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)

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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.

Varane’s redemption and Muslera’s howler sees France into the final four

Paul Pogba received the ball in space, and set about running towards the Uruguayan goal. France’s powerful midfielder had been in excellent form, and France were cruising towards the semi-finals of the World Cup against a Uruguayan team that hadn’t really tested them all game. In Pogba’s path stood Uruguayan centre-back José María Giménez. Pogba attempted to neatly skip past him, and Giménez stuck out a leg. As the foul was paid, Giménez looked as if he was about to burst into tears. As the free-kick was taken, he did. There was still time left, but a miraculous Uruguayan comeback seemed impossible. As it turned out, it was impossible.

Uruguay were in trouble before the first kick of the ball. Edinson Cavani, the star of their round of 16 win over Portugal, succumbed to a calf injury accrued during his man-of-the-match performance, and he was replaced by Cristhian Stuani. Stuani is a capable player, but the change was akin to replacing a brand-new Ferrari with a banged-up Holden. He tried his best, but Uruguay’s attack was lacking in almost every department. Cavani’s hard work in transition was lost, and without him Uruguay were fighting a losing battle.

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Cristhian Stuani (left) and Lucas Hernández battle for the ball. Stuani came in for the injured Edinson Cavani, and although he fought hard he couldn’t make up for the loss of Uruguay’s star striker.

It didn’t necessarily seem that way in the opening exchanges, as France looked nervous and made a number of early errors as a result. Balls were awkwardly controlled under little to no pressure, passes were missed and occasionally even hit straight into pursuing players. With Cavani around, Uruguay may have taken advantage. Without him, they couldn’t even turn France’s nerves into a clear-cut chance. France settled and began to control the early possession, but neither side was creating too many chances despite the openness of the contest.

Then, just as the sides were approaching half time, France took the lead. Four years earlier, in the quarter-finals against Germany, French centre-back Raphaël Varane was beaten in the air by Mats Hummels as France conceded the goal that eliminated them from the World Cup. Now Varane received a chance for redemption when Antoine Griezmann’s well-choreographed free-kick found him in the box. He was unmarked, and he got his head on the ball, but the chance was still a tough one. He converted it expertly, diverting a glancing header into the bottom corner and leaving Fernando Muslera helpless to intervene.

Uruguay reacted well after going behind, and they had an almost identical chance to Varane’s minutes after going behind. Martín Cáceres got his head on a free-kick, and diverted it into the bottom corner. It seemed destined to level the scores as it flew towards the bottom corner. Then Hugo Lloris got in the way. The French captain dived full length, stuck out a hand and parried it away, before Diego Godín blasted the rebound wide of the target from close range. Thanks to Lloris, and Godín’s remarkable miss, France survived. After the break, Uruguay kept pushing, but there was always something missing in their attacks. Then a goalkeeping error put France two goals up, and Uruguay never recovered.

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Fernando Muslera watches helplessly as his poor attempt at a save loops past him into the back of the net. Muslera’s mistake consigned Uruguay to elimination, and all but confirmed France’s passage to the semi-finals.

It wasn’t Muslera’s first mistake. Shortly after half time, the goalkeeper was caught in possession in his own box, and Griezmann nearly capitalised. It was Griezmann who benefitted from his next error a few minutes later. The goal started with Pogba, who strolled easily past Uruguay’s midfield and reached the edge of the box almost unopposed. He shuffled the ball to Corentin Tolisso, who was in space, and Tolisso moved the ball on to Griezmann. Griezmann took a seemingly harmless shot, directed straight at Muslera. Then it swerved. It didn’t move much, but it was enough to leave Muslera in an awkward position as he looked to make the save. His clumsy two handed bat at the ball didn’t work, and the ball looped over the goal line.

After going 2-0 up, the French finished the game off well, with a bizarre clash between Kylian Mbappé and Cristian Rodríguez the only hitch. It wasn’t exactly clear what had taken place, but high tempers ensued as Mbappé ran into Rodríguez, went to ground and drew the ire of Uruguay’s players. Confusingly, both players ended up booked, with Néstor Pitana seemingly cautioning Rodríguez for the indiscretion and Mbappé for simulation at the same time. The French calmed down and potential suspensions were narrowly averted, and with Uruguay’s attack looking increasingly toothless as the game wore on the French never looked threatened. It was a calm, composed performance, and it bodes well for France as they enter the business end of the tournament.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Uruguay 0
France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Urretaviscaya 73), Torreira, Vecino, Bentancur (Rodríguez 59); Suárez, Stuani (Gómez 59).
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé (Dembélé 88), Griezmann (Fekir 90+3), Tolisso (N’Zonzi 80); Giroud.

