World Cup Diary Part Six: The Final Countdown

During the 2018 World Cup we’ve been keeping a diary charting the surprising rise and sensational fall of the game’s greatest nations, watching agog as Germany, Argentina, Portugal, Spain and Brazil have all fallen by the wayside, leaving just four teams to battle it out for football’s greatest prize. In Part Six, it’s the semi-finals, as France, Belgium, Croatia and England reach the final hurdle separating history from infamy.

TUESDAY 10th JULY 2018  

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The first semi-final of Russia 2018 pitted together two managers that few thought had the nous to take their teams, however crammed full of talent, this deep into the competition. Didier Deschamps has never been allowed to get comfortable on his Les Bleus chaise longue, with his side’s performance in the final of Euro 2016 in particular a point of contention with French supporters. When Zinedine Zidane contracted a severe case of unemployment weeks before the tournament, there were more than a few haughty-voiced murmurs that Deschamps was heading into his final handful of matches as national team manager. But, having so expertly dispatched Argentina and Uruguay, simultaneously installing his teams as the favourites to lift the trophy, surely there’s life in the water carrier yet? Roberto Martinez, too, had collected a gaggle of detractors, thanks largely to his time in charge at late-equaliser concession’s Everton. Billed as an attack-minded coach with little to no defensive expertise, and lacking the game management to affect a result from the touchline, a substitution-inspired turnaround against Japan was followed up by a counter-attacking masterclass against Brazil. Finally, Bobby has earned his stripes.

Understandably the two forward lines garnered much of the pre-match attention, with Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe facing off against Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, though the performances of both goalkeepers in the quarter-finals suggested they too might have a say in the result. Based on previous meetings, the watching world was licking its lips at the prospect of a goal-fest, with France’s 4-2 victory in the 1986 Third Place Playoff setting a high bar. In their previous meeting, a friendly in 2015, Belgium won 4-3 and Marouane Fellaini scored twice. The Beanpole Messi retained his place in the starting line-up after an impressive performance against Brazil, while Mousa Dembele was drafted into midfield, and in a surprise move Nacer Chadli replaced the suspended Thomas Meunier at right-back. For France, the impressive Blaise Matuidi returned from suspension to reprise his role at left-wing, offering protection for Lucas Hernandez whilst simultaneously allowing the Juventus man to display his lesser seen attacking intent.

The opening stages saw Belgium enjoy plenty of the ball while France looked to play them at their own game. Content to sit deep with the devastating pace of Mbappe to call upon, the hairiest moment for the French arrived after fifteen minutes, as Hazard found an inch of space on the left and drove an effort towards goal – wide. Belgium’s #10 looked in inspired form, potentially buoyed by the news that a certain Madrid-based club might be on the search for a new Galactico, and spent the first half terrorizing the French backline. Having again skinned Benjamin Pavard, his fizzing cross-cum-shot required a late intervention from Raphael Varane to clear the danger. From the resultant corner arrived the best chance of the opening half, as Giroud’s attempted clearance fell at the feet of Toby Alderweireld, who’s quick pivot and snapshot looked to be sailing in, only for Hugo Lloris to pull another jaw-dropping save out of the bag, flinging his arms out to parry the ball onto the post and away from immediate danger. The Belgian intensity predictably began to wane as the half wore on, and when France were finally afforded possession they wasted little time in making the most of it. Mbappe, again the attacking fulcrum, first slammed a ball across the penalty area that Giroud could only poke wide, before slipping in the overlapping Pavard, whose HND in Geometry failed to pay dividends, the full-back firing an angled shot into the shin of Thibaut Courtois.

