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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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)

Embed from Getty Images

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)

Embed from Getty Images

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)

Embed from Getty Images

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)

Denmark go through as France settle for bore draw

Kasper Schmeichel stopped. The Danish goalkeeper received the ball from Mathias Jørgensen with plenty of space, and he decided he didn’t really need to pass it on. There were French strikers there who could have pressed him, but neither decided it was really worth the effort. So Schmeichel just stood there, ball at his feet, as if he was content to hold onto it for the remaining 10 minutes of the match. At one point he made as if to kick it, tapping the ball relatively suddenly to the right. Then he thought better of it, instead choosing to bring the ball to a stop once again. Eventually it was kicked long, France won the ball, and half-heartedly attacked again. Neither team had scored, and neither seemed willing to put in the effort required to find the back of the net. In the end, both secured their passage to the knockout stages in a lifeless game which was the first scoreless draw of the tournament. It had to happen at some point.

Embed from Getty Images

Thomas Delaney (left) and N’Golo Kanté battle for the ball. Delaney was often involved in tangles and received plenty of hard knocks thanks to his relentless attack on the ball.

Even before the game, a dull encounter was a real possibility. The French were already through to the knockout stages after winning their first two games, and Denmark could follow them into the last 16 simply by avoiding defeat. The French knew they were safe, and they were happy to rest some of their key players and recharge before the last 16, while Denmark weighed up the potential reward of winning (they would finish atop the group) and the potential consequences of pushing for a win and opening themselves up. Eventually both sides decided that a draw was mutually satisfactory, and neither really went to the effort of pushing to get the three points. The result was good for all involved but the spectators. It’s basically impossible to play a 90 minute football match with neither side threatening the goal, but Denmark and France did their best.

There were still some chances, of course, but they were too sparse to really make an impact. Danish star Christian Eriksen had a golden opportunity when Andreas Cornelius got free on the break and played a ball to him in the centre, forcing French back-up goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to come out of his goal and leaving the French exposed. The chance went begging thanks to the quick reactions of Lucas Hernández and the good movement of Mandanda, who was making his major tournament debut after years as the understudy to the rested Hugo Lloris. France’s best chance came when a lofted pass found Antoine Griezmann inside the box, but Olivier Giroud somehow blasted the ball over the bar when he received it from his strike partner. Griezmann was offside anyway. Ousmane Dembélé threatened to make things happen, but he never really delivered save for a couple of shots which flew harmlessly past Schmeichel’s goal. The teams entered the second half with a 0-0 draw looking like a definite possibility.

Embed from Getty Images

Steve Mandanda (second from left) rises to punch the ball away from the French goal. Mandanda finally made his first appearance at a major tournament after coming in for the rested Hugo Lloris, having deputised for Lloris for years.

Eriksen had a couple more chances early in the second half, but he couldn’t find the back of the net. The first came when he cleverly bounced a free-kick just in front of Mandanda, giving Cornelius a chance when the keeper fumbled the awkward ball in a dangerous area. Shortly afterwards, he had another shot from just outside the box, but failed to hit the target. The French got a boost from the bench, but they couldn’t find the back of the net. Nabil Fekir threatened the goal seconds after entering the action in place of Griezmann, firing a shot which forced Schmeichel to dive as it flew into the side netting. Fekir forced Schmeichel into another save soon after, and fellow substitute Kylian Mbappé nearly burst through the defence with a nice run. In doing so, both showed an enterprising streak that their teammates – and the entire Danish team – had clearly decided to leave in the locker room before they took the field. Not even the substitutes’ work could distract viewers from the dullness of the affair, however, as Denmark played out the final minutes with the energy of a lethargic snail. As the game wound down, Eriksen accidently careered into teammate Viktor Fischer after overrunning the ball. It was the most exciting thing a Danish player did in the final 15 minutes of the match.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Denmark 0
France 0
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, M Jørgensen, Stryger Larsen; Delaney (Lerager 90+2), Christensen, Eriksen; Braithwaite, Cornelius (Dolberg 75), Sisto (Fischer 60).
France (4-2-3-1): Mandanda – Sidibé, Varane, Kimpembe, Hernández (Mendy 50); Kanté, N’Zonzi; Dembélé (Mbappé 78), Griezmann (Fekir 69), Lemar; Giroud.

Top 5
1. Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
Eriksen was one of the only players who looked likely to make something happen, and although his impact lessened as Denmark began to shut up shop he was still at the heart of all of his team’s best attacking play. He seems to have found form at the right time heading into the knockouts.
2. Lucas Hernández (France)
After starting France’s first two games Hernández received a well-earned rest shortly after half time, but he still managed to have an impact in his short stint on the field. He was dangerous when he pushed forward, and he managed to thwart a couple of Danish attacks with good defensive work.
3. Thomas Delaney (Denmark)
Delaney was very active in the centre of the park, and his hard work meant he was always around when the ball was there to be won. He ended up on the ground after a number of heavy contests, but he was always willing to physically impose himself in his search for the ball.
4. Nabil Fekir (France)
Fekir was France’s most dangerous attacker despite only featuring for 20 minutes, and he provided a welcome spark coming off the bench. He created a couple of opportunities out of nothing, and played with an energy that few of his teammates replicated.
5. Mathias Jørgensen (Denmark)
Jørgensen came into the team to bolster the Danish defence, and he provided an excellent physical presence alongside Simon Kjær and Andreas Christensen. He competed well with the French forwards, and he mounted a strong case for his inclusion in the knockout stages with an imposing performance.