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.

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.

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.

Dominant Mbappé sends Argentina packing

When Argentina’s round of 16 clash with France was confirmed a few days ago, there was plenty of excitement. Neither side had quite hit their peak in the group stage, but the idea of two international powerhouses going toe-to-toe was an enticing one. The match delivered, in every way. There were goals. Seven of them, to be exact, with a couple of classic strikes thrown into the mix. There was tension and late drama, and, sealing the deal, there was an individual performance from a number 10 which broke the game open and delivered a stunning victory. Unfortunately for Argentina, it wasn’t their number 10 who did the damage.

Lionel Messi, Argentina’s number 10 wearing star player, captain and talismanic goal scorer, was the man Argentina needed to step up if they were to beat the French. They were relying on him to take the game by the scruff of the neck and deliver an Argentinian victory. Much like a young and talented Messi, Kylian Mbappé went into the game with a reputation as a precocious talent. Blessed with pace, skill and an eye for goal, the 19-year-old was playing his first knockout game in his first World Cup, and he stole the show. In two stunning blitzes, Mbappé created three of France’s four goals, and announced himself as the real deal (if there was any doubt before) with a devastating performance.

Mbappé started the game strongly, with an blitz that threatened to knock Argentina out before they had a chance to get into the game. It was his pace that did the trick. Whenever he got the ball, he didn’t bother controlling it. He just knocked the ball forward and ran, making the Argentinian defenders look pedestrian as he hit top speed. Early on, he won a free-kick just outside the box with a dangerous run, and France nearly scored as Antoine Griezmann struck his shot straight into the bar. It was a sign of things to come.

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Ángel Di María celebrates after equalising with an incredible long shot. The 30-yard effort took France by surprise, and heralded Argentina’s best period of the match.

The goal followed soon after, as Mbappé picked off a lazy pass in his own half and took off. Argentina couldn’t catch him. He left their defenders for dead as he burst through the middle of the field at tremendous speed, running at them like a one man battering ram. Marcos Rojo, whose late goal allowed Argentina to qualify for the round of 16, barred his way. Mbappé just smashed the ball out in front of him, relying on his momentum and stunning pace to win the ball back in the box. He never got that far as Rojo brutally halted his progress, sending him crashing to the turf and giving France a penalty. Griezmann made no mistake from the spot. A few minutes later, Mbappé was at it again, latching on to a quickly-taken free-kick from Paul Pogba and winning another foul, this time just outside the box. He seemed unstoppable.

Then, just before half time, Argentina equalised out of nowhere. They had worked their way back into the game after Mbappé’s early surge, but the French hadn’t looked troubled by any of their attacks and they were holding them off calmly. They didn’t look like scoring when Ángel Di María, not Messi, turned the game on its head with one moment of pure brilliance. He received the ball 30 yards out from goal, in a bit of space. He decided to have a shot from the improbable position, presumably deciding to try his luck with no defenders there to close him down. Then, with his left boot, he unleashed a curling strike into the top corner. Hugo Lloris dived desperately, but the French keeper had no chance against Di María’s perfectly-placed shot. Suddenly, Argentina found themselves right back in the contest. Minutes after half time, they were ahead.

The second goal was fortuitous. Messi started it, attempting an off-balance shot from the edge of the area after Pogba deflected it straight to him. It wouldn’t have caused any problems for Lloris had Gabriel Mercado not been standing in its path. The Argentinian right-back, through a stroke of good luck, intercepted Messi’s shot and diverted it into the bottom corner, sparking rapturous celebrations. The French keeper never stood a chance. Suddenly, France found themselves needing to chase the game, and were left wondering where it all went wrong.

They equalised soon after in stunning circumstances. It was coming. Griezmann nearly scored after a horrendous miscommunication between half-time entrant Federico Fazio and Argentinian goalkeeper Franco Armani, and France were beginning to exert some pressure on their opponents. They scored a couple of minutes after Griezmann’s near miss, with a strike which rivalled Di María’s earlier effort. It started with Lucas Hernández’s cross, which was cleared to apparent safety by Nicolás Tagliafico. Argentina didn’t reckon with Benjamin Pavard. The curly-haired French right-back had pushed forward, and upon reaching the ball on the edge of the area he attempted a first-time shot, and nailed it. With the side of his foot he drove the ball into the top corner, leaving Armani with no chance and putting France back on level terms. The enthralling contest was hanging in the balance, waiting for someone to seize the momentum.

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Kylian Mbappé (right) celebrates with Lucas Hernández after scoring France’s fourth goal. The goal all but sealed France’s win and their passage to the quarter-finals.

It wasn’t Messi who stepped up. It was Mbappé. Shortly after Pavard’s leveller, he put France ahead with an excellent goal. Hernández started it once again, finding Blaise Matuidi in the box. Matuidi’s shot was blocked, and the ball found Mbappé in the congested situation. He was good enough to make something happen. The young star somehow burst into space with one touch, and with Argentina’s defence scrambling to keep up he rammed home his advantage. Armani got a hand on it, but he couldn’t stop the close-range effort. Then, before Argentina could process what had happened, he struck again.