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France stepped out in the second half with a renewed sense of purpose, and within five minutes of the restart had taken the lead from yet another set-piece goal. Griezmann’s corner found Samuel Umtiti outjumping Fellaini, pop bang lovely, 1-0 Les Bleus. Rather than galvanise Martinez’s team, the Belgians looked stunned, and sensing their opponents were punchdrunk, the French went in for the kill. An outrageous piece of skill from Mbappe, who now leads the race for the Golden Ball, played Giroud in on goal, but again Courtois’ shin came to Belgium’s rescue, deflecting the ball away for a corner. An early change for the Red Devils saw Dries Mertens replace Dembele, with the aim of giving Belgium a little more forward momentum, but even with half an hour to play they looked flustered. None more so than De Bruyne (who, in fairness, usually looks a little flustered due to his complexion), who in the space of five minutes misplaced as many passes – the pressure clearly getting to arguably the best playmaker on the pitch. Marshalled by the imperious Varane, France’s defence looked uncowed by the opposition’s attacking pressure, though Giroud was fortunate to escape conceding a free-kick on the edge of the area after a late challenge on Hazard was waved away by the Uruguayan referee. A minute later, Varane executed a far cleaner challenge on the Belgium forward, only for the ball to sit up nicely for Axel Witsel to fire a half-volley towards goal, though Lloris was able to meet the effort with firm palms.

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By now Belgium seemed to have run out of ideas, with Martinez on the touchline seemingly willing his plan to work, as though he’d recently discovered a cheat code for football management and now just had to turn up in order to win games. France, meanwhile, indulged in a little of the dark arts, with Mbappe in particular employing a slice of gamesmanship up against Jan Vertonghen in order to waste a few precious seconds. With the French players huddled in the corner as stoppage time ebbed away, Belgian hopes faded, and the full time whistle marked the end of their World Cup dream. On paper, a semi-final is perhaps par for such a talented team, but overcoming the psychological barrier of 32 years should be taken as a positive. France, meanwhile, are surely hot favourites to take the World Cup back to Charles De Gaulle twenty years after their first win. Whoever faces them in the final won’t just have to look after Mbappe and Griezmann, but also work out how to get past Varane and Umtiti. Sacre bleu.

 

WEDNESDAY 11th JULY 2018

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No country has completely lost its shit in the grip of World Cup fever quite like England. The 6-1 win over Panama during the group stage sparked a revival of Baddiel and Skinner’s Three Lions being sung in pubs from Brighton to Barnsley, and the bittersweet ode to following the kings of glorious failure was finally given the tribute it deserves, becoming a prominent member of the meme cannon. From Shawshank Redemption, to Friends, to Only Fools and Horses – you name it, it’s been Football’s Coming Home’d. On the day of England’s first World Cup semi-final since 1990, supporters were urged to follow the sartorial example set by the national team manager, and take part in Waistcoat Wednesday. Seriously, this country has lost its fucking minds. Offering a stark contrast in only their second semi-final of a major tournament since independence from Yugoslavia, support for Croatia heading into this World Cup was muted at best. The part played by captain and star man Luka Modric in the tax fraud trial of Zdravko Mamic, which led to the Real Madrid midfielder being charged with perjury, left a sour taste in the mouths of Croatian supporters, and many were said to be boycotting their national team this summer. That feeling may have shifted somewhat as the boys from the Balkans showed guile and craft to top their group, coupled with resilience and determination to see off Denmark and Russia on penalty kicks to make the semi. That gruelling four hours of football left many of Croatia’s first-teamers a doubt for the meeting with England, but in the end Zlatko Dalić was able to name his preferred XI, with Marcelo Brozovic replacing Andrej Kramaric to beef up the centre of midfield. England, again, remained unchanged.

