World Cup 2022 Preview: Group F

As we move on throughout the groups, just to let you know it’s not easy to make a call on which groups are going to qualify and which aren’t. Even the surest of sure shots aren’t a guarantee.

Some may wonder why I include past games as references for how I feel teams are going to do. Sure, it’s most often a case that they did not play the same teams before in the recent past, like the past year and a half. However past play can tell a lot about a team. It may not tell everything, but it does give a good sense of how the team is doing. I’m also aware that such a viewpoint isn’t all that accurate either. A team could be lackluster in qualifying and in friendlies but suddenly come alive at the World Cup. Plus the COVID pandemic changed a lot. Players were out of training as a team for months, games were cancelled and tournaments were delayed. How each team dealt with the pandemic differed team by team. How some of the bigger-name teams do here in Qatar will tell a lot of how the pandemic affected them. Whether they dealt with it best or whether they were hit hard.

Next group of focus is Group F. Interesting is that two of the teams in this group are teams that both finished in the Top 3 of the last World Cup! It’s all about the luck of the draw how we get these World Cup groups, or sometimes lack thereof.. This is a very interesting mix of nations, as I’ll review henceforth:

-Belgium (2): The run of The Red Devils’s luck actually started with their failure to qualify for Euro 2012. It began as they hired Marc Wilmots who played for three World Cups as coach. Soon the changes were noticed. They qualified for the 2014 World Cup with one game to go and got as far as the quarterfinals during the Cup. Their “Golden Generation” was just being born, but not without bumps. After they only got as far as the quarterfinals in Euro 2016, Wilmots was replaced by Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. Martinez led Belgium to its best-ever World Cup finish in Russia 2018: third. Belgium still ranks as one of the top teams in the world.

Despite only going as far as the quarterfinals in Euro 2020, Martinez is still head coach. Many of the big names from 2018 — Vertonghen, the Hazard brothers, de Bruyne, Alderweireld, Witsel, Lukaku — are back, along with some new faces. The World Cup squad has eight players that rank among Belgium’s ten most capped players ever. Recent wins include Estonia, Poland and Burkina Faso. They drew against Ireland and had a win and a draw against Wales. They also lost both their recent games against the Netherlands. Qatar is the stage for Belgium to continue their greatness and even reach new levels.

-Canada (41): For Canada, the World Cup has been mostly an ethnic affair. In the past, the team only qualified for the 1986 World Cup. Since then, Canadians normally cheer for the team of their ethnic background at the World Cup or just simply pick a favorite. Things really changed leading up to the qualifying rounds. In 2018, they hired John Herdman, who guided Canada’s women’s team to be a top power, to be their coach. The turnaround was amazing. In the first round of CONCACAF qualifying, Canada won all four of their games. In the second round, which consists of a single game, Canada won their match against Haiti thanks to a single goal by Cyle Larin. In the third round which consisted of eight teams and fourteen games, Canada clinched qualification with one game to go! They ended the round with the best results of all CONCACAF teams.

You can be sure the Maple Leafs want to deliver a good show this World Cup. Back in 1986, they lost all three of their group stage games, scored no goals and conceded five. Most of the current squad play for teams of the MLS. Active on the team are Atiba Hutchison, Milan Borlan and Samuel Piette who all rank among Canada’s ten most capped players ever. Also on the team are Cyle Larin and Jonathan David who are Canada’s two biggest goalscorers ever. Not to mention forward Alphonso Davies, who is a rising talent at 22 and considered one of the best full-backs in the world. As for their Group F opponents, Canada has never previously played Croatia, and they’ve never had a win against Belgium or Morocco. Their most recent wins came to Mexico, the US and Japan. They had a recent 2-2 draw to Bahrain. They’ve also had recent losses to Costa Rica, Uruguay and Honduras. Whatever the situation, Qatar is the area for Canada to go better than they ever have before, and maybe even pull a surprise or two.

-Morocco (22): Morocco is a sentimental favorite for many. They are the first African team to qualify for a World Cup, back in 1970. They are the first African team to qualify for a World Cup knockout stage, back in 1986. However they’ve continuously been trying to get their team’s top form back and even trying to take the team to new levels. Their last World Cup had them out in the group stage and their last Africa Cup in 2021 had them out in the quarterfinals.

