World Cup Diary Part Five: European Reunion

During the 2018 World Cup we’ve been keeping a diary of all the goals, games and giggles on and off the pitch, working through a box of tissues at double speed as we ogle over the skills of the world’s best players, while simultaneously saying emotional goodbyes to each nation one-by-one. In Part Five, we’ve reached the Quarter Finals and remarkably Russia and England are still in it. First though, a pair of thigh rubbing clashes between Europe and South America.  

FRIDAY 6th JULY 2018

Preconceptions are like feral children – provided you don’t let them out in public, they’re unlikely to come back and bite you. Take France for example, who arrived in Russia with a reputation for free-flowing attacking football, and hotly tipped to crush their competitors in the group stage the way a drunk England fan crushes cans of Carling against his osmium thick skull. Three tight encounters later, the pundits were quickly reevaluating whether Didier Deschamps could get the best out of his superstar squad, and then they went and produced the most breathtaking attacking performance of the tournament to stick four past Argentina. And what of  Uruguay? Tarred with the brushes marked ‘aggressive’, ‘cunning’ and ‘devious’, their exemplary discipline in the group stage saw them sail past Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia picking up just one caution, and sailing to the top of the Fair Play table, which is The Real Quiz. Even during the game on ‘Shithouse Saturday’ against Portugal, Oscar Tabarez’s team kept their cool and escaped without further disciplinary points. Which goes to show that dismissing the two-time World Cup winners as fiery, animalistic hooligans is no more accurate than saying all Tories are heartless elitist vultures who wouldn’t know compassion if it set up camp in the paddock of their third home. Except that’s an irrefutable truth.

Anyway, Uruguay vs France, the kind of match that befits the irresistible force paradox, with the Dodge Challenger of attacks meeting the Masada Fortress of  defences. The evergreen Diego Godin, still only 32 but with the air of a man who witnessed the invention of smelting, had so far posted four impressive perfomances in the heart of the Uruguayan defence, ably assisted by Jose Giminez, the natural heir to his throne. Their task for the afternoon was to stop Kylian Mbappe, who was only just becoming well-acquinted with Lego when Godin made his international debut, and Antoine Griezmann, whose Fortnite-inspired goal celebrations nail his mental age at around 12. A typically tense opening half in Nizhny Novgorod had seen Uruguay have the best of the play, but when Griezmann whipped in a free-kick five minutes before the break, Raphael Varane rose highest in the box to nod past Fernando Muslera and give France the lead. Uruguay almost hit back immediately, as Martin Caceres forced an incredible save from Hugo Lloris, before Godin arrived late on the scene to hoof the ball into Row Z, presumably forgetting he was in the opposition’s six yard box.

The absence of Edinson Cavani was always likely to hit the Uruguayan’s hard, and with strike partner Luis Suarez suffering yet another off-day, La Celeste struggled to mount anything approaching a decent attack in the second half. While France looked happy to sit on their slender lead, it took just a flicker of lost concentration for them to put the game to bed. Griezmann, receiving the ball from Paul Pogba on the edge of the penalty area, smashed an effort at goal that Muslera looked to have covered, but the Galatasaray ‘keeper opted to punch, and the ball looped up off his gloves and into the net. Even though Germany didn’t make the knockouts, it must have been pleasing for the ghost of Loris Karius to have made an appearance. With Les Bleus coasting, Lloris had time to indulge in a mid-game snack, though appeared to immediately regret ordering the dragonfly, and was caught on camera spitting the suicidal insect onto the pitch. Lloris wasn’t the only one acting as if the result was a foregone conclusion, as Jose Giminez lined-up in the wall to face a France free-kick in tears. Gary Neville deemed the outpouring of emotion ’embarrassing’, but then Gary Neville isn’t allowed to have feelings unless Sir Alex Ferguson tells him he can. Otherwise Roy Keane will steal his lunch money.

Job done for Deschamps, with his side now installed as the bookies favourites to lift their second World Cup. Based on the evidence of their two performances in the knockout stages, you’d be hard-pushed to argue with that. Though Zinedine Zidane might be less than impressed with his countrymen’s performance – another two years on Jobseekers’ Allowance beckons.

If we expected the early game to be a touch attritional, Friday night’s fixture had all the hallmarks of a potential World Cup classic. Two teams full of attacking talent, two defences capable of farting their brains out, one superstar prima donna, one Dad-dancing former manager of Wigan Athletic. Jules Rimet himself couldn’t have bettered the recipe. Brazil’s tournament so-far has been a living, breathing incarnation of the ‘Expectation/Reality’ meme, arriving as hot favourites and proving themselves functional at best. A draw with Switzerland and a last gasp double against Costa Rica were papered over by comfortable strolls against the over-awed Serbia and Mexico, and Belgium provided arguably the first big test of the competition for Tite and his team. Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, had overseen the only 100% record left in the competition following Uruguay’s exit, limping to a 3-0 win over Panama before his side took their foot of the brakes against Tunisia, and the reserves ground out a single goal victory over England. The scare against Japan in the second round, finding themselves two goals down with an hour gone, provided just the kick up the arse his side needed, and their late comeback was perhaps more impressive than any run-of-the-mill 2-0 victory could ever be.

