2018 FIFA World Cup Review

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

Best Team: France

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

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

Best Fairytale: Croatia

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

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

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

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

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

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

Team of the Tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Belgium’s golden generation come through to knock Brazil out

This was Belgium’s last chance. With their golden generation hitting their peak, a World Cup quarter-finals appearance wasn’t going to be good enough for a talented group of stars. To fulfil their immense potential as a team, they simply needed to win. Unfortunately, they were up against Brazil. A draw in their last group stage game would have taken them on a softer path, one which didn’t include the Brazilians (or the French, the team that would play the winner of the highly-anticipated clash). Instead, they won the last group stage match, and here they were. It’s hard to know how many people gave them a chance against Brazil. Belgium were good, but Brazil…were Brazil. They win things, and this team looked capable of winning things. Then Belgium delivered an inspired 90 minute performance which ended Brazil’s tournament and, once again, threw the race for the 2018 World Cup wide open.

The game started very openly. There was chaos in the Belgian penalty area when Neymar’s corner was flicked on by Miranda for Thiago Silva, who hit the post from very close range. Belgium survived and counter-attacked, with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard combining dangerously against the stretched Brazilian defence. Paulinho had a pair of chances minutes later, firstly running onto the ball as it bounced around in Belgium’s box and then miscuing another flicked on Brazilian corner. Less than 10 minutes had been played, and every single second had been played at breakneck pace. Someone was going to score. It was inevitable.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Belgium who took the lead. De Bruyne was in sparkling touch, and his incisive ball found Marouane Fellaini on the edge of the box. His shot was deflected out for a corner, which was swung in to the near post. Brazil didn’t defend Hazard’s corner particularly well, and Vincent Kompany was able to get his head on the ball to flick it on for a teammate. It never reached one of his teammates. Instead, it bounced off Fernandinho’s arm as the Brazilian midfielder attempted to block it, and it rebounded into the back of the net. Brazil were behind.

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Kevin de Bruyne scores Belgium’s second goal from just outside the box. De Bruyne was back to his best, and his first half performance gave Belgium an ultimately unassailable lead.

Now in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position, Brazil kept pushing. They drove the Belgian defence back, but Gabriel Jesus couldn’t quite force the ball in from inside the six-yard box. Belgium’s desperate defence cleared – just. Philippe Coutinho had a chance to unleash his lethal right foot when he found space outside the box, but he drilled his shot straight at Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Meanwhile, Belgium continued to pose an attacking threat of their own. Hazard somehow worked his way out of a congested area to burst into space, and Thomas Meunier’s subsequent cross nearly connected with Lukaku in the centre. De Bruyne did connect with Lukaku in the box when he found space on the break, but the big striker wasn’t quite able to get his shot off. Brazil kept pushing, and Marcelo forced Courtois into a save. Then Belgium went forward, Hazard and de Bruyne combined, and Brazil once again scrambled to clear. It was fast, end-to-end action, and both sides looked capable of breaking each other down at any given moment.

One team looked certain to score before the half was up. It was Belgium, not Brazil. Ever since they took the lead, they had threatened to turn one of their counter-attacks into a potent opportunity. When a cleared Brazilian corner found Lukaku, their break delivered. Lukaku simultaneously held off those behind him and took on those in front as he made a barnstorming run to the middle of the field, and he managed to squirt out a pass to the influential de Bruyne just before his momentum finally dissipated. The unmanned de Bruyne took a shot and didn’t miss, leaving Alisson with no chance as he drilled his unstoppable strike into the bottom corner. It was bad enough being behind. Now it was panic stations.

Naturally, Brazil kept pushing harder. Courtois was forced into a pair of tough saves in a matter of seconds, first keeping Marcelo’s deflected cross out with his outstretched hand and then flinging himself to his left to punch Coutinho’s well-placed shot away. Then, in keeping with the rhythm of the game, Belgium countered, and Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne threatened again. Shortly afterwards, Alisson tipped de Bruyne’s free-kick over the bar, and was tested again from the resultant corner when Kompany’s back-heeled flick was on target. Neymar hadn’t been too much of a factor, and the Brazilian star was thwarted thrice as the half came to a close. Firstly, he was set upon by Belgium’s afroed central midfield duo of Fellaini and Axel Witsel, and then he was stopped by club teammate Meunier. At the end of the half, he slipped in behind – and he was stopped by the offside flag.

