I know most of my picks for the Group Stage panned out while some didn’t. I know I was very good at predicting the Round Of 16 and QuarterFinals but was off a bit. Also I know I got both SemiFinals wrong. Nevertheless I’m not worried. If the BBC’s Mark ‘Lawro’ Lawrenson can have a 52% success rate and still keep his job, I’m pretty comfortable right now.
Anyways the last two big matches will be contested this weekend. Here are my reviews of the two big matches:
The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. The Final for the Cup will take place at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
THIRD-PLACE PLAYOFF REVIEW:
The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Often you wonder who normally wins the 3rd-Place Match? The team who most feels they have one last thing to prove? Or the team that’s the least disheartened? Whatever the situation, it should make for an interesting match. Especially since both teams met in the Group Stage in Group G. Here’s my review of both teams.
Past Head-To-Head Results: England and Belgium have squared off 22 times before. England won 15 times and Belgium won only three times including here in Russia 1-0 in group play. They drew four times in the past. As for World Cup play, their other two games were a 1990 Round-of-16 win for England and a 4-4 draw in 1954.
Belgium: The Red Devils should be admired. They are a collection of marvelously talented players in their own right coming together to give Belgium one of their best World Cup performances ever, if not the best. They proved to be a top challenger for the final, but the goal from France’s Unmiti in the 51st minute ended their World Cup dreams. Nevertheless the Belgian team here have the chance to give Belgium it’s best-ever World Cup finish. Belgium’s best finish ever was 4th in 1986. Here’s the chance for them to win a 3rd-place match. An excellent chance to revive the #RedTogether spirit.
They have the advantage since they met England in group play and won 1-0. They can do it again. However they did show vulnerability in their game against Japan when they trailed 2-0 with 25 minutes to go. They did do an excellent job of coming back to win. However their luck ran out when they faced France. Their top players are still in excellent form in this ‘marathon’ of a competition, but they have to function together if they want to win this.
England: They came in 2018 with a new team and a new determination based on past humiliations. They came with a fairly young coach with experience playing in a World Cup. They came from the various teams of the Premier League with a lot of established talents and a lot of young rising talents. They came with the hope of winning England’s first World Cup since 1966. They delivered one of their best group stage showings in years. They delivered England’s first-ever win of a World Cup game on penalties after losing the previous three. They came with their fans chanting It’s Coming Home (in reference to the Euro 1996 theme song). Then it ended in the semifinal against Croatia. They began strong with a goal from Kieran Trippier in the 5th minute. However they were losing it after Ivan Perisic equalized in the 68th minute. It was Mandzukic in the 108th minute that took the match for Croatia and brought an end to the #ItsComingHome phenomenon.
However the 3rd-Place Match can give England one last thing to prove. This is only England’s third time to the Top 4 of the World Cup. The team has done an excellent job of putting their Premier League differences aside and play as one unified team. Gareth Southgate has done an excellent job of coaching and has successfully help Team England overcome many past adversaries and many weaknesses the team had for a long time. That gives England an advantage leading into the match. However England hasn’t fully overcome their habit of choking at big events. Sure their finish here will be their biggest since 1990, but they can blow it if the team don’t come together and deliver the same play they delivered over this past month. This was no ordinary Three Lions here in Russia 2018. This was a new Team England that had a lot to prove and did prove a lot.
My Final Verdict: I know Belgium beat England in the group stage, but this is a new match. The game will go to the team that has the best team tactics and functions as one. I’ll say it will be Belgium winning 2-0.
I know for my review, you will see me repeating a lot of what I wrote for my SemiFinal review. There’s a purpose. Because all they went through will be coming to this moment. Making it to the final is no easy journey. It’s also not just about having a great team of assembled talent. It’s about having your team together, it’s about them delivering each and every time, it’s the ability to protect from racked up injuries to players, it’s the ability to endure mentally… basically it’s a month-long marathon. A game of survivor.
The World Cup has all these games to basically narrow it down to the very two to play in the Final to decide the Cup. Of the two teams that made it, one made it to the Final twice before and won 20 years ago, while the other is playing in the Final for the first time ever. So without further ado, my review of the World Cup Final:
Past Head-To-Head Results: Croatia and France have played each other five times in the past. Both teams drew twice. France has won the other three games, including the 1998 World Cup semifinal 2-1.