Top 5
1. N’Golo Kanté (France)
Kanté is far from the most talented player on France’s team. He’s not particularly quick, he’s not particularly strong, and he can’t really contribute to the attack from his position in holding midfield. He is also France’s most important player. His superhuman endurance and brilliant reading of the play cut out a number of Uruguayan attacks, and he dominated the midfield.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba had a massive impact playing alongside Kanté, contributing to attacks with his robust runs from the centre of the park and playing a key role in their most dangerous offensive forays. He was everywhere, and his combination with Kanté is a huge part of France’s success. He was nearly suspended for an off-the-ball incident, and France will be thankful for his lucky escape.
3. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann just kept popping up in dangerous positions, and eventually he got his reward with a fairly lucky goal. He also provided the assist for Varane’s opener, and his ability to find space and use the ball effectively made a big difference for the French as they looked to break down Uruguay’s strong defence.
4. Olivier Giroud (France)
If there’s one man that can be credited with France’s rebound from a slow start to this tournament, it’s Giroud. He came in after an underwhelming first up performance and has delivered in every match, tying the team together with his strong play up front and striking up a devastating combination with Griezmann. He hasn’t really looked like scoring, but he plays a massive role.
5. Martín Cáceres (Uruguay)
Cáceres was one of few bright lights in an otherwise poor Uruguayan display, as he worked tirelessly shuffling up and down the right wing and made contributions in both attack and defence. He came closest to scoring for Uruguay with a brilliant header, and he was their best player by some distance.

Resolute Australia push France to the end

What is it about the opening game? Nearing the 80 minute mark of their match against Australia, French fans everywhere would have been pondering this question, which rears its head at every major tournament. As they hadn’t in 2002, 2006 or 2010, things weren’t going to script for Les Bleus. The scores were tied, and the Australian defence was proving a significant hurdle for France’s lethal three-man attack of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé. Griezmann and Dembélé had been removed, and it wasn’t clear where the inspiration would come from.

Going into the tournament, this game was not expected to be a contest. The French came into the match as one of the favourites to take home the trophy, and the Australians didn’t seem likely to mount a stern challenge to their star-studded opponents. The game was meant to be a chance to warm into the tournament with a nice win, and maybe get the forwards some goals in the process. Early on, there was no sign that France would have too many issues. Within two minutes Mbappé was in on goal, with Mathew Ryan’s solid parry the only thing standing in his way. The first ten minutes provided the keeper with plenty more opportunities to get involved, and it only seemed a matter of time before they broke through an Australian defence that was giving up territory and being cowed by the superior skills of their opponents.

The breakthrough never came. Bert van Marwijk’s defence held firm time and again, with Trent Sainsbury leading the way and midfielders Aaron Mooy and Mile Jedinak starting to assert some control in possession. Mbappé’s early chance had looked like the start of France’s dominance. By the end of the half, the French hadn’t had a better opportunity to go ahead, and the Australians had threatened their goal a couple of times as well. Mooy’s set piece delivery was as classy as ever, and the Socceroos nearly gave the French trouble after Tom Rogic’s flick-on header was desperately saved by Hugo Lloris.

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Paul Pogba runs with the ball during the game. Pogba had a hand in both of France’s goals, and looked very dangerous in the middle of the park.

In the 81st minute, the ball was at the feet of Paul Pogba. Pogba’s potential has never been in question, but a pair of inconsistent seasons with Manchester United have frustrated those who are hoping for a realisation of his immense talent. Against the Australians, Pogba seemed to have regained some of his best form. He was working well in defence and attack, and in conjunction with French midfield boss N’Golo Kanté he had helped create France’s earlier goal. Now he had a congested field ahead of him, and it was up to the talented young star to find a way through.

With France struggling to find the scoresheet, a draw was a definite possibility. Then the much-maligned video assistant referee intervened, and France were gifted the lead. It came from a quick break, with Kanté and Pogba combining to play Griezmann in behind. Josh Risdon brought him down in the box, but play was allowed to continue for minutes before the VAR control centre in Moscow directed Andrés Cunha to take another look at it. The penalty was subsequently paid despite Australian protests, allowing Griezmann to step up and blast it past Ryan. Resolute as they had been, Australia didn’t seem to have it in them to find an equaliser.