The goal started from the back, with N’Golo Kanté playing a nice pass to Griezmann, whose delightful touch found a running Matuidi, whose pass found Olivier Giroud in a dangerous position. Within seconds, they had picked their way through Argentina’s press (if such a press existed), and they found themselves on the edge of the box with Argentina’s defence in disarray. Mbappé was storming through on the right, and once Giroud played him through he was never going to be caught. He slammed the ball past Armani for the second time in minutes, and sparked rapturous celebrations. It didn’t look like Argentina would be able to respond.

Argentina pushed, but the French defence held firm. Messi created something out of nothing deep into injury time, allowing Sergio Agüero to score with a nice header, but it was too little, too late. When Nicolás Otamendi sparked a mass brawl in the dying moments, it was clear that Argentina’s tournament was over. After an underwhelming showing in Russia, the international careers of some of Argentina’s key players may be over too. For France, a powerful display under pressure has reinforced their credentials as potential World Cup winners. If Mbappé keeps his form up, he could take them to the title himself.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68)
Argentina 2 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Kanté, Pogba; Mbappé (Thauvin 89), Griezmann (Fekir 83), Matuidi (Tolisso 75); Giroud.
Argentina (4-3-3): Armani – Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo (Fazio 46), Tagliafico; Pérez (Agüero 66), Mascherano, Banega; Pavón (Meza 75), Messi, Di María.

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Kylian Mbappé celebrates after scoring his second goal. Mbappé took Argentina apart with a dominant performance, and he looks in ominous form heading into the last eight.

Top 5
1. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé won France the game, plain and simple. In the first 20 minutes, he drove a wedge through the Argentinian defence and put them on the back foot with his devastating forward runs, and he backed it up with two second-half goals. With the game on the line, it was Mbappé who delivered with a dominant performance, and it’s scary what he can do at the rest of his World Cup.
2. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann was in excellent form, slipping into dangerous pockets of space, finding himself a goal with a coolly taken penalty and creating plenty of opportunities. His ability to put Argentina under pressure with the ball at his feet contributed to France’s very dangerous attacking play.
3. Ángel Di María (Argentina)
Di María dragged Argentina back into the game with one moment of supreme quality, and he continued to shine for the rest of the match. His 30-yard strike was one of the goals of the tournament, and he stood up in a big way when his team needed him.
4. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Messi may have played his last World Cup game, and he was not to blame for Argentina’s defeat. He picked out some brilliant passes, including a perfect cross for Agüero with Argentina desperately pushing for a goal against a packed defence. He looked dangerous, and if this was his last World Cup match he went out with a strong performance.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played some beautiful passes and made some very strong runs through the middle, and he was an imposing presence for the French. He used his physical strength to control the midfield, and his solid pairing with Kanté functioned well once again. He looks to have found some form, and could be very dangerous.

France’s first half blitz eliminates Peru

There were a lot of questions surrounding the French heading into their clash against Peru. Even though they were expected to beat Peru and seal their progress to the knockout stages with a game to spare, an unconvincing victory against a determined Australian side had raised doubts about their attack, and seemingly left the ball open for a dynamic Peruvian team who were unlucky to lose their first-up clash with Denmark. In front of a crowd dominated by vocal Peruvian supporters (who added to the fun by letting a few red and white balloons onto the ground), France’s margin of victory was the same as it was in their opening game. This time, however, their blistering first half performance sent out a clear warning to the rest of the competition, and their solidity in the face of Peru’s desperate second half surge showed that they are tough to beat.

It soon became clear that France’s attack had finally clicked, and they were more potent in every area. Olivier Giroud was brought into the side, and he immediately provided a presence that had been lacking with his strength on the ball. Giroud brought everyone else into the play, and the results were spectacular. Antoine Griezmann did find the back of the net in the first game, but he was a shadow of his brilliant best. Here, he was surging in from behind Giroud and creating chances by finding plenty of open space. Paul Pogba was one of France’s best against Australia, but he was even better against Peru. With his forwards running into space, he came up with his usual moments of lazy brilliance. On the wing, Kylian Mbappé suddenly looked more menacing, dipping into his bag of tricks and terrorising the Peruvian defence.

The chances came thick and fast. Pogba took a long shot, and nearly caught Pedro Gallese flat-footed as the ball bounced just past the post. Raphaël Varane’s header flew just over the bar. Giroud and Mbappé played a one-two through the heart of the Peruvian defence, but the 19-year-old couldn’t quite control it. Griezmann got involved when Giroud headed the ball down for him, but Gallese made a good save. Pogba chipped Peru’s defence to find an onside Mbappé, but the precocious talent was in an awkward position and he didn’t even make contact with his attempt at an improvised stabbed back-heel volley. Unsurprisingly, the goal came soon after.

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Kylian Mbappé (right) celebrates with Antoine Griezmann after scoring the only goal of the game. Both players improved dramatically on their first game performances as France put in a menacing attacking performance.