The second half picked up where the first had left off. Kompany dispossessed Neymar and kick-started a counter-attack which saw de Bruyne play Lukaku through. Miranda, Brazil’s captain of the week, managed to stop him. Marcelo played in a few dangerous crosses, but they couldn’t find a target in the middle. Neymar went down in the box and appealed for a penalty, which wasn’t awarded. Paulinho nearly broke through minutes later, but Courtois saved his shot and Brazil couldn’t get onto his follow-up ball across goal. Another penalty appeal came when Kompany brought Gabriel Jesus down. The video assistant referee deliberated for what seemed like an age before deciding no error had been made. Play on. Then, after a protracted period of desperate defending, Belgium broke, and very nearly scored. De Bruyne (again) teed up Hazard (again), and the Belgian captain’s shot fizzed across the face of goal.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after the historic victory. They were pushed right to the end, but they held on well to progress to the semi-finals.

It soon seemed like Brazil’s attacks were beginning to falter. They still had chances, like when Courtois turned a cross into Paulinho’s leg, but Brazil weren’t coming quite as hard or as dangerously. Then Renato Augusto scored. He hadn’t been on the pitch for a long time, coming on as Tite’s last throw of the dice. Then things opened up for him with Coutinho’s perfect chip into the box, and he headed it into the bottom corner where Courtois couldn’t reach it. Brazil had hope, and they had Belgium on the back foot.

For the last 15 minutes, Brazil were a reinvigorated team. Neymar teed up Roberto Firmino in the centre, but the ball was blasted over the bar. Coutinho found Augusto on the edge of the box, and Augusto’s shot just missed. Neymar found Coutinho, for what should have been a simple chance for the star midfielder. He couldn’t have hit a worse shot if he tried, with the ball flying sideways instead of at the target. In the dying moments, Neymar had a shot after combining well with Douglas Costa. It looked perfect. It was dipping, bending and arcing dangerously towards the top corner. It was set to loop perfectly under the bar. It was set to become Neymar’s heroic moment. Then a black glove appeared and tapped the ball out for a corner. Courtois was too good for it.

As the final whistle sounded, it confirmed a win that had looked likely for some time. That didn’t mute the Belgian celebrations, however. De Bruyne was masterful, Hazard was dangerous, Courtois nearly unbeatable and the defence rock-solid. The contrast with Brazil was striking. Neymar occasionally threatened, but was nowhere near his best. Philippe Coutinho was similarly off his game. Fernandinho, in the side for regular defensive midfielder Casemiro, had a catastrophic 90 minutes, and right-back Fagner was tormented by Hazard. Brazil weren’t good enough, and Belgium most certainly were. In the end, the golden generation took their last chance. After the biggest win in their footballing history, they are a huge chance of lifting the World Cup.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76)
Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto 73), Fernandinho; Willian (Roberto Firmino 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa 58).
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 83); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Tielemans 87), E Hazard.

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Thibaut Courtois dives full length to stop Philippe Coutinho’s long range effort. The save was one of many remarkable stops made by Courtois in his brilliant performance.

Top 5
1. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
It took an immense effort, a perfect cross and an even more perfect header to eventually beat Courtois, and even Renato Augusto’s perfectly-placed effort wasn’t too far away from the Belgian goalkeeper’s desperate clutches. When Belgium needed him to stand up, he delivered, and he was the match-winner with his heroic goalkeeping.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Before this game, de Bruyne hadn’t been at his best. He was playing in a deeper midfield role, and he wasn’t getting on the ball in dangerous areas. Then he was moved into a more advanced position. From the start, de Bruyne was pulling the strings, floating into space and seemingly making something happen with every touch. His impact waned after half time, but his first half was enough.
3. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
When Hazard and de Bruyne combined, Brazil were put under immense pressure. Hazard was free to roam, and he made Fagner look completely out of his depth with some exceptional displays of skill. His balance, poise and ability caught the Brazilians out, and his counter-attacking runs were invaluable in the dying minutes for the time they chewed up.
4. Douglas Costa (Brazil)
Costa came off the bench, and he looked more likely to have an impact than many of his teammates. He made incisive runs cutting in from the right wing, he played some dangerous crosses and he connected well with the rest of the Brazilian attack. It wasn’t his best tournament, but a lively performance was a good way to finish it.
5. Vincent Kompany (Belgium)
Kompany wasn’t able to start in the group stage due to injury, but Belgium took the risk of picking their former captain despite his troubles. In their biggest ever win, he justified that selection. His defensive work was outstanding, and he was a huge factor in Belgium’s ability to keep the Brazilians out. To cap it off, it was his header that was deflected in for the crucial opening goal.

