team that beat Uruguay, sticking with the line-up that has served them so well throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.

Meunier won’t play, and his enforced absence is likely to be Belgium’s only change. The main options to replace him are Youri Tielemans, who can play in the middle, or Vermaelen, whose inclusion may herald a return to a back three. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld could also move to right-back, but such a move would leave Belgium’s two defensive mainstays, Alderweireld and Vertonghen, playing out of position. The 4-3-3 was so effective against Brazil that Martínez may keep it going despite Meunier’s absence.
Possible Team (4-3-3): Courtois – Chadli, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Tielemans; Lukaku, de Bruyne, E Hazard.

Prediction

This game is very hard to call, but the pace and dynamism of both attacks means that the team who scores first is likely to come away with the win, and could easily win by a big margin. Both teams have plenty of goals in them, and a free-flowing classic is a definite possibility. The French look like the favourites thanks to slightly more consistent performances and the massive loss of Meunier, but Belgium’s quality should not be underestimated and they will come ready to fight. This one could be a classic. France 3-1.

One-legged Subašić breaks Russian hearts

It all came down to one kick. Ivan Rakitić was attempting to put his penalty into the back of the net to send Croatia into the World Cup’s last four. Igor Akinfeev was the man tasked with barring his way and keeping Russia’s World Cup dreams alive. On the halfway line, Croatia’s players were waiting, preparing to burst into celebration but not willing to move in case Rakitić failed to convert. Next to them, Russia’s players watched helplessly, knowing that their World Cup could be over any second. On the sideline, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić sat alone, not even daring to watch Rakitić’s kick. In the stands, the parochial Russian crowd watched and prayed. Rakitić slotted the penalty, and the host nation’s luck finally ran out. Croatia were ecstatic, Russia heartbroken.

In the end, it was Danijel Subašić who made the difference with a heroic performance. Subašić had been the hero in Croatia’s round of 16 penalty shootout win, saving three penalties and ensuring a talented Croatian team’s progress to the last eight. Like the round of 16 clash with Denmark, his night started pretty uneventfully, with Russia generally sitting back and not giving him too much work to do.

Russia settled into the match quicker than their opponents, but they didn’t create any real chances and Croatia quickly retook the ascendency after overcoming their early nerves. Once they had control, they found it easy enough to keep it. On the right wing, Ante Rebić was causing problems with his size and pace, and right-back Šime Vrsaljko was also looking threatening when he forayed into the attacking third. Mario Mandžukić was looking threatening as crosses came to him inside the box, and Luka Modrić was pulling the strings from deep in midfield. Russia half-threatened on a couple of counter-attacks, but Croatia were dictating the tempo of the game. Then the hosts scored.

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Denis Cheryshev (centre) scores Russia’s opening goal from outside the box. Cheryshev’s strike was unstoppable, and it put Croatia under pressure.

It came from one moment of breathtaking individual brilliance. There hadn’t been too many chances in the preceding minutes, with the action slowing and the game settling into something of a lull. Then Denis Cheryshev received the ball just inside his attacking half. Through congestion, he controlled the ball and laid it off to giant striker Artem Dzyuba. Dzyuba managed to lay off a return pass, but Cheryshev was still a long way away. Modrić slid, but he couldn’t stop Cheryshev’s first touch from sending the dynamic winger into space. Domagoj Vida attempted to block Cheryshev’s path, but he couldn’t stop Russia’s in-form attacker from lashing a shot towards goal. Subašić was on the scene, but the Croatian goalkeeper was unable to intervene as the ball curved into the back of the net. The spectacular strike sent the home crowd into raptures, and it gave Russia’s confidence a massive boost. Suddenly, Croatia needed to respond. A few minutes later, respond they did.