It came when Pogba won the ball deep in attack, and found Giroud in space behind the Peruvian defence. Alberto Rodríguez slid in to block the shot, and executed the block to perfection. The result couldn’t have been worse. The ball bounced up off his leg, floating over a helpless Gallese and straight into the path of an onrushing Mbappé. He couldn’t have missed it if he tried. The goal was a just reward for half an hour of dominant attacking play, and they didn’t seem to be finished. A blistering counter-attack reminded everyone, if a reminder was needed, of France’s remarkable speed on the break, and as the half time whistle sounded the Peruvians were under siege.

Needing at least a draw to keep their World Cup hopes alive, Peru just didn’t have it in them to penetrate the French defence. They had their moments, and they came very close when Pedro Aquino’s long range shot slammed into the intersection at the top corner of the French goal. Around the hour mark, they came up with 10 minutes of blistering attacking football which had the French on the back foot and trapped in their half. Varane and Samuel Umtiti, the latter bouncing back well after his brain explosion in the first match gifted Australia their only goal, held firm, and gradually the heat went out of the Peruvian attacks.

By the final whistle, a French victory had been inevitable for some time. With their scary attack and stunning defence, they seemed nearly invincible, and they will be a formidable opponent come the knockout stages. For Peru, following a dominant but ultimately fruitless display against Denmark, it seemed an unfortunate way to bow out of their first World Cup in 36 years. As bright as they looked, they came up against a French team with their mojo back, and they never really stood a chance.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
France 1 (Mbappé 34)
Peru 0
Referee: Mohammed Abdulla Hassan Mohamed (UAE)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba (N’Zonzi 89), Kanté; Mbappé (Dembélé 75), Griezmann (Fekir 80), Matuidi; Giroud.
Peru (4-2-3-1): Gallese – Advíncula, Ramos, Rodríguez (Santamaría 46), Trauco; Aquino, Yotún (Farfán 46); Carrillo, Cueva (Ruídiaz 82), Flores; Guerrero.

Top 5
1. Olivier Giroud (France)
If Giroud’s opening game omission for the more purely skilled Ousmane Dembélé didn’t seem like a mistake at the time it definitely does now. Giroud added poise to the attack on return to the starting line-up, and his physical presence allowed him to hold off defenders and create dangerous pockets of space for faster teammates to run in to. He won’t be dropped any time soon.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba put in another commanding performance in the centre of the park, winning the ball on a number of occasions and providing an attacking threat with his vision and technical ability. His successful tackle high up the pitch, and subsequent pass behind the defence, was integral to the winning goal, and he looks set to make more of an impact down the track.
3. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé displayed pace, skill and plenty of confidence as he launched threatening raids from the right wing and scored the only goal of the game with a good run in behind. He looked very dangerous with the attack functioning at its best, and with proper support he may have a huge impact at this tournament.
4. André Carrillo (Peru)
Carrillo has played two brilliant games at this World Cup, and he has been remarkably unfortunate to find himself on the losing side in both of Peru’s matches. He was everywhere as Peru looked to break through a resolute French defence, and it’s no coincidence that he reached his peak during Peru’s 10 minute period of dominance in the second half.
5. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann’s movement was always dangerous, and, unlike his disappointing first-up effort, he looked like creating something every time he got the ball. He notched up an instant chemistry with Giroud, and their combination could be a very fruitful one at this tournament.

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.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group C

Group C

Teams (world ranking in brackets): France (7), Australia (36), Peru (11), Denmark (12)
Fixtures:
France vs Australia, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Peru vs Denmark, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Denmark vs Australia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
France vs Peru, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Denmark vs France, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Australia vs Peru, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi

France

Head Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Previous Appearances: 14 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), 16. Steve Mandanda (Marseille), 23. Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain).
Defenders: 2. Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), 3. Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), 4. Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), 5. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), 17. Adil Rami (Marseille), 19. Djibril Sidibé (Monaco), 21. Lucas Hernández (Atlético Madrid), 22. Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 6. Paul Pogba (Manchester United), 8. Thomas Lemar (Monaco), 12. Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), 13. N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea), 14. Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), 15. Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla).
Forwards: 7. Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), 9. Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), 10. Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain), 11. Ousmane Dembélé (Barcelona), 18. Nabil Fekir (Lyon), 20. Florian Thauvin (Marseille).

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Antoine Griezmann bows to supporters after France’s semi-final win over Germany at Euro 2016. Griezmann scored twice in the match on his way to becoming the tournament’s top-scorer.

After coming incredibly close to winning at home in Euro 2016 (they were edged out in extra time by Portugal) the French didn’t have too many issues booking their spot in Russia as their quality allowed them to stay well ahead of their misfiring opposition. Now they’re here, Les Bleus will be incredibly hard to beat. Coach Didier Deschamps has selection quandaries in just about every position. Hugo Lloris is one of the few guaranteed starters, and the experienced goalkeeper will be hard to get past. Shielding him is a back four consisting of some top-level defenders, with centre-backs Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti both proven performers. In midfield, Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea) and Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich) will compete for three spots, with one of them stiff to miss out. Meanwhile an attack of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and young gun Kylian Mbappé (plus a couple of others) is likely to terrorise opposing defences with pace and skill. Perhaps the scariest thing about Deschamps’ side is, with 15 players aged 25 or less, they’re still peaking.