Managing the Atlas Lions is French-born Moroccan Walid Regagui who played for France’s Ligue 1 team Toulouse and represented Morocco at the 2004 African Cup. Regagui was named Moroccan head coach this August 31st. The current team plays for a wide variety of teams in European leagues and leagues in Arab countries. Recent wins they’ve achieved include Chile, Ghana and South Africa. They’ve had a win and a draw against DR Congo. They’ve also endured recent losses to Egypt and the United States. 2022 is Another chance for Morocco to write another chapter for the team.

-Croatia (12): There’s one World Cup rule that you should never dismiss the “minnows.” That especially holds true for Croatia. They’ve only been in five previous World Cup s since their independence but when Vatreni are on, they go way further than expected. That was especially made true when they made it to the World Cup final in Russia 2018. Their player Luka Modric was also awarded the Golden Ball for being the top player of the Cup and won the Ballon D’or that same year.

The team’s coaching staff is predominantly Croatian with Zlatko Dalic head coach since 2017.Modric is back and is captain of the team. Returning with Modric are other renowned players Ivan Perisic, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida. Most of the team plays for teams in either Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A , or Croatia’s Prva HNL. Recent wins include Bulgaria, Denmark and France (for the first time ever!). Recent draws also include France along with Slovenia. Their only loss came to Austria in UEFA Nations Cup play. Nothing is guaranteed in football. One thing that can be certain is Croatia can go further than you expect it to.

My Prediction: It never fails. Once I’m done reviewing, I have to predict the two that will advance. For this group, I anticipate the advancers to be Belgium and Croatia. Best chances for an upset will be Morocco. With the World Cup being played in a desert climate, they could do it.

And there you go. This is my review of the Group F teams and prediction. Only just six days to go until the start of the big event. Already close to 3 million tickets have been sold. Stay tuned!

UEFA Euro 2020: Knockout Round Predictions

Well the Group Play has just been conducted. There were a lot of surprises and there were a lot of expected results. Whatever the situation, the sixteen qualifiers have all been decided. And after their two days of rest, the Round of 16 starts the knockout part of the Euro en route to deciding the winner of the Cup. So in the meantime, here are my predictions on how I think the games will go:

ROUND OF 16

First off the Round of 16. This is only the second Euro ever to have such a round. One good thing that time around is there isn’t as much huge traveling around from place to place. And here are my predictions with my picks for the winner in bold.

Wales (Group A 2nd) vs. Denmark (Group B 2nd): Wales showed their strength with a win against Turkey and a draw against Switzerland. Their 1-0 loss to Italy showed they are able to rival the best. Denmark is a team that was visibly shaken after the cardiac arrest of Christian Eriksen. However it was in their last group game against Russia that they finally came out of their shell and won. For this match, I predict Wales as they’ve been more consistent in team unity and delivery.

Belgium (Group B Winner) vs. Portugal (Wildcard: A/E/F): Belgium finished third at the 2018 World Cup. Portugal is defending Euro champions. Belgium have shown their dominance since the start of the tournament. Portugal’s biggest success in Euro 2020 play is their 3-0 win against Hungary. However Cristiano Ronaldo keeps on breaking Euro scoring records! This is a tough one. Belgium’s team prowess against Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring. I will have to go with Belgium to win.

England (Winner Group D) vs. Germany (Group F 2nd): A classic rivalry with landmark moments and moments of infamy such as in both the 1966 and 2010 World Cup. And to make it a bonus, it’s right in Wembley Stadium! This is the only Round of 16 match which has a home team playing!

England has been performing very well as a team and only suffered a scoreless draw against Scotland. Germany show great scoring ability in their games, but their team unity which normally is what takes them far in World Cups and Euros is missing here. Also England is in one of its best eras of team play ever, but their two wins were 1-0: both times scored by Raheem Sterling. A tough one but I’ll go with England in added extra time.

