Throughout the 2018 World Cup we’ve been keeping a day-by-day diary, reporting on every match at the tournament as thirty-two nations have slowly but surely been whittled down to just two. In Part Seven, Russia 2018 reaches its conclusion, as France and Croatia, perhaps the most surprising Final line-up in the competition’s history, battle it out for football’s greatest prize. First though, there was the minuscule matter of Belgium vs England Part Two.
SATURDAY 14th JULY 2018
Three days is a long time in football. In the immediate aftermath of England’s semi-final defeat to Croatia, the mood of the nation was sanguine. Gareth Southgate had done an excellent job with a work-in-progress squad, and despite misgivings surrounding the quality of opposition the Three Lions faced on their way to the last four, it was widely agreed that his young side had overachieved. Fast-forward to Saturday, and building up to the meaningless Third Place Playoff against a Belgium team that England had already lost to this summer, and the knife sharpeners, if not the knives, had been dusted off. Some critics suggested that Southgate had been “naive” with his substitutions in the semi-final, while others questioned his ability to make “brave” changes. One-by-one, the team that left everything on the pitch in Moscow were blamed for the result. Harry Kane ‘missed a sitter’ (it later emerged that Danijel Subasic had pulled off the save of the tournament), Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard didn’t provide support for the overrun Jordan Henderson in midfield. Harry Maguire and John Stones were fazed by the occasion. Jordan Pickford’s lauded distribution went out of the window. The substitutes were all largely ineffective. Though some of these accusations are based in truth, the simple fact of the matter was that England were beaten by a better team. The fact Croatia are World Cup finalists is no accident, and in Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, they boast three of Europe’s most decorated footballers. Undoubtedly there are lessons for Southgate to learn from this campaign, but the inquisition seems unnecessary.
Belgium’s semi-final defeat, meanwhile, had been met with far less opprobrium. Their narrow defeat to France in Saint Petersburg was a game decided by fine margins, and had the ball fallen kindly in that opening 25 minutes of Belgian dominance, things may have been different. The suspension of Thomas Meunier, too, was a stroke of misfortune, denying Belgium width and enforcing the inclusion of Nacer Chadli at right-back. Though this may be Belgium’s “Golden Generation”, the kind of expectation that has routinely weighed England down at major tournaments doesn’t appear to be apparent. There were justified misgivings surrounding Roberto Martinez ahead of the tournament, but the Spaniard will emerge from Russia with a bank full of credit. It was, after all, his changes that turned the game around against Japan, and his masterplan that provided Belgium with perhaps their greatest tournament result against Brazil. Regardless of whether they finish third or fourth, there’s no argument that it has been a successful summer for the Red Devils.
And so, onto the game. Both managers named surprisingly strong teams, given the meaningless nature of the fixture. Youri Tielemans was the only Belgian starter that hadn’t played a major part in the tournament, while Meunier returned from suspension. For England, Phil Jones, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all came into the side that lost to Croatia – spare a thought for Jack Butland and Nick Pope, whose gloves will return home unsullied. Unsurprisingly both Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane started the game, with the subtext of the match being a shootout for the Golden Boot, though Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe might have something to say about that come the final. Within four minutes Belgium had the lead, as Chadli’s right-wing cross was met by the outstretched boot of Meunier, who’d been allowed to drift into the area by the absent-minded Rose. England already heading home with a whimper. In a pedestrian first-half there was still an opportunity for Jordan Pickford to further enhance his reputation, showing agility to keep out Kevin De Bruyne’s deflected effort, while at the other end Kane’s mystifying loss of composure in front of goal continued, slashing wide from Raheem Sterling’s knock-down. Perhaps he’s realised it’s nearly August.
Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford were introduced for the second half and England slowly began to enjoy more of the ball in the final third, the Manchester United midfielder’s flashed cross-cum-shot across the face of goal evading Harry Kane by millimetres. The best chance of the game for Southgate’s men arrived after some slick interplay between Rashford and Eric Dier, with the Tottenham midfielder advancing on goal and dinking the ball over Thibaut Courtois, only to see clubmate Toby Alderweireld slide in to clear off the line and deny England an equaliser. Pickford was then called on again to pull off a spectacular save from Meunier’s volley, but the more England pushed forward looking to get back on terms, the more vulnerable they looked on the break. That danger was finally realised eight minutes from time, as a long ball forward completely bamboozled Jones, who had failed to step up with his fellow defenders, and Eden Hazard raced in on goal to slot away Belgium’s second and seal the win.
In the words of Gareth Southgate, this was a game too far for England, and any notions that they’re now entitled to a seat at the top table of world football are premature to say the least. Their performance at this tournament represents progress, but there’s a long way to go before they can consider themselves serious challengers. Southgate’s reign will of course find itself under greater scrutiny over the next two years, and the European Championships in 2020 will give us a better idea of how far this team have come. It’s expected that, by then, the likes of Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands will be performing closer to their expected levels, while France and Croatia will surely be installed among the favourites. Belgium, meanwhile, will be targeting it as their time to shine. With the final being held at Wembley, football is coming home in a very real sense. Whether it’ll be staying is an altogether different matter.
SUNDAY 15th JULY 2018
So, after 31 days, 63 games, 163 goals, and what felt like thousands of penalties awarded, the world’s gaze returned to the Luzhniki Stadium, where France arrived looking to add a second World Cup to their collection, while Croatia participated in their first ever final. Whilst it’s hackneyed to draw comparisons to the 1998 World Cup, the year of France’s sole victory, there were undeniable similarities. Didier Deschamps, the captain that lifted the trophy in the Stade De France on 12th July 1998, led his team out as manager twenty years later to face a Croatia side experiencing something of ‘silver generation’. The greatest team assembled by the Balkans since the side that finished third in ’98, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic’s patrolling of the midfield a future echo of the classy Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki, once again found a young, multicultural French team standing in their way of glory.