The French did, however, come off a qualifying campaign that was not all smooth sailing. A 50-yard winner from Ola Toivonen led to an embarrassing loss to Sweden, and they were held by minnows Belarus and Luxembourg along the way. Such lapses could prove costly in the World Cup, where they can’t just wait and let their quality assert itself. Many of their players haven’t featured at the World Cup before, and this dangerous combination of inexperience and expectation could prove costly. They still lack a top-class full-back on either side, and none of Benjamin Pavard, Djibril Sidibé, Lucas Hernández or Benjamin Mendy have much international experience. Since winning the World Cup in 1998, France’s efforts in the tournament have been inconsistent, and it would not be unheard of for them to collapse out of the blue.

Star Player: Antoine Griezmann

Griezmann is coming into his prime, and the diminutive striker can make a big impact in Russia. He is a complete forward who has pace, skill, an eye for goal and the ability to create chances for his teammates. His six goals at Euro 2016 helped take the French to the final, and with a more dynamic attack alongside him at the World Cup he could be an unstoppable force.

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Paul Pogba shoots during a World Cup qualifying match against Sweden. Pogba has struggled since joining Manchester United, amid questions over his best position.

Key Player: Paul Pogba

How do you solve a problem like Paul Pogba? Two seasons ago, the powerfully built central midfielder was the hottest commodity in European football, and attracted the heftiest transfer fee in history to move from Juventus to Manchester United. Since then, he’s been…alright. His physicality can overshadow his immense technical ability, and he can hit the scoresheet while simultaneously providing assists. If he plays at his best, he could carry France to the World Cup. Will he?

One to watch: Kylian Mbappé

It turns out Mbappé’s remarkable breakout season with Monaco was no fluke, and that’s bad news for all of France’s opponents. At just 19, he is coming off his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, where his scoring barely dropped off despite the quality of his new teammates. For France, he is likely to play on the right wing, but he is capable in the centre and will be very dangerous.

Verdict

This French team is exciting and a very dangerous opponent. There is a ridiculous amount of talent all over the park, and if they can convert that talent into results they could cruise to a second World Cup title.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Lloris; Sidibé, Umtiti, Varane, Mendy; Kanté, Matuidi, Pogba; Mbappé, Griezmann, Dembélé.

Australia

Head Coach: Bert van Marwijk
Captain: Mile Jedinak
Previous Appearances: 4 (1974, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)
Qualified: AFC, 3rd Group B (beat Syria and Honduras in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Tim Cahill (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Mathew Ryan (Brighton and Hove Albion), 12. Brad Jones (Feyenoord), 18. Danny Vukovic (Genk).
Defenders: 2. Milos Degenek (Yokohama F. Marinos), 3. James Meredith (Millwall), 5. Mark Milligan (Al-Ahli), 6. Matthew Jurman (Suwon Samsung Bluewings), 16. Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), 19. Josh Risdon (Western Sydney Wanderers), 20. Trent Sainsbury (Grasshoppers).
Midfielders: 8. Massimo Luongo (Queens Park Rangers), 13. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town), 15. Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), 17. Daniel Arzani (Melbourne City), 22. Jackson Irvine (Hull City), 23. Tom Rogic (Celtic).
Forwards: 4. Tim Cahill (Millwall), 7. Matthew Leckie (Hertha Berlin), 9. Tomi Juric (Luzern), 10. Robbie Kruse (VfL Bochum), 11. Andrew Nabbout (Urawa Red Diamonds), 14. Jamie Maclaren (Hibernian), 21. Dimitri Petratos (Newcastle Jets).

If it’s all about the journey, then Australia haven’t had a great World Cup experience. Their journey was about as hard as it gets, spanning 22 matches and proving a hard slog at every turn. Then their coach resigned. Bert van Marwijk is still getting used to his new side after taking over from Ange Postecoglou, but the Dutchman has pedigree at this level and can get the side in shape. On the pitch, there’s plenty to like. Aaron Mooy is coming off a brilliant season with Huddersfield Town in the Premier League, and he can unlock defences with his remarkable vision. He will be well supported by captain Mile Jedinak and Massimo Luongo in midfield, and Tom Rogic is a dangerous player in attack. Mathew Ryan is a solid goalkeeper, and will be well protected by classy centre-back Trent Sainsbury. In-form attackers Andrew Nabbout and Daniel Arzani will give the team a fresh edge alongside Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse, and Tim Cahill is a talisman who can find big goals.

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Tim Cahill rises to score against Syria in World Cup qualifying. Cahill is no longer a regular part of the starting line-up, but the veteran still has an impact off the bench.

The Australians will, however, face an uphill battle to make it through. Postecoglou’s sudden departure has left a void even though his attack at all costs strategy was part of the reason for the Socceroos’ arduous road to Russia. Adding to the pressure on van Marwijk is the temporary nature of his position (Graham Arnold will take over after the World Cup), and this could impact results. In a tough group, Australia’s defence is unproven, and van Marwijk has little time to add the steel the side desperately lacked in qualifying. It is unclear who the team’s best striker is, with Tomi Juric developing a propensity for missing chances and Cahill coming off a season where he barely played for either Melbourne City or Millwall. This missing link means the brilliant work of Mooy is often wasted, something Australia cannot afford to happen if they want to take it up to giants like France.