Pogba decided to pass his way through, finding the dangerous Mbappé and following up with a run through the centre of Australia’s defence. The 19-year-old attacker had no choice but to pass it back to the powerful midfielder, and Pogba soon skilfully laid it off to substitute Olivier Giroud, who was sporting an impressive bandage around his forehead even before he entered the fray. The big striker chose to give it back, and Pogba found himself on the edge of the area within striking distance.

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Australian players argue with referee Andrés Cunha after the French received a penalty minutes after the incident. The decision was the first real controversy involving the newly-introduced VAR.

As it turned out, the Australians were level a few minutes later thanks to a remarkable brain explosion from Samuel Umtiti. Mooy’s free kick was dangerous, but the French were in a good defensive position. Then Umtiti punched it, the ball connecting with an arm that was miles away from his body. Jedinak made no error with the penalty, and suddenly the Australians were back on level terms and the pressure was back on the French to equalise. It remained to be seen whether they were up to the task, even as they kept the Australians trapped in their own half and controlled the attacking play.

Pogba had a bit of a problem. The pair of one-twos he played to get into a scoring position had left him with little room to get a full-powered shot in, and he seemed too far out to score. As a result, his shot didn’t look likely to challenge Ryan. Then Aziz Behich, sweeping in from left-back to cut off the sudden attack, put his foot in there, and the result was a shot which travelled towards the goals in a parabolic arc, well above the desperate leap of the Australian keeper. The ball hit the underside of the bar, and then appeared to bounce out as Ryan safely gathered the rebound. Unfortunately for the Socceroos, looks can be deceiving, and goal-line technology told a different story. The goal counted, France had the lead, and this time they never looked like losing it.

The Australians had a little bit of time to break through but never really looked like managing it as Kanté dominated the midfield and France continued to threaten them in attack. In the end, they had to settle for a narrow loss, but such a strong and determined performance bodes well for the tournament ahead. For the French, they will be hoping that this game is nothing more than a blip on the radar, and is not indicative of a wider trend of underperformance. As well as Australia defended Les Bleus still got the three points, and that suggests that when they find their mojo they could be very dangerous.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Pogba 80)
Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-3-3): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Tolisso (Matuidi 78), Kanté, Pogba; Griezmann (Giroud 70), Mbappé, Dembélé (Fekir 70).
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan – Risdon, Milligan, Sainsbury, Behich; Jedinak, Mooy; Leckie, Rogic (Irvine 72), Kruse (Arzani 84); Nabbout (Juric 64).

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N’Golo Kanté (left) successfully dispossesses Robbie Kruse during his excellent performance in defensive midfield. Kanté’s hard work scuppered many of Australia’s attacks, and ensured France were in control of the game.

Top 5
1. N’Golo Kanté (France)
Kanté put in a dominant performance in the centre of the park, winning the ball away from the Australians and keeping France in control of possession. His ball use was always reliable, and he had a big hand in the first goal thanks to a pass which played Pogba into open space. The combination between him and Pogba looked very effective, and could be very tough to stop.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba’s work through the middle of the ground was excellent, winning the ball when he needed to but also finding space and flourishing in the front third. He had a hand in both goals, playing the pass that led Risdon to bring Griezmann down in the box and finishing off the winner himself after creating a chance from nowhere. If this performance is any indication he could be in for a big World Cup.
3. Aaron Mooy (Australia)
Mooy’s hard work and control in the centre of the park had a huge impact, and his set piece delivery caused the French plenty of problems. He rarely misplaced a pass and performed his defensive duties as well as ever, and he indirectly created Australia’s goal with a dangerous free-kick which Umtiti decided to get a fist to. France’s defence had plenty of nervous moments thanks to his efforts.
4. Trent Sainsbury (Australia)
Sainsbury was solid as a rock in central defence, repelling attack after attack and making life very difficult for the three-pronged French attack. He fought hard whenever there was a ball to be won, and at one point he inadvertently punctured the ball with a particularly determined challenge. He more than held his own on the big stage.
5. Benjamin Pavard (France)
Pavard won the starting spot at right-back over a very good defender in Djibril Sidibé, and slotted into the team seamlessly. His defensive performance was excellent, and in addition to keeping the Australians at bay he looked fairly dangerous coming forward on the overlap. An ill-fated scissor kick volley from outside the box was a moment he’d rather forget, but otherwise he was in good form.