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That rumoured tiredness in Croatian ranks, combined with England’s habit of racing out of the blocks, made for a promising start for Gareth Southgate. In just the fourth minute Mario Mandzukic bundled over Dele Alli on the edge of the box, and Kieran Tripper stepped up to curl a majestic free-kick past Danijel Subašić. The Tottenham full-back has emerged as one of the most vital cogs in Southgate’s team, having provided quality and real danger from set-pieces throughout the tournament, and his execution of this dead-ball made him the first England player to score directly from a free-kick since David Beckham in 2006. Now, it seemed, the dream was becoming reality. Croatia, rattled by the early goal, were unable to find any passing rhythm, and with England snapping at their heels like a pack of overexcited terriers, Dalic’s gameplan looked to be coming apart at the seams. Dejan Lovren, who’d been enjoying a decent tournament after a testing season with Liverpool, looked overawed in the face of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, and was fortunate on more than one occasion to escape a booking. Then, perhaps the defining moment of the match. Jesse Lingard’s cute pass into Kane put the striker one-one-one with Subašić, with Sterling available for the square pass. Having seen the Croatian keeper stop his intial effort, Kane somehow managed to smash the follow up against the post, with the ball breaking kindly for Croatia to clear. At 2-0, England surely would have been home and dry. That let off seemed to wake Croatia from their slumber, and in the remainder of the first half they began to cause England problems. Ante Rebic, who’d been a peripheral figure in the opening half an hour, managed to get a shot away to give Jordan Pickford his first test of the evening, before a timely intervention from Ashley Young prevented the Eintracht Frankfurt man from troubling England’s custodian further. Another golden chance arrived for England shortly afterwards, as Lingard was found in space on the edge of the area, but the midfielder opted for placement over power, and his placement wasn’t particularly good either, as his effort went wide. Half-time arrived shortly after, and England, unspoken misgivings aside, looked to be comfortably heading for a World Cup final.

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Or at least they would have been, had Croatia not emerged for the second half looking like a team transformed. Whether it was a touch of complacency or tiredness from England, or Dalic’s insistence on his full-backs and midfielders pressing higher onto the opposition’s nervy backline, there was an evident sea change within the first ten minutes of the second period. The Croatians, clearly reminded of the occasion, offered far more aggression, thundering into tackles and unafraid of leaving a little in on tackles, though still unable to create a clear cut chance. Then, with a little over twenty minutes to play, their enterprising play was rewarded. Sime Vrsaljko, who had all but been ruled out of this game, scampered up the right wing, delivered a peach of a cross from deep, and with panic reigning in the England penalty area, Ivan Perisic arrived with an unorthodox outside-of-the-boot volley to turn past Pickford. England punished, not only for their first half profligacy, but for failing to react when Croatia finally took a grip on the game. Now, all the play was being dictated by the team wearing black. Perisic, having a lovely old time, cut inside from the left to drive an effort at goal that bounced back off the post. England rocking, though still able to carve out chances, as Lingard’s fizzing cross proved – though sadly there was no-one in the vicinity to connect. Back up the other end, Mandzukic, who’d spent most of the match throwing his weight around England’s backline, fired a volley at goal that Pickford just about kept out. In stoppage time, England win a free-kick in the final third, a chance to add further to their set-piece goal tally at this tournament. This time, though, Kane was unable to apply the finish, and shortly after the full-time whistle sounded. For England, another tortuous half an hour. For Croatia, a familiar end to the match – their third period of extra time in the competition.

England, having been overrun for 45 minutes, finally found a foothold back in the game during the first half of extra time, and were it not for the impressive Vrsaljko, John Stones may have restored their lead – his towering header from Trippier’s corner cleared off the line by Croatia’s full-back. Croatia themselves preferred to sit back for fifteen minutes, inviting the opposition onto them, and preserving energy. That proved decisive as, in the third minute of the second period, Kyle Walker’s clearance was headed back into the penalty area, and with Stones suffering a split-second loss of concentration, Mandzukic was able to bring the ball down and dispatch past Pickford to put Croatia within touching distance of the final. A punch in the gut for England, with so little time to recover and barely anything left in the tank. Balls were desperately launched into the box, but there was little chance of an experienced Croatian side allowing the opposition in. White shirts collapsed to the turf as the full-time whistle sounded, but despite the agony and disappointment, England’s players can be proud. Regardless of the quality of opposition faced to get here, becoming only the third English team to reach a World Cup semi-final is no mean feat. There is a sense that this is only the beginning for this England team, after years of disappointment at the hands of the so-called Golden Generation. On the night, though, Croatia were the better side, and after a slog of a campaign will rightfully take their place in the final. More often than not the two best teams at a World Cup make it to the final, and it Russia 2018 it’s difficult to argue the case. It may not be the final anyone expected, but it’s the final that France and Croatia deserve.

Football: Rentrer à la maison or Dolazim kući?

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