Star Player: Aaron Mooy

Mooy’s first season in the Premier League has shown he is more than capable of adjusting to high-level competition, and his hard work in midfield may well be Australia’s only chance of escaping a tough group. His ability to pick out an incisive pass rivals some of the best playmakers at this World Cup, and he is a set-piece specialist who can hit the target from range and reads the play well.

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Aaron Mooy (right) and Mile Jedinak celebrate after Jedinak’s goal against Honduras in Australia’s final qualifier. Mooy and Jedinak will be a key part of Australia’s campaign.

Key Player: Mile Jedinak

Jedinak was Australia’s second-highest scorer in qualifying (showing the benefits of being a regular penalty taker) but his defensive qualities are far more important. Jedinak has plenty of experience and is almost never caught out of position, allowing him to clean up counter-attacks with ease. His work as a holding midfielder will be a crucial part of Australia’s defensive set-up in Russia.

One to watch: Daniel Arzani

Arzani hadn’t played for Australia before his call-up to the World Cup squad, but the 19-year-old winger is coming off a brilliant season for Melbourne City and could well be the spark the Socceroos need. He is quick, skilled and has the ability to provide for his teammates, and he has the potential to shine at this World Cup if given the opportunity.

Verdict

Most of the 2006 golden generation is now gone, and van Marwijk’s younger team has some established players in European teams. Whether that will be enough is another question, and the Socceroos need their stars to fire.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Luongo; Leckie, Mooy, Kruse; Nabbout.

Peru

Head Coach: Ricardo Gareca
Captain: Paolo Guerrero
Previous Appearances: 4 (1930, 1970, 1978, 1982)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1970)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 5th (beat New Zealand in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Paolo Guerrero (6)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Pedro Gallese (Veracruz), 12. Carlos Cáceda (Deportivo Municipal), 21. José Carvallo (UTC).
Defenders: 2. Alberto Rodríguez (Junior), 3. Aldo Corzo (Universitario de Deportes), 4. Anderson Santamaría (Puebla), 5. Miguel Araujo (Allianza Lima), 6. Miguel Trauco (Flamengo), 15. Christian Ramos (Veracruz), 17. Luis Advíncula (Lobos BUAP), 22. Nilson Loyola (Melgar).
Midfielders: 7. Paolo Hurtado (Vitória de Guimarães), 8. Christian Cueva (São Paulo), 13. Renato Tapia (Feyenoord), 14. Andy Polo (Portland Timbers), 16. Wilder Cartagena (Veracruz), 18. André Carrillo (Watford), 19. Yoshimar Yotún (Orlando City), 20. Edison Flores (AaB), 23. Pedro Aquino (Lobos BUAP).
Forwards: 9. Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo), 10. Jefferson Farfán (Lokomotiv Moscow), 11. Raúl Ruidíaz (Morelia).

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Jefferson Farfán celebrates after scoring in Peru’s play-off with New Zealand. Farfán will be a key member of the Peruvian attack in Russia.

In March last year, the idea of Peru breaking their 36-year World Cup drought was inconceivable. They sat eighth in South America, and needed a miracle to progress to their first tournament since 1982. They got it, taking 11 points from their last five games and picking up another three after a previous loss to Bolivia was overturned. In the end, they snuck into the play-offs, where progression against New Zealand was never in doubt. Since qualification, the good news has continued to flow. Captain and all-time leading scorer Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban has been stayed, allowing him to take the field in Russia. His presence will add to an attack that already includes dangerous wingers Jefferson Farfán and André Carrillo. Yoshimar Yotún and Renato Tapia provide a solid central midfield presence, and Ricardo Gareca has put together a tight-knit group that has not lost a game since 2016. They are solid all over the park, and they could make an impact.

The Peruvians will, however, suffer from a lack of experience at the top-level. Their competition with other South American teams will serve them well at the tournament proper, but a lack of players in Europe’s top leagues could be an issue. The World Cup will come with much greater pressure than anything the players have ever faced, and this could test the bonds that have built up in the last 18 months. The distractions surrounding Guerrero’s court cases (in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Swiss Federal Court) could also affect the squad, especially with the drama hanging around for as long as it has. In general, Peru are short on quality around the park, especially with key players Guerrero and Farfán both past their respective primes. This was reflected in their start to qualifying, during a campaign which didn’t get off the ground until their frenetic final run. If they are to progress, they will need their defence to step up in a big way.

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Captain Paolo Guerrero sings the national anthem before a qualifier against Colombia. Guerrero was suspended for the World Cup, but his ban has since been stayed to allow him to play in Russia.

Star Player: Paolo Guerrero

After a lengthy legal saga, Guerrero is free to play in Russia. The 34-year-old has been an inspirational leader for Peru, and such is his popularity that news of his impending suspension spurred protests in the streets of Lima. He has scored more international goals than any other Peruvian, and his presence at the World Cup will have a big impact on the team.