Both sides began the game flitting between up-tempo attacking play and spells of knocking the ball around to ease themselves in, though it was Brazil that came closest to breaking the deadlock in the opening stages, as Thiago Silva connected with a corner and thighed the ball onto the post. Belgium, though, would have more joy from their first corner, as Eden Hazard’s wicked delivery left the Brazilian defence in disarray, and Fernandinho could only deflect the ball in off his shoulder. Game on. That early goal played perfectly into Belgium’s hands, with Martinez setting his team up to hit Brazil on the break, though had Gabriel Jesus not forgotten to pack his form, they might have equalised immediately. As it was, Courtois’ goal remained untroubled. The favourites, though, did continue to put pressure on the Belgian back line, but then they made the fatal error of winning a corner. Neymar’s kick, clearly full of static, arrived onto Marouane Fellaini’s afroed bonce like a homing missile, and the Manchester United man’s clearance found clubmate Lukaku on the charge. With the power and pace of a particularly disgruntled bull, and the intelligence and spatial awareness of a chess grandmaster, Belgium’s #9 cut a swath through the yellow-shirted backline, before weighting a pass into the path of Kevin De Bruyne, who took a touch before thumping a missile into Alisson’s bottom corner. Brazil put to the sword. Bobby Martinez in dreamland.

Dumbfounded but not defeated, Philippe Coutinho almost pulled one back before half-time with a Coutinho special. This time though, his bending effort from the edge of the box was palmed away by Courtois, and the Belgians’ two-goal lead remained intact. The second half picked up where the first left off, both sides maintaining a frightening intensity. Substitute Roberto Firmino should have halved the deficit when Marcelo fizzed a ball across the penalty area, but couldn’t get the vital touch, before Vincent Kompany stuck out his big toe to bring down Jesus and gift Brazil a penalty. Except, somehow, even after a VAR review, the spot kick wasn’t awarded. Of course, VAR was always going to be one of the central talking points of this World Cup but, where wrestling in the box and handball decisions have split opinion, this seemed like the kind of call that VAR was made for. If the referee hadn’t seen the contact on first viewing, fair enough, but to watch a video replay and see Kompany get nowhere near the ball, yet still deny a penalty, is beyond ludicrous. A bad workman always blames his tools, a bad referee just ignores them and tries to do the job with his bare hands. Either way you end up with sewage all over your lovely new tiles.

The longer the game went on the further Belgium found themselves pushed back, which arguably was their gameplan all along, but Brazil still struggled to find the killer ball. Douglas Costa made a nuisance of himself down the right, forcing Courtois into another good save, and then fifteen minutes from time Renato Augusto headed one back from a delightful Coutinho cross. The grandstand finish had arrived, but Brazil continued to be frustrated, and every time Belgium cleared they looked like adding a third. Neymar, an agrophobic egomaniac as his own birthday barbecue, cut a frustrated, peripheral figure. His appeal for a penalty in stoppage time was optimistic at best, having thrown himself to the ground under pressure from Thomas Meunier. Then, out of nowhere, the world’s most expensive footballer launched a spectacular effort towards the top corner, met by an even more spectacular save from Courtois. The last chance for Brazil, as Belgium cling on for an historic victory. Tears before bedtime for Neymar, and vindication for Martinez.

Belgium v France in the World Cup semi-final. It’s enough to take the skin clean off your thighs.

SATURDAY 7th JULY 2018

At any other World Cup in the past twelve years, I’d be obliged to say that, after a breathtaking Friday of quarter-final action, England would arrive on Saturday and stink the whole place up. This time, however, things are different. The manager is no philanderer, or buzzkill, or kindly nomad. The star players aren’t adulterous drink-drivers who crave fame. The captain isn’t a racist who parks in disabled bays. They’re footballers, Jim, but not as we know them. England might not have played the best football in Russia, but they’ve looked like they’ve had the most fun doing it. Talent, charisma and humility in abundance; a timely reminder that, beneath the stacks of money in football the industry, football the game still exists.