Croatia found some space, and they scored. It was that simple. Mario Mandžukić found himself in behind the Russian defence thanks to a clever pass from Ivan Perišić, and he charged into the box facing little resistance. Eventually Ilya Kutepov came to meet him, but the damage was already done as Mandžukić’s cross found Andrej Kramarić in the centre. The Russian defence was too stretched to stop him as he headed the ball into the bottom corner. It was a simple, well-executed goal, and it put Croatia back on level terms.

Croatia continued to attack as the second half began, and they put Russia under pressure with a few attempts. Kramarić was particularly lively as he aimed to add to his earlier goal, finding the ball inside the box and at one point he unleashed a bicycle kick. There was chaos in the box when Kramarić athletically pulled a wayward ball into the box back into a dangerous spot, and Perišić received the ball in space. He wasn’t far out, and his shot looked destined for the back of the net even when it hit the inside of the post. It bounced out and rolled across goal, and Russia breathed a big sigh of relief.

After Perišić’s very near miss, the chances dried up. Croatia were still the better side, but they couldn’t breach the Russian defence and didn’t really threaten. Occasionally the ball pinballed around the Russian penalty area, but Croatia never got a clear chance out of it. Then, with only a few minutes of normal time remaining, Subašić became the centre of attention.

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Domagoj Vida (right) is tackled by Dejan Lovren after putting Croatia ahead in the 101st minute. Vida was booked for removing his shirt, but he didn’t seem too concerned by the caution.

His night hadn’t been particularly busy, with Russia never really forcing him into too much action. Then he raced to prevent a deflected cross from running out for a corner, and the game changed dramatically. Subašić got there, prevented the ball from going out, and then slapped the ground in pain. He seemed to have injured his hamstring, and as he lay on the ground receiving treatment it seemed as if his night was over. Unfortunately for Croatia, all their substitutions were used. Subašić couldn’t come off, and they needed to carry him through until extra time, when the option of a fourth change would materialise.

Croatia protected him well during injury time. They mostly kept the ball, with the only nervous moment coming when Fyodor Smolov decided to test the goalkeeper out from an acute angle. He was in position, and he made the save. When extra time came around, Subašić received extra attention, but it seemed likely that he would be substituted. Dominik Livaković had been warming up, and he seemed likely to fill the void in the final 30 minutes of the match.

Livaković never appeared. Instead, Subašić battled on, going out for extra time with the rest of his team. The last substitution was made shortly after extra time began, when Vrsaljko pulled up awkwardly and required a replacement. Subašić was on his own. Russia looked the more dangerous team, especially when Dejan Lovren inadvertently played Smolov through. Lovren recovered well, but the warning was clear. Then Croatia scored, and seemingly sealed the deal.

The goal originated from a well-delivered corner. Modrić’s delivery eluded Mandžukić and Sergei Ignashevich as they launched themselves at the ball, and Vida was waiting unmarked behind them. The Croatian centre-back (who became a makeshift right-back after Vrsaljko’s injury) headed it goalward. It wasn’t a brilliant header, or unstoppable by any means. Somehow, it evaded the defenders who were standing in its path, and Akinfeev stood rooted to the spot as it slowly trickled into the back of the net. Vida celebrated with understandable excitement, as a pile of Croatian players formed near the corner flag. Meanwhile, referee Sandro Ricci waited awkwardly on the edge of the celebratory scrum, waiting for the pack to dissipate so that Vida could be booked for removing his shirt. He didn’t care too much about the yellow.

Russia didn’t give up, and they kept fighting for the equaliser. At that point Subašić came into his own. He was still operating on one leg, and he was severely compromised, but he continued to throw himself around to deny the Russians. As the first period of extra time came to a close, he was brought to ground after jumping into a pack to catch a free-kick. He looked to have done further damage, but he had to continue anyway. In the second period, the intensity ramped up. Subašić punched a corner away, but Daler Kuzyayev found the rebound and somehow found himself thwarted by the Croatian goalkeeper’s follow-up save. Subašić threw himself at Smolov’s cross to bat it away. Then, after pushing for some time, Russia beat the wounded goalkeeper.