Key Player: Christian Ramos

Ramos, along with Alberto Rodríguez, has a key role to play in the Peruvian defence. He is a proven performer with 66 caps’ worth of international experience, and his solidity at the back underpins Peru’s success. If they are to progress to the knockout stages in Russia, Ramos and the rest of the defence will need to be at their best.

One to watch: Renato Tapia

Tapia is a versatile player who has featured prominently for Peru since making his debut as a 19-year-old in 2015. Now 22, Tapia is a key part of Peru’s midfield, and has the ability to play in defence if required. His experiences with Feyenoord in both the Dutch top flight and European competition will serve the Peruvians well as they look to make their mark.

Verdict

Peru may struggle to progress, but they have good team unity and Gareca is an excellent coach. With talisman Guerrero free to play, they could be a dangerous opponent.
Likely Team: Gallese; Advíncula, Rodríguez, Ramos, Trauco; Yotún, Tapia; Carrillo, Cueva, Farfán; Guerrero.

Denmark

Head Coach: Åge Hareide
Captain: Simon Kjær
Previous Appearances: 4 (1986, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group E (beat Republic of Ireland in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Christian Eriksen (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City), 16. Jonas Lössl (Huddersfield Town), 22. Frederik Rønnow (Brøndby).
Defenders: 3. Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 4. Simon Kjær (Sevilla), 5. Jonas Knudsen (Ipswich Town), 6. Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), 13. Mathias Jørgensen (Huddersfield Town), 14. Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford), 17. Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese).
Midfielders: 2. Michael Krohn-Dehli (Deportivo La Coruña), 7. William Kvist (Copenhagen), 8. Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen), 10. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), 18. Lukas Lerager (Bordeaux), 19. Lasse Schöne (Ajax).
Forwards: 9. Nicolai Jørgensen (Copenhagen), 11. Martin Braithwaite (Bordeaux), 12. Kasper Dolberg (Ajax), 15. Viktor Fischer (Copenhagen), 20. Yussuf Poulsen (Leipzig), 21. Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta), 23. Pione Sisto (Celta Vigo).

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Christian Eriksen celebrates one of the goals in his hat-trick during the last game of World Cup qualifying. Eriksen was Denmark’s leading scorer, and he is their best player.

Denmark travelled to Dublin for their last game of qualifying needing a win to progress to Russia, and Christian Eriksen stepped up with a brilliant hat-trick to send them through. Eriksen has gone from strength to strength in the last few years, and the attacking midfielder has developed into one of the world’s best. His creative talents mixed with a dangerous attack of Nicolai Jørgensen, Yussuf Poulsen and Andreas Cornelius will make for a potent mix. The rise of young guns Pione Sisto and Kasper Dolberg only adds to the depth at Åge Hareide’s disposal, and the Danish should not be short on goals. Down back, Simon Kjær and Andreas Christensen are a solid centre-back pairing backed up by quality defenders in Jannik Vestergaard and Mathias Jørgensen, and Kasper Schmeichel is a tough player to beat in goal. With a pair of strong holding midfielders in William Kvist and Thomas Delaney holding the team together, the Danish will be a very tough side to face.

There are some problems that Hareide will need to solve, however. The full-back situation is a major worry, with no clear starter on either side of the defence. Jens Stryger Larsen, Jonas Knudsen and Henrik Dalsgaard are all options, but none of them have made a spot in the side their own. The problems got so bad that Christensen was shifted to right-back for the all-important second leg of the play-offs, a scenario which is far from ideal. There are some issues in midfield, and while Kvist and Delaney are both imposing players in defence they can struggle to transition into attack. This is combined with a potential over-reliance on Eriksen, who scored nearly half of Denmark’s goals in qualifying. None of Hareide’s potential attacking options at the World Cup contributed more than two, and this could spell trouble if the side’s creative fulcrum is shut down.

Star Player: Christian Eriksen

Eriksen has developed from a classy playmaker to a bona-fide superstar in the last couple of years, and his hat-trick in the decisive qualifying game dragged Denmark into the final tournament. He has incredible vision, brilliant technical ability and the ability to provide a goal-scoring threat from distance, and he can be tough to stop if he gets going. He could be the player that sets Denmark apart in a competitive group.

Key Player: Thomas Delaney

Delaney has the potential to make an impact in both attack and defence, and he showcased his skills in qualifying with a hat-trick against Armenia. He has been in good form since moving to Werder Bremen, and Denmark will be relying on him to provide a strong midfield presence and give Eriksen some much-needed support in Russia. If he plays at his best, the Danes will be a formidable side.

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Thomas Delaney (right) battles for the ball during a friendly against Germany. Delaney will be a key player in the Danish midfield at the World Cup.

One to watch: Kasper Dolberg

Dolberg is a dangerous attacker who knows how to find the back of the net, and at just 20 he has a big future ahead. His performances this season weren’t quite as impressive as his first season at Ajax, but the versatile frontman has tremendous upside and can add something extra to the Danish attack. He could be the x-factor for Denmark in Russia, and he has the talent to make an impact.