France: France is a nation whose football greatness really only started to take off in the early 1980’s. It was in Mexico 1986 that France got its first-ever Top 3 finish. They would fail to qualify for the next two World Cups, but would host in 1998 and would go on to win. Some say France’s team of 1998 was the best World Cup team since Brazil in 1970.
They’ve had a lot of ups and downs since. In 2002, they suffered the ‘curse of the defending champion‘ and not only failed to advance past the group stage, but failed to even score a single goal. They would come back in 2006 and appeared to be on their way to a second World Cup, but Zidane’s head-butt to an Italian player and subsequent red card in extra time in the Final marked the end of their chances right there. Then the disastrous 2010 which I talked about in my Semifinal write-up.
However it was the 2014 World Cup that showed a ray of hope for the French team. They were out in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Germany, but the team showed a big improvement and promise for the future with young players like Pogba and Griezmann. France played host to Euro 2016. There they delivered the best showing of all teams en route to the Final for the Cup. Unfortunately they lost to Portugal 1-0 in added extra time.
Here in Russia, Les Bleus has delivered the best showing of all teams. They may have had the only 0-0 game of the World Cup so far, but all their other games were wins including all their knockout games, and all in regulation time. The #FiersDetreBleus phenomenon has taken them this far. France appears to have the best chances with players like Pogba, Griezmann, Giroud, Payet, young gun Mbappe and their goaltender Hugo Lloris who claims the loss at Euro 2016 really changed him. They look like the team that best has what it takes to win. However they could easily just let it go the same way they did in Euro 2016. If you remember their Round-Of-16 game against Argentina, they conceded three goals. They’re lucky they scored four to win. They all have to be together as a unified unit ready to play hard if they want to win the biggest match of their lives.
“Everybody cheers for David. Nobody cheers for Goliath.”
Croatia comes to the World Cup final as the underdogs. They also come as the first country with a population of under 5 million to qualify for a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950. They come as the biggest underdog story in decades. Already the hashtages of #Vatreni , #FlamingPride and #BudiPonosan have been big hits. However it was very hard and with a lot of heartache. It started with a 3rd-place finish in their first World Cup back in 1998. It was finally a chance for Croatian football to define their identity now that they were free from Yugoslavia. However it was a struggle since. The next four World Cups were cases of a failure to qualify in 2010 and out in the Group Stage the other three times. After the 2010 World Cup failure, Croatian football was about to make a comeback. They may have been out in the Group Stage in 2014, but there was promise shown by players like Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic.
Croatian football unfortunately was also given a big black eye in the last few years thanks to the irreverence of certain fans. Certain Croatian fans were known to shout racist slurs, wear Nazi symbols, and cause violent incidents during matches. The most noticeable was during the Euro 2016 match against the Czech Republic where flares were thrown onto the field. The Federation HNS and the National Team paid the biggest price by facing sanctions and fines from both FIFA and UEFA including having to play ‘closed’ matches. However after Euro 2016, Croatia has made strides to get tougher with fan behavior.
Here in Russia, The Blazers, or Vatreni, were brilliant in group play as they won all three of their games. Their biggest luck came in the Round of 16 against Denmark and the QuarterFinals against hosts Russia as they drew 1-1 and 2-2 respectively, only to win both in the penalty shoot outs. Then came their semifinal against England. The game went into 1-1 in regulation only for Mandzukic to deliver the game-winner in added extra time. There have been calls from many for Croatia to be disqualified since that match, but the alleged controversies have been proven false.
And to think Yugoslavia never qualified for a World Cup final ever in its existence! Croatia comes with the least star-studded team here in this stage of the World Cup. The key to Croatia’s success is for players like Modric, Perisic, Rakitic, Lovren, Mandzukic and Danijel Subasic to play as one functioning team. Many can easily dismiss Croatia’s success because of luck in the knockout rounds, but truly it is the team unity of the players that have got them this far. Croatia however has shown weakness of their own. The fact that they won two of their knockout matches in penalty shootouts shows they can come short on delivery. Whatever they’ve been holding back or just not delivering on in past games, it won’t work against a team like France. Croatia has a strong midfiled, but France’s midfield has proven more this Cup. Croatia’s team will have to play a lot harder if they want to win the Cup. If they do win the Cup, they will do it through their first-ever victory over France, at the very least.