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Croatian players celebrate after their victory in the penalty shootout. It was their second win on penalties in two games, making them the second team to win consecutive World Cup shootouts and booking their first semi-final since 1998.

It started with Josip Pivarić, whose bone-headed handball on the edge of the box gave Russia a free-kick in a very dangerous position. The kick was well delivered by Alan Dzagoev, who was making his first appearance since his injury in the opening game of the tournament, and Mário Fernandes was in a perfect position to get his head on it. He diverted the header into the bottom corner, leaving Subašić with no chance of making the stop. The Croatian keeper was forced into one more save late in extra time, keeping the scores level with a diving stop despite his injury, but Russia couldn’t get the goal to go ahead. After 120 gripping, drama-filled minutes, the two teams would have to be split on penalties.

Russia seemed to hold all the cards. Kicking first, Smolov stepped up to the spot to face Subašić. Seemingly compensating for his injury, the goalkeeper bounced around on the goal line energetically as Smolov approached the ball. It’s hard to say how much of an impact the hopping on the spot had, but Subašić made the save, throwing himself the right way and contemptuously batting away Smolov’s ill-advised attempt to chip him. Marcelo Brozović scored, and Croatia were ahead. Then, after Dzagoev put his penalty away, Akinfeev levelled it up for Russia. He dived the right way, and Mateo Kovačić’s penalty was denied. The teams were back on level terms, and it wasn’t clear which goalkeeper could repeat the feat.

Subašić didn’t have to. Fernandes stepped up with the scores level, and missed the target altogether. Suddenly, Croatia had the advantage once more, even though Subašić didn’t move a muscle. Then, Akinfeev saved Modrić’s penalty. Or so all involved thought. Akinfeev guessed right, and got a solid enough hand on the ball to divert it into the post. It should have bounced out. To all intents and purposes, it seemed to have bounced out. Then it appeared in the back of the net, on the other side of the goal. Modrić had scored – just. Ignashevich scored, but it didn’t really matter. Russia needed a save for any of their goals to mean a thing. Akinfeev couldn’t save Vida’s penalty. Subašić couldn’t stop Kuzyayev’s either, leaving Rakitić with the unenviable task of taking the high-pressure kick. It was the second such penalty he had taken at this tournament, and he did it with aplomb. They did it tough, but Croatia went through. That’s all they can ask for.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115)
Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov; Zobnin, Kuzyayev; Samedov (Yerokhin 54), Golovin (Dzagoev 102), Cheryshev (Smolov 67); Dzyuba (Gazinsky 79).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 74); Rakitić, Modrić; Rebić, Kramarić (Kovačić 88), Perišić (Brozović 63); Mandžukić.

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Danijel Subašić and Ivan Rakitić celebrate after Rakitić’s winning penalty. Subašić battled through a painful injury to play out the match and save a penalty in the shootout.

Top 5
1. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić’s game looked over when he started slapping the ground and clutching his hamstring. Instead, his best moments were only just beginning. He battled through extra time, making a number of good saves in the process, and his heroics in the shootout once again saw Croatia claim victory. He will be a big loss if he’s unavailable for the semi-final.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić wasn’t at his best against Denmark, but he proved that he doesn’t play consecutive bad games (or bad games at all, all things considered) with a brilliant performance. He worked hard and played plenty of incisive passes, and his set piece delivery was what gave Croatia a late lead.
3. Mário Fernandes (Russia)
It’s hard to imagine how Mário Fernandes is feeling right about now. He scored his first goal in Russian colours to give the hosts a lifeline, and then watched in horror as his missed penalty extinguished that hope. His elation and subsequent despair aside, Fernandes played a brilliant game at right-back. He got forward well, and he acquitted himself well defensively too.
4. Andrej Kramarić (Croatia)
Kramarić put Croatia back on track with his goal shortly before half time, and he justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with a strong performance. He created plenty of chances with his excellent positioning and ability to find the ball in the final third, and he could have easily added to his goal-scoring tally.
5. Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
Cheryshev has been in brilliant form since coming on as an early substitute in the opening match of the tournament, and he netted one of the best goals of this World Cup to put Russia ahead. He looked ominous when he found space on the break, and a fourth goal in five matches was a fitting reward for his efforts.