Verdict

Denmark are a solid side all over the park with few glaring weaknesses, and they will be a hard team to beat. If Eriksen gets going and things fall their way, they could make a run into the knockout stages.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen, Larsen; Delaney, Kvist; Poulsen, Eriksen, Sisto; Jørgensen.

Prediction

This group should be fairly tight, although the French are likely to go through comfortably barring a sudden and calamitous collapse (it can never be ruled out). For the rest, it is an intriguing race. Denmark are a solid side with established players, while Peru and Australia are largely unknown quantities heading into the tournament. The Australians are unlikely to make an impact without a big improvement defensively, and the match between the Danish and the Peruvians may be the one to watch. The Danish look like the best of the chasing pack, and the class of Eriksen may just separate them from their rivals. If anyone can take points off the French, they will probably move into the box seat.
1. France, 2. Denmark, 3. Peru, 4. Australia

Late surge leaves Boro heartbroken

It only took one lapse in concentration. After nearly 90 minutes of solid defence, warding off attack after attack and keeping out complex passing moves, the equaliser came from one of the simplest attacks of the night. Desperation had begun to set in for Manchester United, as Middlesbrough threatened to end a year of upsets with a surprise of their own. Eric Bailly heaved the ball forward, managing to hit Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box. He flicked on a header, and Anthony Martial rammed it home to level the scores.

Seconds later, they had taken the lead. After Gaston Ramirez was denied a penalty at the other end, Juan Mata set up Paul Pogba, finding space to cross and hitting the Frenchman with pinpoint accuracy. The header went in to the top corner, leaving Victor Valdes with no chance. It was devastating for Boro, as the game was turned on its head in a dramatic couple of minutes.

United had been the better side. From the start, they had gained a hold over possession and they were creating opportunities. Pogba hit the post with a bicycle kick, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was everywhere as he created chances for himself and others. It was, however, a shocking decision which gave Boro a massive let-off. Martial was the spark, first hitting the post from long range before collecting the ball and weaving his way into the box. He crossed it, and Ibrahimovic only had to extend his leg to get the ball into the back of the net.

Then the controversy began. Valdes went down, and referee Lee Mason determined that Ibrahimovic had fouled him as the two collided following the goal. United were in disbelief, but the decision stood. Boro survived. As the second half began, the chances started to come a little more readily. Ibrahimovic was denied at close range by Valdes. Pogba tried another bicycle kick, with much less success. Mkhitaryan was through, but offside. Then, after being denied on so many occasions, it was United who went behind. Calum Chambers put in a good cross for Alvaro Negredo, whose header into the path of Grant Leadbitter was perfect. The ball was struck first-time, and it left David de Gea with no chance. United’s recurring nightmare seemed to be happening again.

The emotional rollercoaster of a game was not yet over. There was controversy, as Marcus Rashford was denied what appeared to be a clear penalty after he tangled with Bernardo Espinosa. There was some excellent goalkeeping, and a brilliant cameo off the bench from Rashford. In the end, however, it was Manchester United who dominated, and Manchester United who were deserved winners thanks to their late surge.

Despite this, Boro did create some chances thanks to the explosive pace of Adama Traore, who was at his dynamic best. A bad decision from Traore proved costly a couple of minutes in, as a goal scoring opportunity on the break was missed. They could have scored again a little while later when Traore first beat Daley Blind to the ball before running around him and managing to slip past Chris Smalling in an exceptional display of speed. The cross left George Friend with an open goal, but the controlling touch proved costly.

In the end, Boro were fighting an uphill battle from the start, and nothing could change that for them. They came close, but ultimately they left disappointed, and desperately short on points heading into the new year. United, on the other hand, enter the new year with confidence after a string of victories, and they will be desperate to continue in their current vein of form and try to make an impact on the top four.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 2 (Martial 85, Pogba 86)
Middlesbrough 1 (Leadbitter 67)
Referee: Lee Mason
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling (Rashford 72), Blind (Rojo 64); Fellaini (Mata 64), Herrera; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial; Ibrahimovic.
Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Valdes – Chambers, Espinosa, Gibson, Friend; Leadbitter (Clayton 78); Traore (Fabio 82), Forshaw, de Roon, Downing (Ramirez 63); Negredo.

Top 5
1. Anthony Martial (Manchester United)
Martial was in top form throughout, wreaking havoc on the left wing and proving a nightmare for Calum Chambers. He was able to work his way into dangerous positions with his excellent skill on the ball, and he scored the equaliser with a very nice finish.
2. Victor Valdes (Middlesbrough)
Valdes kept Boro in the game with some incredible saves, and until United’s last burst it looked as if he was going to win it for them. His positioning was very good throughout, and his clean hands did not allow United to capitalise on his mistakes.
3. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)
Mkhitaryan was in top form, picking out teammates in good positions and cutting inside to provide a big threat from the right wing. He was unlucky not to score on a few occasions, and he will look to continue his good form into the new year.
4. Adama Traore (Middlesbrough)
Traore was Boro’s main attacking weapon, displaying incredible speed and, at times, finesse. He was too fast for anyone on the pitch, and he left Blind for dead on a few occasions. He was unlucky not to create a goal for his side, but he will take confidence from his performance.
5. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba scored the winner with an excellent header, and it was his ability to get into dangerous positions which caused serious problems for Boro. He ran the show from attacking midfield, and something always happened when he had the ball at his feet.