Italy (Winner Group A) vs. Austria (Group C 2nd): Italy came to Euro 2020 with redemption and the chance to show a new Azzurri in mind and they have been excellent. They’ve one all three of their group games scoring seven goals and not conceding one. Actually the last game Italy conceded a goal was against the Netherland way back in October! Austria have reason to celebrate as they achieved their first-ever qualification to the Euro knockout round: one of two Group C teams to make it their first ever. However this is where Austria is going to be brought to an end here. Italy are practically unanimous favorites here, and my pick too.

Netherlands (Winner Group C) vs. Czech Republic (Wildcard: D/F): Like Italy, Netherlands is another powerhouse that failed to qualify for World Cup 2018 and looked to Euro 2020 as a shot of redemption. And like Italy, they won all three of their games. They scored eight goals and conceded only two against Ukraine. The Czechs have also played very well too with Patrik Schick scoring all three of the team’s goals. I’ll predict the Netherlands and their team play.

France (Winner Group F) vs.  Switzerland (Wildcard A/C): France comes out of a tough Group F with two draws and a win that came thanks to a German own-goal. Switzerland has had mixed results but has done a good job in play and scoring. In fact they did a good job scoring in their match against Turkey. France has still shown the better team unity. I predict France to win this match.

Sweden (Winner Group E) vs. Ukraine (Wildcard B/C/D): This marke Sweden’s first time to the knockout round since 2004 and Ukraine’s first time to the knockout round ever! Sweden appeared conservative at first with just having draws but performed very well in their win against Poland. Ukraine is a team that’s unpredictable. It won against North Macedonia. However their 3-2 loss to the Netherlands showed they can contend with the best. Ukraine is a team that can do the unexpected. I predict the win to go to Sweden in added extra time.

Croatia (Group D 2nd) vs. Spain (Group E 2nd): This is a case of both teams playing substandardly their first two games and then pouring it on in their final games. Spain drew against Sweden and Poland, but was spectacular against Slovakia. Croatia first lost to England and then drew to the Czechs, but was brilliant against Scotland. Their win against them here during the Euro is their first victory over the Scots ever! This is a tough one and could be the one Round of 16 match that could be decided on penalty kicks. I’ll go with Croatia.

QUARTERFINALS:

Unlike group play and the England vs. Germany match of the Round of 16, none of the games will have a home team. Here’s my bonus quarterfinal predictions. For each quarterfinal, I assume each prediction I make for the Round of 16 is true, though you know it won’t always be the case. Whatever the situation, here goes:

Belgium vs. Italy – Should this match-up result, it would be interesting. Two teams who won all three of their group games. One team has a reputation for consistency, the other is making a comeback. The Round of 16 games they play in could tell more about them. For now, I think this could go into a draw in which Belgium would win on penalty kicks.

France vs. Croatia – This would be a rematch of the World Cup final. However both teams are not playing as the teams they’re reputed to be. Croatia struggled at first and finally came active in their last group game. France topped Group F, but not without three tough bouts. One important statistic. Croatia has never beaten France in the eight times they’ve played each other. So I’m picking France to win.

Sweden vs. England – This would be exactly like it was during the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals. England have been playing well, but conservatively while Sweden has been delivering better than expected. Despite it, I anticipate that England will take this.

Netherlands vs. Wales – Both teams are unpredictable. Remember that Wales made the semifinals at the last Euro. Netherlands however just qualified for their first Euro knockout stage since 2008. The Dutch have shown their dominance so far and that’s why I think the Netherlands will win this, should this quarterfinal result.

And there are my predictions for the first two knockout rounds. It’s not an easy job as things can change from the Group Stage to the knockout rounds. It should all result in a lot of excitement. And I’ll see you all again in the semis.

UEFA EURO 2020: Group Stage With One Game To Go

To be among the 16 to qualify, it takes two wins to guarantee. The only way it could ever be possible for a team with two wins not qualifying is if all six groups had three teams with two wins and a loss. And that’s extremely unlikely. Whatever the situation, all four teams of each of the six groups have played two games and there are a lot of telling stats. Three have qualified already while twenty others still have the last game as one last chance, and only one is officially out. Here’s how the groups look so far. Those who have already qualified are bolded:

GROUP A:

Italy came to Euro 2020 with the hope of redeeming their reputation in the football world. They delivered 3-0 wins against Turkey and Switzerland to guarantee themselves qualification for the Round of 16. Wales’ 2-0 win over Turkey and 1-1 draw against Switzerland put them in very good chances of qualifying.