Januzaj’s stunning strike stands out as Belgium beat England

Adnan Januzaj received the ball on the edge of the penalty area. The talented Belgian winger was receiving his first start of the World Cup, and, presumably looking to impress, he skipped into the box, leaving Danny Rose scrambling to keep up as he moved from side to side. Januzaj rolled the ball to the left and right with excellent touch, before eventually deciding it was time to take a shot. He did, nonchalantly stroking the ball past Jordan Pickford’s desperate dive and into the top corner. In any other game, Januzaj’s stunning goal would have been cause for wonderment and rapturous celebration. In this game, it just cued bewilderment.

The match was only a mostly dead rubber, but actual dead rubbers – and indeed friendlies – generally take place with more energy. Both England and Belgium had sealed their place in the knockout stages, but England went into the match on top of the group, ahead of their opponents on fair play points (Belgium had negative three, England negative two). It should have been an enthralling contest, but the only incentive either team could get from topping the group was a place in the harder side of the tournament. As a result, Belgium went into the game having made nine changes, while England had made eight. Neither side had anything to gain from winning, and the result was a spectacle that left much to be desired.

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Gary Cahill (left) makes a key goal line clearance early on. The chance was one of few either side had during the match.

It was clear from the off that both teams knew exactly what the situation was regarding qualification. There were moments where Belgium’s reserves looked like scoring, most notably when Gary Cahill was forced into a goal line clearance, but generally everyone just passed the ball around. Occasionally the passing was punctuated by moments of excitement, like when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s harmless cross was so far wrong that it nearly became a half-decent shot (it still missed the target), but such moments were rare and it didn’t take long for the game to revert back to a funereal pace. Referee Damir Skomina mercifully ended the lacklustre first half without adding any time on, and the image of English wing-back Danny Rose sharing a joke with the Belgian players during the break didn’t suggest that the second half would be any more entertaining. Then, just to add to the weird contest that was unfolding, there was the small issue of the yellow cards.

With neither team really interested in winning, the match seemed destined to end in a draw, bringing fair play points into the equation. With England only leading in the race for the non-coveted top spot in the group by virtue of their superior disciplinary record, there was the possibility that a couple of bad English fouls could push Belgium into first place, something they didn’t seem to want. Obviously, Belgium foresaw this tactic, and saw fit to forestall it by picking up a few bookings of their own. Mousa Dembélé started it, bringing down Tottenham Hotspur teammate Rose a little more vigorously than he needed to. Rose was the victim again shortly after, with Leander Dendoncker brutally hacking him down just outside the box and giving England an unassailable lead in the fair play points stakes. It was complicated, very ridiculous and, above all, just bizarre.

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Adnan Januzaj celebrates after opening the scoring with a brilliant goal. Januzaj’s goal proved the difference between the teams, and it was a very rare moment of class in an otherwise uninteresting game.

Then, just after half time, Januzaj produced his moment of stunning quality. Under the circumstances, the goal felt out of place. How could it tally with a game where neither team was trying, both seemed to be secretly hoping for a defeat, no first-choice players were on the pitch and the most enthralling subplot was based around yellow cards? It almost felt like Januzaj’s goal could have been an accident, as if he unfurled a low-percentage shot and managed to absolutely nail the strike. It was just so out of keeping with everything that had happened throughout the game, and the lifelessness of the affair. After the goal, Michy Batshuayi grabbed the ball and punted it back into the net in celebration. He slammed it into the post, and it rebounded straight back into his head. At least that part was more in keeping with the rest of the game.