Palace fight hard, but Ibrahimovic steals late win

Yohan Cabaye had gone to ground as he tried to make the challenge. Paul Pogba was too strong, pushing his opponent away as if he was made of paper. With space to work with, the Frenchman put a ball through for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the mercurial Swedish forward who was making a good run into the box. It looked as if it was out of his reach, and the angle was too tight. He finished anyway, slotting the ball past Wayne Hennessey with surgical precision and all but sealing a win for Manchester United.

Crystal Palace had done quite well up to that point, but they would not recover. As soon as Ibrahimovic put his winner into the back of the net, no amount of desperate long balls could save them from an inevitable defeat. From the start, Palace were on the back foot. It took them well over a minute just to touch the ball, and it took a lot longer for them to start building up moves and retaining the ball.

Despite this, United were short on quality chances, and Palace continued to keep their head above water comfortably. As the first half drew to a close, opportunities began to come. Pogba’s chip over the top found Wayne Rooney, who nearly converted. Pogba himself had a chance when Michael Carrick provided him with an open volley, but it was saved by Hennessey, desperately keeping his side in the game.

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Frustration…: Paul Pogba shows his annoyance at a decision.

When United finally struck, less than a minute out from half-time, it was controversial. Juan Mata’s free kick found Ibrahimovic, whose attempt to find Pogba in the six-yard box involved a suspicious use of the arm. Luckily for United, it was not called and the ball rebounded off Joel Ward in finding Pogba, playing him onside. The finish was as easy as could be, and United were ahead after 45 minutes of dominance.

Palace needed to step up their game in the second half. They did. Immediately they looked dangerous, with half-time substitute Joe Ledley finding space and using the ball well. After an early second half flurry, however, the game looked to have settled back into a familiar rhythm, with Palace again struggling to find the ball. Instead, James McArthur gave them momentum with a long shot which was brilliantly tipped away, and minutes later he finished off the equaliser.

Joel Ward provided the spark, playing a series of passes to get himself to the edge of the box before cutting it in for Damien Delaney, the veteran Irish centre back who provided an unexpected touch of class with his first-time flick on for McArthur, who couldn’t miss. It seemed to be another case of United’s recurring nightmare, a nightmare only made more excruciating by the events which followed.

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… and joy: Manchester United players celebrate after their win.

McArthur’s goal was the catalyst for an incredible period of play which contained multiple refereeing errors and plenty of drama. A penalty was not awarded and a goal was disallowed as United looked to break the newly-created deadlock, and frustrations began to boil over. First, Ledley punched a corner from Rooney away from danger, sparking an indignant response from United when nothing was called. Then Mata was incorrectly ruled to be offside when he tapped in Marcos Rojo’s header. There were bookings, arguments and the game seemed to be taking a life of its own.

It looked to be over for United before Ibrahimovic bagged the winner, as if all their hard work had been for nothing. Instead, they defied their recent history of mishaps and near-misses, and came away with a win that they thoroughly deserved. For Crystal Palace, hard work wasn’t enough, and leaves them with some stern questions to answer as they languish in the bottom half of the table.

London – Selhurst Park
Crystal Palace 1 (McArthur 66)
Manchester United 2 (Pogba 45+2, Ibrahimovic 88)
Referee: Craig Pawson
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Hennessey – Ward, Dann, Delaney, Kelly; McArthur (Campbell 87), Flamini (Ledley 46); Lee Chung-yong (Fryers 80), Cabaye, Zaha; C Benteke.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Bailly (Darmian 52), Jones, Rojo, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Lingard 71), Pogba, Rooney (Rashford  80); Ibrahimovic.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was on his game from the start, and while his goal was controversial it was thoroughly deserved. He provided excellent supply for his teammates up front, and it was his pass that set up Ibrahimovic for the winning goal as the game drew to a close.
2. Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace)
Hennessey was the main reason Palace were able to stay in the game, making a string of excellent saves and barely making a mistake all day. His stop to deny Rooney late in the first half was brilliant, and he continued to perform right up to the final whistle.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
Ibrahimovic was in solid form from start to finish, providing plenty of chances and making his way into dangerous positions. His finish at the end was pure class, and he performed effectively as a centre back when Palace mounted a desperate final assault.
4. James McArthur (Crystal Palace)
McArthur was in excellent form, cutting inside from the right and finding himself in dangerous positions as Palace pushed forward. He created some excellent chances and made a good run to finish for the equaliser, and his defensive work was always solid.
5. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Rooney had a solid all-round game, working into space and creating opportunities with clever positioning. His set piece delivery was excellent throughout, and created plenty of chances in the air. He was taken off late in the game, but he can hold his head high after a strong effort.