My Final Verdict: Both teams have been performing well and with a great sense of team unity, but I have to pick France to win 3-1. It’s not just in terms of past performance, but also because of the brilliance of the players individually as well. Plus the fact the referee for the match will be an Argentinean won’t help Croatia too much.
And there you go. My look at the teams playing for both the match for the bronze medal and the Final to win the World Cup. Let’s sit back and watch history be crowned.
Hard to believe a little more than three weeks ago, the action was just starting. Now it’s winding down with the biggest action of all getting closer and closer. But before we can have the final on Sunday the 15th, we need the semifinals to decide the two that qualify. In both of the semifinals we’ll have won team that won a World Cup in the past and another team whose best result ever was making it to a past semifinal. All four teams are from European countries and and four never made it past the quarterfinals at the last World Cup. This will be the first World Cup since 1966 that will have a completely different Top 4 from the last.
Here I will do my review of the teams and also make my predictions. I hope I do better here than when I predicted in 2014. And to think I thought Brazil would win over Germany in 2014! After Germany delivered their ‘7-up,’ I sure felt dumb!
Without further ado, here’s a look at the four teams that will be in the semifinals and my prediction for each one:
SEMIFINAL #1 – FRANCE vs. BELGIUM
France and Belgium have played each other 73 times. France won 24 times, Belgium won 30 times, and 19 were draws. At the World Cup, France faced Belgium only twice in a 1938 match and 1986 in the match for 3rd place, and France won both times.
Team By Team Analysis:
France: The current French team is an example of a team that arose from the ‘ruins’ of football. Some of you may remember the 2010 World Cup. If it was not France’s worst-ever performance, it was France’s hardest World Cup trip ever. The trip started on controversy as they had qualified thanks to a fist-aided goal from Thierry Henry in their qualifying playoff match against Ireland. Then at the World Cup 2010, striker Nicolas Anelka was fired from the team after an obscenity-laden dispute with manager Raymond Domenech. A boycott of training from players in response and a lecture from the French sports minister paved the way for France’s eventual loss in their last game. The team returned home in disgrace and the president of the FFF resigned, as did coach Domenech. It would be another six years for Domenech to accept another coaching job.
What happened after would be quite the rebound. They would continue to have difficulty at Euro 2012 by going out in the quarterfinals to Spain 2-0. Then Dider Deschamps, who was part of France’s World Cup-winning team of 1998, assumed the position of head coach and would give France quite the turn-around. The turnaround however was not an overnight success, but more of steady progression. It started at the 2014 world Cup where France bowed out at the quarterfinals after losing 1-0 to Germany, but promise was noticed. The team gave an improved showing of play and Paul Pogba was named Top Young Player of the Cup. Then came Euro 2016 which France was host nation. Until France lost in the final to Portugal 1-0 in extra time, France had delivered the best show of teamwork during the tournament and had the top scorer with Antoine Griezman scoring 6 goals. Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet also scored 3 goals of their own.
Excellence has continued for Les Bleus here at the World Cup and they look as one of the teams that can best win the Cup. Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann have three goals each. On top of that, they only conceded four goals. They’ve reached the Last 4 for only their sixth time. France has shown a lot of strength and a lot of team unity. There’s even talk Mbappe may win the Young Player award. It’s hard to pinpoint a mistake this last while. However they were rather conservative in the group stage. They did come alive in a big way in the knockout round but they did concede three goals against Argentina. They were lucky they delivered four. They will be facing a Belgian team that has become one of the more exciting teams of the Cup and will need to deliver.
Belgium: Belgium is another example of a team that took a long time to develop. This is only Belgium’s 13th World Cup but many are already calling this team the best Red Devils ever.