England didn’t really seem bothered by their going behind in the match, and they seemed quite content to hold the status quo. They pushed a little harder, but they never took it to the Belgians and didn’t really looked like getting an equaliser. In the final moments, Belgium seemed to adopt the attitude that since England weren’t actually going to beat them, if they were going to hurt their World Cup chances by winning the game then they may as well win it properly. The result was some good chances, with Dries Mertens forcing a save from Pickford and Batshuayi slipping through a couple of defenders and playing a dangerous ball into the middle which formed a dangerous scrum in the six-yard box, but no goals. In the end, with neither team really needing – or even wanting – to win, the result was never likely to be too fascinating. In the end, it was no surprise that it was just a bit dull.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
England 0
Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Jones, Stones (Maguire 46), Cahill; Alexander-Arnold (Welbeck 79), Loftus-Cheek, Dier, Delph, Rose; Vardy, Rashford.
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Dendoncker, Boyata, Vermaelen (Kompany 74); Chadli, Dembélé, Fellaini, T Hazard; Januzaj (Mertens 86), Batshuayi, Tielemans.

Top 5
1. Adnan Januzaj (Belgium)
Januzaj provided the only real entertainment of the match with his stunning strike into the top corner, and gave Belgium a spark on the right wing which suggests he could be a handful. As Belgium enter the knockouts he could be a very handy player to keep in reserve.
2. Danny Rose (England)
Rose was in pretty solid form, making some good forward runs and causing the occasional problem for the Belgian defence. He showed good pace getting forward, and showed that he has the quality to deputise on the left whenever he’s needed.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois was one of few first-choice players on the field, and his excellent goalkeeping allowed Belgium to come away with the win. He made a few excellent saves, always looked confident coming off his line and provided the security Belgium will rely on later in this tournament.
4. Marcus Rashford (England)
Rashford looked like the only English player who was really capable of breaching the Belgian defence, and he came very close on a few occasions with his pace and skill. He kept his energy up throughout the game, and came closer to scoring than any of his teammates.
5. Trent Alexander-Arnold (England)
Alexander-Arnold looked completely at home in just his second international match (even if it was against a less than full-strength Belgian side), and suggested that he can do a decent job off the bench if required. His set piece delivery was good, and he made some nice runs down the right.

Hazard a cut above as Belgium crush Hungary

Eden Hazard has always been a brilliant talent, and in the round of 16 against Hungary he showed just how good he can be with a sublime individual performance. The stand-in Belgian captain finished the game with a goal and an assist, but his performance went beyond the raw figures. He was too good for Hungary, weaving through the defence with ease and distributing the ball wherever he wanted to. He made solid, incisive runs through the Hungarian defence. He moved quickly on the counter-attack without compromising on control. It was the performance of a maestro, a player in complete control over himself and his opponents.

At first it was Kevin de Bruyne doing the work for Belgium. It was de Bruyne who was running the show in the centre of the field, and it was de Bruyne who was getting the best chances. It was de Bruyne’s free kick which set up Toby Alderweireld for Belgium’s first goal, a curling ball which perfectly exploited a weak spot in the Hungarian defence. Gabor Kiraly had been good, but he had no chance when Alderweireld placed his header in the top corner.

After the goal the game opened up for the Belgians, and Hazard was able to transition the ball between defence and attack. He never looked like being tackled, keeping the ball very close to his feet and suggesting that a foul was the best way to dispossess him. Hungary were looking for an equaliser, but Belgium looked more threatening on the break and were the team who looked most likely to score.

If Hazard hadn’t fully imposed himself on the first period of the match, the second half was where he showed his class. He showed early warning signs, breezing past Adam Lang as if the Hungarian right back was not present before unleashing a shot at the top corner. Kiraly was able to make the save. Hungary pushed, and Adam Szalai started to get some great chances. But then Hazard would get the ball and run it to the other side of the field, relieving the pressure. Akos Elek clipped him as he tried to get away; Hungary’s half time substitute was promptly shown a yellow card. Hazard continued to show his skill, weaving past defenders to get the ball to Axel Witsel, who found Radja Nainggolan in a good position. The central midfielder missed.

Roland Juhasz had a pair of great chances for Hungary from set pieces, but he could not convert. They were pushing hard for the equaliser, but the threat of Hazard got bigger and bigger every time he broke away. He was in control when he had the ball, able to use any option or make any pass he wanted with a simple touch. He was at the top of his game. Then he exploded, sealing the game for Belgium and blowing Hungary out of the way.

