And the 2018 FIFA World Cup came to a close on Sunday and what a World Cup it was.
It had everything, drama, goals galore, (and great goals at that), upsets, VAR, and the list goes on.
It was without doubt the best World Cup I have ever seen, going back to the 1986 World Cup which I can only remember vaguely, but I remember witnessing the infamous England v Argentina match with Maradona’s “hand of God” and then the magical 2nd goal which is considered by most to be the best goal ever scored in a World Cup.
Remarkably, the 2018 World Cup produced only one scoreless draw in the entire tournament, the Denmark v France match, something which will probably never be repeated again.
The World Cup of the underdog –
It was the World Cup where the unfancied teams and dark horses shone, and where the pre-tournament favourites were knocked out early on (bar France).
Mexico set the tone by beating Germany in their opening group match with a brilliant attacking display, Croatia quickly followed suit by disposing of Argentina 3-0 in a ruthless, clinical display.
Spain also showed signs of weaknesses, as they lost their manager, Jolen Lopetegui, on the eve of the tournament which seemed to be badly handled by the Spanish FA. They produced their best performance in their opening match against Portugal only for Ronaldo to have the last word with a stunning free-kick with what was one of the matches of the tournament. They never seemed to regain any sort of the momentum after that and were eventually knocked out by Russia on penalties in the Last 16.
Germany somehow managed to keep their hopes alive with a stunning last minute free-kick by Kroos against Sweden, but then came undone against the Korea Republic in their last group game and Sweden & Mexico deservedly advanced to the Last 16.
Argentina hung in there with Rojo finding a winner against Nigeria in the dying minutes to send them through to the Last 16, only to come out 2nd best to France in a thrilling 4 – 3 game.
While all this was going on Brazil were quietly going through the gears with minimum fuss and by the time the Quarter Finals arrived most people fancied them to go all the way. Belgium & Martinez had different ideas though as they produced an absolute thrilling first half where they hit Brazil on the break where he had put Hazard, De Bruyne & Lukaku up front and they were not able to cope with their speed and they went in at half-time 2-0 up. Brazil of course came out in the 2nd half and went for broke, peppering Courtois’s goal with over 20 shots. But they only managed to get a goal back and Belgium deservedly went through.
Football’s not coming home
England were one of the surprise teams of the tournament going out in the Semi-Finals to a stubborn and more technically gifted Croatian side. They had a successful tournament though with Harry Kane winning the golden boot with 6 goals, and as it turned out they proved to be the weakest of the 4 semi-finalists as Belgium beat them 2-0 in the 3rd place play off.
Their team is young though and they look solid, one area that will need addressing is that they lack a creative midfielder; amazingly they only registered 6 shots on goal from open play in the entire tournament and still somehow managed to reach the semi-finals. Southgate deserves the plaudits for focusing on their strengths from set pieces to achieve that.
France had to get to the Final through the much more difficult route of the draw.
Argentina did challenge them by going ahead early in the 2nd half but when France equalised there was only going to be one winner as their quality shone through. Mbappe having the match of his tournament and Pavard scoring one of the goals of the tournament with a beautiful half volley.
They would meet Uruguay in the Quarter Finals but unfortunately for Uruguay they were missing Cavani due to injury and Suarez failed to lift his team and lead the line like he can. France went through as 2-0 winners but not before Loris produced one of the saves of the tournament in the first half when the game was still in the balance at 1-0.
France came up against a much sterner test in Belgium but got their breakthrough early in the 2nd half through Umtiti, and then defended their lead as Belgium pressed for the equaliser. But they held out and reached the final with a ruthless efficiency that was more akin to an Italian team than the traditional flamboyant French teams of the past.
Croatia’s side of the draw was significantly easier on paper but they still required extra time in each match to go through. Against Denmark, they went through 3-2 on penalties after been held to 1 -1 after extra time, and it would have been a travesty had they not gone through after Danish player Jorgenson taking down Ante Rebic when he was free on an open goal only for Modric then to miss the penalty. And then against Russia they also went through on 4-3 on penalties after a thrilling extra time period where Croatia went 2 – 1 up only for Russia then to come back and equalise and bring it to penalties.
Against England they went behind early to a brilliant Tripper free-kick but as the match wore on they played themselves into it, and by the time they equalised they were clearly the team on top, and really looked like the only team winning it when they scored late on in extra-time.
And in the end we were treated with an amazing final that was worthy of the tournament we had just witnessed.
France winning it 4 – 2, the most goals in a World Cup Final since the 1958 World Cup when a youthful and unknown 17 year old Pele scored a hat-trick.
Croatia will feel hard done by the fact that all the major decisions went against them in the match. For the first goal Griezmann won a free kick when it looked like there was no contact and he had conned the ref into getting it. From the subsequent free-kick Mandzukic flicked it into his own net, and then after Croatia played themselves back into the match with a brilliant worked equaliser but then got a terrible VAR decision that went against them shortly after that.
The ref for me here was shocking, in the replays you could clearly see that the ball hit Perisic’s hand, but it also shows him trying to remove his hand out of the trajectory of the ball which would clearly state that it is not deliberate. How on earth he was not able to differentiate the difference between what’s deliberate and what’s not when he was been aided by slow motion replays is simply shocking.
I thought VAR was for the most part was a huge success in this World Cup, it was just a shame that one of the biggest human errors relating to it happened in the final.
Croatia continued to press
Croatia were again on the back foot and they continued to play the better football while they pressed for the equaliser. But then against the run of play they were undone with 2 quick goals in succession. Both shots from outside the box, one from Pogba, and one from Mbappe. Both were solid strikes but it also looked like both could have been saved by Subasic. He didn’t look fully fit from the hamstring injury he had sustained in the Quarter Final against Russia and looked a yard off the pace.
A glimmer of hope
Loris did manage to produce a howler at 4-1 and let Croatia back into it which gave them some hope but in the end the quality France possessed came to pass and they would be crowned the champions of the world.
Croatia were the better team for over 60 minutes in this game, and with the way they played the final they won the respect and admiration of millions of football fans throughout the world, but unfortunately it was not meant to be.
Until the next time…….
Vive la France
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