In the past, Belgium would only go as far as the group Stage or 1st round at the World Cup. Success for Belgium would come starting in the 1980’s when they made it past the opening stage for the first time in 1982 and then to the semifinals for the first time ever in 1986. Their 4th place finish in 1986 ranks currently as Belgium’s best World Cup finish ever. However they would struggle to repeat as they would find themselves out in the Round of 16 or the Group Stage during the next four World Cups. Then would come failure to qualify for the World Cups of 2006 and 2010, even after they recruited famed Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. They would even face a rock-bottom 66th ranking on FIFA list in 2009. They would miss qualifying for Euro 2012.
Then came coach Marc Wilmots who himself played for team Belgium at four World Cups. He brought a new sense to the team. He found talent in players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to name a few and was able to get them to perform well as a team function. They’d go through straight wins in World Cup qualifying and would find themselves ranked 11th on FIFA’s list and a heavy favorite to go well at the World Cup. At the 2014 World Cup, they finished in the quarterfinals which was their second-best result ever. 2015 was their breakthrough year as they hit #1 for the first time ever on FIFA’s rankings. However they would face difficulties as they’d only make the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 losing to Wales 3-1. That’s when they then hired Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. The Belgian team has not lost a game since September 2016 and have come to Russia delivering straight wins to the semifinal.
No doubt they have a lot to win their semifinal against France. Their straight wins have shown for it. However they did show weakness during this World Cup. If you remember their Round-Of-16 match against Japan, they were trailing 2-0 into the 2nd half. It wasn’t until the 69th minute Belgium scored and then go on to win 3-2. That was quite a comeback. And a close call. However Belgium can’t afford to pull stunts like those any longer as they’re getting closer and closer to the Cup. They’re en route to becoming the best Belgian team ever and they need to stay en garde.
My Final Verdict:
Okay, you will now want me to make a prediction for this match. I think it will be a case of the match drawing 2-2 with Belgium taking it in a penalty shoot out.
SEMIFINAL #2 – ENGLAND vs. CROATIA
Head-To-Head Stuff: England and Croatia have squared off seven times before. England won four times, Croatia won twice and one was a draw. This will be the first time England and Croatia will play each other in a World Cup game.
Team By Team Analysis:
England: England has always been a subject of frustration. The Three Lions have only won a single World Cup: back in 1966 when they hosted. They have had difficulties whenever they’ve made it to the knockout rounds as they’d frequently expire in the quarterfinals or face elimination when the game ends up in penalty kicks. In fact England has been 0 for 3 at the World Cup for penalty kick matches. Then there are the embarrassments at the two most recent World Cups by expiring to Germany in a highly controversial 4-1 in the Round Of 16 and then failing to advance past the group stage in 2014. It always seemed like the case where the team is full of talent but they just couldn’t play well as a united team. Possibly they didn’t leave their Premier League rivalry at the door?
In 2016, right after they lost to Iceland 2-1 in the Round Of 16, they hired a new coach in Gareth Southgate who played for team England at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. They put in a lot of investment into young rising talent like John Stones and Harry Kane and goaltender Jordan Pickford. The work paid off as England qualified for the World Cup top of their group. Here in Russia, the Three Lions gave their fans a lot of relief as they won two games in group play and qualified for the knockout round. This marked the first time since 2010 they qualified for the knockout round and the first World Cup since 2010 that they won a game. Then came the big test against Columbia. They drew 1-1 against a team that was missing their star James Rodriguez and had to go to penalty kicks. Gulp! Instead they won the shootout 4-3 and their penalty kick curse was finally lifted. This marked their first win of a World Cup knockout match since 2006. The irony being Southgate missed a critical penalty against Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, when England was host! Then their quarterfinal against Sweden turned up a win of 2-0. This would mark only the third time England would reach the Top 4 of a World Cup and the first since 1990.
England bring to the semifinals a lot of top players and a better sense of team unity. Some say they may actually have what it takes to win the Cup. However they could also have what it takes to give it away too. Before their 1-1 draw to Colombia, they lost to Belgium 1-0. They will have to play right and not try to give anything away. Especially since they have a lot of rising talent to work with. A second World Cup has never been so close in a long time.