It started with the assist. A corner from de Bruyne was headed away, and the clearance found Hazard inside the box. He had countless options available to him at this point, with multiple players open and spreading into good positions. He set the play up himself. He took a heavy touch into the box before chasing it up, beating the Hungarian defence for pace and reclaiming the ball in a great position. He played the ball across goal for Michy Batshuayi, who had just entered the game for Romelu Lukaku. The ball passed Kiraly, and Batshuayi was able to tap the ball home to double Belgium’s lead. Then came the goal. Belgium were on the break again moments after Batshuayi’s goal, and Yannick Carrasco decided to use Hazard as he streamed through the middle of the field. He collected the ball and beat Lang, before weaving through two more defenders and driving the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. Kiraly did not stand a chance, and Hazard’s two minutes of brilliance meant that Hungary didn’t either.

Then the show was over. Hazard was replaced, with Marouane Fellaini coming on to see out the last ten minutes. The game was already done, however, and Carrasco’s injury-time goal was window-dressing, not important to the actual outcome. There were questions about the team heading into this game, but not anymore. Belgium put in a performance that showed why they are number two in the world, and Hazard showed that he is still one of the world’s best players.

Toulouse – Stadium Municipal
Hungary 0
Belgium 4 (Alderweireld 10, Batshuayi 78, Hazard 80, Carrasco 90+1)
Referee: Milorad Mazic (Srb)

Hungary (4-2-3-1): Kiraly – Lang, Juhasz (Bode 81), Guzmics, Kadar; Nagy, Gera (Elek 46); Lovrencsics, Pinter (Nikolic 75), Dzsudzsak; Szalai.
Belgium (4-3-3): Courtois – Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, de Bruyne, Nainggolan; Mertens (Carrasco 70), R Lukaku (Batshuayi 76), Hazard (Fellaini 81).

Top 5
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard was at the top of his game throughout, looking in complete control whenever he had possession and causing massive problems for the Hungarian defence. He beat opponents with ease, and his goal was one of extraordinary quality. His brilliant individual play set up Batshuayi for Belgium’s second, and he was head and shoulders above the rest.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Hazard may have been the best on the field, but it was de Bruyne who was pulling the strings in the opening minutes of a fine individual performance. He set up Alderweireld for the opening goal, and he distributed the ball effectively and calmly. He looked in control, and his combination with Hazard was a highlight for the Belgians.
3. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku was a strong presence up front throughout, and he was able to put plenty of teammates into good positions with effective passes. He could have scored a couple of times, and his work playing the ball through the Hungarian defence on the break caused a lot of problems. He made life very difficult for Hungary, and he was able to open the game up for Belgium.
4. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois had a strong game in goal, and the Belgian win would not have been as comfortable without his performance. He made some great saves to deny Hungary, and showed his ruthlessness when he made a brilliant diving save to deny Akos Elek with the score at 3-0. He made some great saves, and will be very pleased with his performance.
5. Radja Nainggolan (Belgium)
Nainggolan was everywhere for Belgium, and he was able to find the ball often and use it well. His effort was exceptional, and he covered plenty of distance in a strong performance. He helped out the attack well by roaming forward, and he was too good for Hungary in the middle, ensuring that Belgium were able to dominate.

Experience wins out as Italy topple Belgium

It only takes one chance to win a game of football, and in the end one beautiful pass was all Italy needed to take out the highly-rated Belgians in Lyon. The second goal, scored in injury time by Graziano Pelle, was icing on the cake, and the game was all but over before Pelle’s well-hit volley passed a desperate Thomas Vermaelen to find the back of the net. Belgium started the game confidently, but they were slow in attack, and their attempts to find a target inside the box were comfortably thwarted by the experienced Italian back three of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. The best chances for Belgium had come from long shots, and they came closest to scoring when Radja Nainggolan’s effort nearly found its way past Gianluigi Buffon into the bottom corner. Before the goal, the Italians defended Belgium with nonchalance, sweeping away the crosses as they came and looking completely nonplussed when faced with some of the best attacking talent in Europe.