England outclass Sweden to sail into the semis

Before this tournament, the British press was strangely subdued. For 50 years, they had proclaimed England champions-in-waiting at every major tournament. For some reason, this young and inexperienced team didn’t receive such lofty pre-tournament support. Now, for the first time since 1990, and for only the second time since lifting the trophy in 1966, the Three Lions are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. They did it without breaking a sweat, comfortably outclassing Sweden and announcing themselves as a genuine contender as they cruised into the tournament’s final four.

Perhaps the greatest sign of England’s progress came from the inherent Englishness of the opponents they were playing. Sweden’s footballing development has been influenced heavily by England, and their mostly lifeless and uninspired performance was the kind of effort plenty of talented English sides had served up in the past. Their system was introduced by the English, the kind of simple tactical plan England had gone for in years gone by. Now, England’s young stars dismantled their opponents’ disciplined but ultimately toothless structure with their exciting new brand of play.

The game started slowly, with neither side able to offer any real threat and neither defence looking tested. England, unsurprisingly, began to take the ascendency against Sweden’s previously solid defence, but the Swedish knew their roles and didn’t seem to be too troubled. Then England scored, from one of their main sources: the humble corner kick. Ashley Young delivered the corner in question to where a mass of players awaited the ball’s arrival. There seemed to be plenty of defenders there, and Sweden looked to have set up well. Then Harry Maguire’s header shot into the bottom corner, and it was clear that something hadn’t quite worked. English centre-back Maguire, the second heaviest player at the tournament, was marked by diminutive Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg. Forsberg never stood a chance.

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Harry Maguire (right) scores England’s first goal from Ashley Young’s well-directed corner. The goal came from a defensive breakdown, and it left Sweden chasing the game.

Sweden offered little attacking threat for the rest of the half, and England kept pushing. Raheem Sterling had a series of chances to double the lead in the minutes before the break as he found the ball in behind and began to terrorise the Swedish defence with his pace. A long ball picked him out over the top of the Swedish defence, but Victor Lindelöf was just able to bundle the ball away. Robin Olsen was forced into a good one-on-one save when Sterling slipped through again a couple of minutes later, and Sweden barely survived (he was offside anyway, so the goal wouldn’t have counted). He wasn’t offside when he got in behind again, and this time only a fingertip save from Olsen and a sliding block from Andreas Granqvist stopped him from scoring. It didn’t feel like Sweden would be so lucky if he slipped past them once more, and Sweden’s record in stopping him from slipping through the net wasn’t exactly looking great.

Sweden started the second half more aggressively, and they had their first genuine chance a few minutes after the game restarted. It was a good chance too, as Jordan Pickford was forced into a tough diving save when Marcus Berg rose above Young to head towards the bottom corner. When Forsberg started to get involved, even going so far as to send what was possibly a shot flying fairly close to the bar (it may have been a really bad cross, but it looked vaguely dangerous) the Swedish looked like they had an equaliser in them. That equaliser never came. England began to reassert themselves on the game, controlling possession well and looking increasingly dangerous when they had the chance to deliver a corner. Then, after slowing the game down and steadying the ship after Sweden’s fast second half opening, England got their second and began to professionally kill the game.

Dele Alli scored it, and again it came from a good cross into the box. Jesse Lingard delivered the pass, receiving the ball on the edge of the box and targeting a cluster of teammates on the back post with a delightful looping ball. Alli, having pushed into the box from midfield, rose above the rest as Lingard’s cross hit him perfectly on the forehead. Once he put the header on target, Olsen had no chance of making the save. England were 2-0 up, Sweden had barely threatened, and the Three Lions were almost certainly heading for the dizzy heights of the last four.