Croatia: Croatia is another case of a team whose struggle is also paying off here in Russia. Croatia came to be in the early 1990’s after the nation of Yugoslavia fell apart in a brutal civil war. Soon after Croatia declared independence in 1991, they fielded their own national team. However they would have to wait until after the 1994 World Cup for them to play internationally. They played their first World Cup in 1998 and surprised everybody by finishing third, beating out big names like The Netherlands and Germany in the process.
One thing about Croatia’s success in 1998 was that much of it was due to players who used to play for Yugoslavia. After 1998, Croatia worked to develop their own football identity and struggled along the way. They found themselves out in the group stages of 2002 and 2006. Then they’d fail to qualify for 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, they’d undergo two coaching changes. However 2014 showed signs of improvement for Croatian football with the development of talents like Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. The talent was there and they were back on the World Cup scene, but they still had to struggle as they again failed to advance past the group stage in 2014. Further difficulty came when Croatia lost in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016.
Croatia’s struggles were not just on the football field, but in the stands as well. In the past ten years, Croatian fans developed a reputation of being some of the most obnoxious in Europe with incidents like shouting racist taunts, showing off swastikas and throwing flares. The most notable being the game against the Czech Republic during Euro 2016 when flares were thrown onto the field. Sanctions against the Croatian team have come from UEFA and FIFA in the result of the team being fined money, the team losing game points in qualification play, and even the team having to play ‘closed-door’ games for a period of time.
Things have improved greatly for the Croatian team. There has not been a major incident of ‘hooliganism’ since Euro 2016. The team has also played like a strong team unit here in Russia by winning all their group stage games and qualifying for the knockout stage for the first time since their golden year of 1998. In knockout play, the Croatian team have won all their matches in penalty shootouts. This makes it the second time Croatia has made the Top 4 at the World Cup. Croatia has played very well. Especially with a surprise win over Argentina. However they have shown some weak spots in their knockout games. Unique how they’re a team with the least ‘stars’ but have beaten out teams with big names. Their team unity has taken them this far, but they will need it more than ever here in the semis and they have to be on guard if they want to win.
My Final Verdict:
Sure, Croatia has changed a lot since their last game against England in 2009. But England has changed a lot too. The careless mistakes we commonly see from England in major international play are not as present here. I don’t want to rely on sabermetrics completely, but I think England will win 3-1.
And there you have it. My look at the upcoming semifinals and my predictions. We’ll see who the real winners are on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The funniest thing about Group D is that Argentina and Nigeria are paired up again! Of the six times Nigeria has qualified for the World Cup, 1998 remains the only time they never had to face Argentina in the group stage! However it was Croatia that was with Argentina in that group stage. So much ridiculous trivia here! Actually one other legitimate piece of trivia is Group D features one of two teams making their World Cup debut. So for more on Group D, here I go:
-Argentina (5)- Argentina is one team at this year’s World Cup with the most accolades. Two World Cups, five World Cup finals appearances, fourteen Copa Americas, and legendary players like Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. La Albiceleste however has garnered a reputation in the last few years of being a team of near-misses. They lost in the finals of the 2014 World Cup and four of the last five Copa America finals. This is especially biting for Lionel Messi. He’s had a career full of feats and achievements. However ever since he became part of the national team since 2005 at the age of 18, a major international trophy has been the one thing he’s never been able to win.
Argentina have been in struggle since the last World Cup. They’ve gone through three coaching changes and almost missed qualifying for the World Cup. It was nothing less than a win needed for their eighteenth-and-last qualifier match against Ecuador to get them in, and they did: 3-1. As for their World Cup chances, they look quite iffy. They have the talent with the likes of Messi, Javier Mascherano (who has more international caps than Messi), Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero. However they lack a strong defense. Their flaws have been exposed in the last two years upon losses to Spain 6-1 and Group D opponents Nigeria 4-2. However Argentina has delivered good wins like 1-0 against Russia, 1-0 against Brazil and 2-0 against Italy. World Cup 2018 is another test for the Argentinian team. Also Russia could be the place where Messi will either become the ‘best ever’ or the ‘best never.’