Despite having played the equivalent of an extra game over the course of the knockout stages, Zlatko Dalić named an unchanged side to the one that knocked England out on the same ground four days previous, with Deschamps following suit, sticking with the 4-2-3-1 formation introduced after watching his team stutter to victory against Australia in their opening game. There had been concerns surrounding the goalscoring form of Olivier Giroud, with the target man having failed to find the net so far in the tournament, but if any nation knows about misfiring strikers winning the World Cup it’s France. Just ask Stephane Guivarc’h. Much of the pre-match attention naturally focused on Kylian Mbappe, the new darling of world football who thankfully avoided the fate suffered by Ronaldo twenty years ago. The boy’s got more than just pace to burn. If Croatia were looking for added motivation ahead of the final, then France’s national sport newspaper L’equipe’s front page the day before the final, with a photo of the Arc Du Triomphe captioned ‘See you tomorrow’, might have done the trick. Though Croatia’s players were reportedly too busy scouring the British press for any sign of disrespect to notice.
After the bizarre and garish closing ceremony, the game finally kicked off at 6pm Moscow time under a canopy of storm clouds. Any Croatian fans with a penchant for pathetic fallacy could have been excused for fancying their teams chances. In fact, it’s difficult to make a claim against Croatia being the better team in the opening exchanges. Much as against Belgium, France were happy to cede possession, but for the opening quarter of an hour the perceived French weakness at full-back was exploited over and over by Croatia. Full-backs Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsalkjo and wide forwards Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic found themselves in behind the France backline again and again, but some stout defending and sloppy deliveries failed to make it count. On such fine margins are games decided and, whilst there was plenty of this match still to be played, when Antoine Griezmann won a soft free-kick thirty yards from goal, France finally had an opportunity to test Croatia’s defence, and did just that. Griezmann’s lofted ball looked to be heading safely into the hands of Danijel Subasic, only for Mario Mandzukic to pop up and divert the ball past his own ‘keeper and into the net. Avantage France.
To Croatia’s credit heads didn’t drop, and the swapping of wings between Perisic and Rebic seemed to breathe new life into their attack. With the former advancing on goal, N’golo Kante was forced to take action and earn himself a booking with a desperate swipe and, from the resulting free-kick, Croatia were back in the game. Modric’s floated free-kick into the penalty area was nodded down by Vrsalkjo and, having controlled the ball with his right, Perisic fired a thunderbolt with his left into the bottom corner to spark wild celebrations. Croatian joy was shortlived, however, as three minutes later Griezmann’s header was flicked on by Blaise Matuidi and, on first glance, deflected out of play off the knee of Perisic. The French players immediately surrounded referee Nestor Pitana claiming handball and, after a brief moment of hesitation, the Argentinian official consulted the video assistant. An interminable wait followed, during which replays flashed up, each one making the movement of Perisic’s hand towards the ball look more and more deliberate before, finally, Pitana pointed to the spot. Griezmann’s conversion restored France’s lead, and purists the world over despaired that a World Cup final might just be decided by flawed technology. As the half-time whistle blew, great claps of thunder rumbled in the skies above the Luzhniki. If Russia 2018 had been a weighty tome of a tournament, then the final was providing the Cliff Notes. An own goal, a wonderful strike, VAR, a penalty. The first half had everything.
Croatia, uncowed, emerged for the second half on the front foot and might have found themselves level within three minutes of the break had Rebic not skied his effort when played in on goal by Rakitic. Though once again asserting their dominance in possession, there was a keen sense of urgency about Dalic’s side that meant the game began to open up, leaving Mbappe licking his lips. The PSG striker almost added his name to the scoresheet minutes later, only for Subasic to smother the effort at a tight angle. France though wouldn’t have to wait too long for what looked to be a decisive third, as Mbappe played a one-two with Paul Pogba, and, having seen his first effort blocked, the midfielder curled a low shot on the rebound beyond the despairing reach of the wrong-footed Subasic. By now, Deschamps’ men were rampant as the adrenaline that had carried Croatia for an hour began to drain, and the six hours of tense knockout football began to weigh heavy in the legs. Mbappe, destined to become the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, picked up the ball 25 yards out, saw off Domagoj Vida with a feint, and unleashed a fizzing effort into the bottom corner to make it four. From in control to completely comfortable within twenty minutes.
Remarkably, though, Croatia were back in the game minutes later. Hugo Lloris received a backpass and looked to complete a routine clearance, only for Mandzukic to pop up and confound the Tottenham ‘keeper. His bizarre attempt at dribbling past the striker was only going to end in disaster, and the ball bounced off the Croatian’s foot and into the back of the net. Remarkable scenes. Sadly the grandstand finish that Croatia fans and neutrals alike were hoping for never materialised, with France’s game management exemplary, slowing everything down and playing for dead balls. The final whistle sparked jubilant celebrations from Les Bleus, while those clad in red and white check looked crestfallen. The post-match presentations saw Mbappe rightfully awarded young player of the tournament, while Luka Modric picked up the Golden Ball. The sight of a top level sportsman in 2018 with hair styled into curtains providing a wonderfully incongruous end to a chaotic tournament. Thibaut Courtois and Harry Kane were announced as Golden Glove and Golden Boot winner respectively, and then, like the climax of a romantic thriller, the heavens opened for the trophy presentation.
France, deserved winners. The best team of the tournament, with a run to the final that befits champions, and a performance against Croatia deserving of the trophy. With time on their side, it seems unlikely that this will be France’s final tournament win in the next decade. It’s been a tremendous summer, providing a timely reminder that club football isn’t the be all and end all of the sport. Roll on 2020.