So here come Sweden to ruin another country’s summer. Dismissed as nothing special pre-tournament, Janne Andersson has combined strength, physicality and determination to create his own remarkable story in Russia. If deposing of the Netherlands and Italy in qualifying wasn’t enough, the Swedes then topped a group featuring Germany and battered Mexico into second place – arguably the result that sealed El Tri’s sixth consecutive second round exit. Combined with Sweden’s knack of getting one over their English counterparts, and the omens didn’t look great for Gareth Southgate. Those misgivings filtered onto the pitch, as a nervy England struggled to settle into the match in the face of a Sweden team happy to sit and disrupt rather than play themselves. It took almost twenty minutes for the first real slice of goalmouth action, with Raheem Sterling’s mazy dribble opening space for Harry Kane to fire an effort at goal, but Robin Olsen’s gloves remained unsoiled as the effort rolled wide. Having been carved open, jitters began to appear in the Swedish defence, and Southgate’s team finally found a little rhythm, another Sterling dribble causing panic and leading to the concession of a corner. England have placed a monopoly on set-piece goals in this tournament, and having seen the first corner return from whence it came, the second found the formidable cranium of Harry Maguire, and the Sheffield born centre-back powered a header in to give England a precious lead. Sweden, clearly rattled by falling behind, found themselves in flux and without a game plan appropriate to the situation, offering England the chance to create more goalscoring opportunites. Sterling twice found himself one-on-one with Olsen, though on both occasions lacked the clarity of mind to double his team’s advantage. Those spurned opportunities shouldn’t negate the importance of the Manchester City man to England’s first half performance, with Sweden visibly terrified every time Sterling picked the ball up and headed towards goal. His intelligent runs around the back line, too, afforded the midfield and wingbacks space to run into – he has proven himself integral to Southgate’s system.

Having survived the English onslaught of the first half, Sweden emerged knowing they’d have to give Jordan Pickford a little more to think about, and two minutes into the second half Marcus Berg directed a header towards the bottom corner, only to see the Everton ‘keeper acrobatically claw it away. That brief respite for Andersson’s defenders was shortlived, and England were soon knocking on the door in the final third, and just shy of the hour mark the crucial second goal arrived. Jesse Lingard’s cross from deep found Dele Alli peeling away from his marker at the back post, and the midfielder buried a trademark header beyond Olsen to all but seal England’s passage to the semi-finals. There was still time for Pickford to pull off two more jaw-dropping saves, in particular from Viktor Claesson’s goalbound effort four minutes later, but the winner was never in doubt. A more comfortable quarter-final victory will be difficult to find, as England cruised in the Samaran sunshine to their first semi-final since 1990.

That left the clash between two sides written off by this very website ahead of the tournament to battle it out for the final spot in the last four. Hosts Russia had confounded all expectations to get this far, with coach Stanislav Cherchesov proving himself a flexible tactician after the bruising attacking mentality of the group stage was replaced with pragmatic defence against Spain. While the hosts might not have cherry picked the best performing team in the group stage as a quarter-final opponent, Croatia’s languid display against Denmark would have given Cherchesov hope. The message to his players will have been simple – stop Luka Modric, and you’ll stop Croatia. If the pessimistic Russian supporters had been left pleasantly discredited by their team’s performance so far, the sight of Denis Cheryshev rasping one in from twenty-five yards on the half-hour would have sent them delirious. The midfielder hadn’t even been a starter for Cherchesov when the tournament began, but his fourth goal of the tournament offered further proof of his quality. Russian joy was shortlived, though, as eight minutes later Croatia conjured an equaliser with their first shot on target. Mario Mandzukic raided unopposed into the left hand of the penalty area before floating a cross onto the head of the waiting Andrej Kramaric. All square in Kazan.

If the nervous energy that an occasion like a World Cup quarter final produces had been focussed into a couple of splendid goals in the first half, it offered the exact opposite effect in the second as Croatia in particular began to seize up and Russia looked to cling on for another penalty shootout. Ivan Perisic’s toe-poke in the midst of a goalmouth melee extraordinarily bounced off the post and across the goal-line to safety in the one big moment of the second half, but another stint of extra-time quickly arrived for two sides who already looked dead on their feet. For Russia, the bones began to ache a little more in the first half of extra time as Domagoj Vida headed Croatia ahead, seconds after Aleksander Golovin had seen claims for a penalty waved away. If the hosts were going out, they were going out fighting however, and in another remarkable twist at this already remarkable World Cup, Brazilian born full-back Mario Fernandes headed an equaliser for Russia with only five minutes of extra time to play. For both sides, penalties again.

This tournament has already given us some dramatic and desperate shootouts, but no-one could have predicted Russia and Croatia playing out a b-sides and deep cuts compilation of spot-kicks for a place in the semi. First up, Fedor Smolov’s embarrassingly tame dink that gave Danijel Subašić time to dive, then readjust his body before sticking out a hand to save. Then, Mateo Kovacic offering Igor Akinfeev another opportunity to be the hero by forcing an excellent stop from the CSKA ‘keeper. In reply, Fernandes, Russia’s saviour, drags his kick wide. Next up, Modric, the archetypal fallen idol, with an effort that Akinfeev gets a hand to, only to see it bounce off the post, loop over him and nestle into the side-netting of the far corner. Finally, just as he did against Denmark, Ivan Rakitic steps up to drill home and send Croatia to the semis. Heartbreak for the hosts, but an effort to be proud of.

All of which leaves England v Croatia contesting a World Cup semi-final. Let’s hope Gareth won’t be needing a brolley.

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