-Iceland (22)- Iceland is the team that keeps on surprising the world. Two years ago, they became the first team from a country with a population under 1 million to qualify for a European Championships, and they made it to the quarterfinals, beating England in the process! This time they become not only the first team from a country with a population under 1 million to qualify for a World Cup, but the first from a country under 500,000!
Iceland surprised everybody not just by qualifying for the World Cup, but topping their qualifying group in the process. Iceland proved the fire is still there after Euro 2016. However it appears the fire may have faded since the World Cup qualifying. Iceland’s only wins since have been against two Indonesian teams. They’ve since had to endure losses to Mexico, Peru, Norway and the Czech Republic. Chances are Icelandic fire can come back once they start play in Russia.
-Croatia (18)- Croatia is a team that has had a lot of hard luck over the past few years. There is less news copy about the playing prowess of the team and more copy about the team’s fans’ obnoxious behavior. And don’t get me started about the Euro 2016 game against the Czechs! Mind you, Vatreni is a team loaded with talent worth noticing.
The Blazers are coached by Zlatko Dalic who has come off of coaching mostly club teams in Croatia and the Arabian Peninsula. The team boasts of top players like midfielder Luka Modric, striker Mario Mandzukic and defenseman Vedran Corluka. Croatia has done well playing against European teams and even won against Mexico 1-0. However they’ve also lost to Peru 2-0 and Brazil 2-0 just recently. Croatia have what it takes to once again move to the knockout round and hopefully go far. World Cup 2018 could be the place where they’re finally back.
-Nigeria (47)- Nigeria may not be one of the three African teams that have gone as far as the quarterfinals at a World Cup. However the Super Eagles the only African team that has made it past the group stage in three World Cups. That’s a feat in itself along with three Africa Cup of Nations wins and four more Cup finals appearances.
The current team is coached by German Gernot Rohr who has been coaching African teams for the past eight years and features a wealth of talent young and old. Seven of the teams’ players play for teams in the Premier League. The team features forward Ahmed Musa (who plays for CSKA Moscow), midfielder John Obi Mikel and defenseman Elderson Echiejile. Sure, Russia 2018 may become the fifth time out of Nigeria’s six World Cup runs where they have to face Argentina in the group stage, but they have an advantage; they won in a friendly against the Argentines back in November: 4-2. However they’ve had some noticeable losses this year against Morocco 4-0, Serbia 2-0, and England 2-1. However they could all come together in Russia 2018 and go further than they ever had.
Now that I’m done summing up the teams, it’s time for me to predict the two I think will advance to the Round of 16. It’s a tough challenge, especially since all four have noticeable strengths and weaknesses, but I predict it will be Argentina and Nigeria. However don’t be surprised if it ends up the second qualifier is Iceland. Remember they beat Croatia in World Cup qualifying.
These past three reviews, I’ve reviewed two stadiums at once. I’ve already reviewed six out of the twelve so I’ll save my next double-review for Group H as I will review the stadiums staging the finals and semis. Save the best for last, right? So here’s my first solo stadium review for this World Cup:
VOLGOGRAD: Volgograd Arena
Year Opened: 2018
Capacity: 45, 568
World Cup Groups Hosting: A, D, G, H
Volgograd Arena may be one of the stadiums that’s brand-spanking new for Russia 2018, but it’s on familiar ground. The Arena’s ground is on what used to be the ground for Central Stadium which was opened back in 1962. It was the age of the stadium, FIFA demands and the ability to change capacities that led to the new Volgograd Arena. Its original expense was to be 10 billion Russian Rubles, but ended up being 17 billion Rubles, or $275 million US, in the end.
It has a unique shape where it’s shaped like an overhead truncated cone. The large roof, which rests over a cable frame, resembles a bicycle-wheel pattern through steel-wire cables. The stadium will have many features available to fans like navigation and information support, information, a storage room, and audio visual commentary for those with sight impairment. After the World Cup, the stadium is to be the host venue for local team FC Rotor Volgograd and host a fitness centre.
And there you have it again. Another World Cup group review. And another stadium review. More to come in the ten days leading up.