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Robin Olsen attempts in vain to save Dele Alli’s close range header. Alli’s goal gave England a 2-0 buffer which Sweden never looked capable of overcoming.

Sweden did threaten when some excellent combination play between Ola Toivonen, Berg and Viktor Claesson provided Claesson with a chance and forced Pickford into another brilliant save, but England survived. They had their third real chance of the game when Pickford made another great save to tip Berg’s very dangerous shot over the bar, but they couldn’t break through. The latter chance even created tension within the English team, as Pickford politely bellowed at his defenders in pursuit of an explanation for the ease with which Berg found space to shoot. Presumably the matter was resolved amicably, as England didn’t look like conceding again.

For the most part, England just sauntered around the pitch doing as they pleased while the Swedish desperately chased them trying to get the ball back. Occasionally they got a corner, and really tested the Swedes. In four previous matches, Sweden’s defence had been extremely solid, especially in the air. Here, every corner seemed likely to pull them apart. Considering this strange effect has happened to all of England’s previous opponents, it may simply be that England are very good at corners. Sweden tried to make use of their height by bombing the ball long at every opportunity, and they even brought on Pontus Jansson, a central defender, solely to control said long balls. It didn’t work, and barely created so much as a half chance.

In the end, England weren’t tested by Sweden, who based their success around organisation and didn’t have the requisite skill or game plan to react to falling behind. As such, England’s cruisy run towards the latter stages of the World Cup continues unhindered, and the claims that the tournament is “coming home” will only intensify in the days to follow. Such statements started as something of a joke, as England weren’t actually expected to get this far. Now, they could well prove to be prophetic. Some will point out that Sweden had just three chances, and it may not be advisable for English fans to get ahead of themselves. After such a comfortable win, however, it seems unlikely that such advice will actually be heeded. Before this tournament began, the British press was strangely subdued. They’re unlikely to be so subdued now.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Sweden 0
England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Krafth (Jansson 85), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 65); Berg, Toivonen (Guidetti 65).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson (Dier 84), Alli (Delph 77), Young; Kane, Sterling (Rashford 90+1).

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Jordan Pickford makes a diving save to keep out Marcus Berg’s dangerous header. Pickford wasn’t called into action very often, but he was still required to make some very difficult saves to preserve England’s lead.

Top 5
1. Jordan Pickford (England)
Sweden had three golden opportunities to score in the second half, and just one of them going in could have turned the game on its head. Thankfully for England, Pickford was there to ensure that England’s clean sheet remained intact and that there were no nervous moments. He made three stunning saves, and justified his selection with an excellent performance.
2. Raheem Sterling (England)
Watching Sterling play, it’s hard to see how he has managed just two goals in over 40 English caps. Here, he was too quick for the Swedish defence and he put himself into all the right positions. Somehow, he was still denied. His dynamic runs in behind scattered the previously well-organised Swedish defence, and he was England’s most dangerous attacker by some distance.
3. Harry Maguire (England)
Not for the first time this tournament, Maguire’s attacking exploits outshone his defensive work. The centre-back made good use of his size as he threw himself around in the box, and he managed to find himself a goal and create some chances with his dangerous headers. He is a big part of England’s success at set pieces.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg didn’t give up in his pursuit for a goal, and he was involved in all of Sweden’s dangerous attacking moves. His positioning was good, and he will consider himself unlucky to be leaving the tournament without a goal to his name. Had a lesser goalkeeper than Pickford been present he could have scored a couple.
5. Ashley Young (England)
Young looked dangerous as he moved up and down the left wing, and it was his corner that provided the assist for Maguire’s opener. His influence waned somewhat after that moment, but he continued to threaten and he put in some dangerous crosses. He asked plenty of questions of the Swedish defence.