The turning point came just after the half-hour mark, and it came from nowhere. The Belgians had been slow and ineffective, but the Italians had had less of the ball and had also been wasteful in the final third. Passes were consistently finding the red shirts of Belgium, and Italy did not appear likely to score against a Belgian team who were dominating possession. Then Bonucci set up Emanuele Giaccherini with one of the best passes of the tournament so far. From inside his own half the centre back played the ball just over the head of Toby Alderweireld, who was unable to cut it off. It landed perfectly at Giaccherini’s feet, and with a brilliant first touch the central midfielder slotted the ball past Thibaut Courtois into the bottom corner. The Belgian keeper had no chance after his defence broke down, and the Italians had the lead. Their next job was to protect it.

The goal took the momentum away from the Belgians, and suddenly Italy looked the more dangerous side. Antonio Candreva’s shot from range had to be saved by Courtois, and the resulting corner saw Pelle miss a certain goal with his head. The Belgians survived, and Kevin de Bruyne had a chance when he found the ball inside the area. He had a shot, but it was blocked by Giaccherini. It was a highlight in an otherwise poor display by the classy attacking midfielder, who was in the wrong position from the outset and looked completely lost for the whole game.

The second half started with more energy, and Romelu Lukaku should have scored shortly after the break when Belgium spread quickly on the counter-attack. Lukaku found himself behind the defence after a nice pass from de Bruyne, but he could not convert when one-on-one with Buffon. The Italian captain was in a strong position at the edge of the box, and while Lukaku’s shot went past him it missed the goals by inches. A minute later Courtois had to make a wonderful save to deny Pelle, whose close range header was destined for the bottom corner before the Belgian keeper threw out a hand to stop it. Italy needed to take the sting out of the game, and they gradually did, forcing Belgium to attack patiently and allowing their defence to take control again. They thwarted Belgium every time they tried to counter, and had plenty of players booked as a result. Chiellini just stopped short of tackling Eden Hazard to the ground as the Belgian captain tried to get away. Dries Mertens had plenty of options open for him on the break, but Eder made sure he could not pass it off. Bonucci fouled Divock Origi when the young striker found himself in a strong attacking position. Belgium were forced to try and penetrate the perfectly organised Italian defence, and while chances fell to Origi and Marouane Fellaini in the dying minutes they could not get the ball into the Italian net.

In the end, none of it mattered, as a strong Italian counter-attack was too much for the Belgian defence. Candreva found himself one-on-one, but chose to cross it to Pelle, leaving the Belgian keeper out of position. Vermaelen tried desperately to stop the shot, but, like Belgium on the night, it was never going to happen.

Parc Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon
Belgium 0
Italy 2 (Giaccherini 32, Pelle 90+2)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois – Ciman (Carrasco 75), Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Nainggolan (Mertens 62), Witsel; de Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard; Lukaku (Origi 73).
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, de Rossi (Motta 78), Giaccherini, Darmian (de Sciglio 58); Pelle, Eder (Immobile 75).

Top 5
1. Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
Bonucci was brilliant throughout, and he was impenetrable in defence. His combination with Barzagli, Chiellini and Buffon was excellent, and when Belgium were sending crosses into the box early he was always there to block them. The pass that led to Italy’s first goal was incredible, and he had a wonderful game despite a booking for a professional foul late in the game.
2. Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)
Chiellini played a similar role to Bonucci in the centre of defence, and he made some key stops to ensure that nothing got through. He showed his experience when he fouled Eden Hazard to stop a Belgian attack, and while he was booked for the incident it did not really tarnish his individual performance. He was very good, and will hope to continue his form for the rest of the tournament.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois was at the top of his game in goal, and he kept Belgium in the game on a number of occasions after the Italians opened the scoring. He had no chance of stopping the two Italian goals, but he saved a number of excellent Italian attempts and made an incredible save to deny Graziano Pelle’s header just after half-time.
4. Graziano Pelle (Italy)
A goal in injury-time was a just reward for Pelle, who was a massive problem for the Belgian defence throughout and managed to find plenty of open space inside the box. He should have scored just after Giaccherini when his header was slightly wide, and it took a special save from Courtois to deny another header from close range. He was in good attacking positions and was very dangerous.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
The Belgian defence was not particularly cohesive throughout, but Alderweireld was able to hold everything together for the whole game. He was caught out when Italy scored their first goal, but he had a flawless second half. He was forced to take a bigger role as the game progressed, and he was able to thwart most of Italy’s counter-attacks before they came to anything.