For the next game, Italy could lose to Wales and they’d still qualify, but I’m sure they’d want to win or at least draw so that they can keep their #1 status. Wales’ chances of qualifying are healthy, but they would have to win to take the lead in Group A, draw to guarantee 2nd place, or rely on their game stats and goal differentials if they were to lose to Italy. Switzerland will have to win over Turkey if they want to qualify. A draw won’t cut it as game stats and goal differentials decide the four third-placers that qualify. And Turkey will need nothing less than a win for them to have a chance. They’ve lost to Italy and Wales. Only a win against Switzerland will do if they are to have any chance of qualifying.

GROUP B

Many touted Belgium as the team most likely to win Group B based on their third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup. With two wins, they’ve already guaranteed a qualification no matter how bad their game against Finland goes. They haven’t completely guaranteed the #1 spot. If Finland beats Belgium they will be the #1 team as a result of head-to-head play.

With Russia and Finland having a win under their belts, drawing can guarantee a 2nd place for Russia and a 3rd-place for Finland which would have to rely on their wildcard stats to qualify. However I’m sure Neither of the teams simply want to draw in their last matches on Monday. Denmark is in the uncomfortable position that they will need to win against Russia if they are to have any chance to qualify. It would not surprise me if the Danish team has been shaken since the collapse of Christian Eriksen. That’s a shocker he was dead for five minutes. It’s very good fortune that the first aid on the field did all the right stuff to resuscitate him and have him taken to a hospital. Actually since Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, it’s a reminder to us all that living is more important than winning.

GROUP C

Most groups would normally have a simple qualifier if they have two wins by now. Group C has an official first-place with the Netherlands! It was their two wins and big goal differential that did it! And I doubt if they will want to lose to North Macedonia in their last game!

The game of Ukraine vs. Austria will be the game for second-place in the group. If there’s a draw, Ukraine will have the advantage because of bigger scoring. Austria could qualify due to the combination of game results and goal differentials. If both qualify for the Round of 16, or either one, it will be their first time ever at the Euro that they do. As for North Macedonia, they have the misfortune of being the first team eliminated. Even if they win against the Netherlands and by a big margin, it won’t matter because of their head-to-head losses to Ukraine and Austria.

GROUP D

Interesting that Groups A to C already have a qualifier guaranteed while Groups D to F don’t have anything decided and it will take Matchday 3 to not just decide it all but decide anything. If if any team in those groups is guaranteed a Top 3 finish, that still doesn’t completely guarantee them qualification. Focusing on Group D, Both first-matches for the group’s teams resulted in wins, but both second-matches on Friday resulted in draws. That means with two teams having a win and a draw and two teams with a loss and a draw, none of the four have secured qualification and all four still have a chance in their third-matches on Tuesday.

In the match of the Czech Republic vs. England, the winner will naturally claim the #1 spot of Group D. If there’s a draw, the Czech Republic has the advantage with better goal differentials. However I’m sure both teams want to win. Croatia and Scotland both have a win and a draw. Croatia leads because of goal differentials and a draw would solidify Croatia to finish in third place, but that most likely won’t be enough to qualify. The six third-place teams will be ranked by game stats and goal differentials. Only the top four will qualify for the Round of 16, and two draws and a loss will most likely make Croatia one of the two third-place packing sooner than they hoped. So either Croatia or Scotland will have to win and nothing less if they want to secure qualification.

GROUP E

Like Group D, Group E has the difficulty of two draws causing the statistics to remain completely undecided for who will qualify. One thing that is certain is that all four still have chances to qualify and it’s up to Matchday 3 to decide it. Sweden has the best luck so far with a 1-0 win over Slovakia despite their scoreless draw against Spain. Despite the loss, Slovakia is second in ranks thanks to their 2-1 win over Poland. Spain, normally a powerhouse, has just two draws while Poland looks like their still waiting to deliver. They’re lucky they saved themselves against Spain 1-1.

Sweden has the luxury that they can qualify simply by drawing, but I doubt if they want a simple draw. Especially since Poland will be hungry for the win. The winner of Slovakia vs Spain will definitely qualify, but Slovakia will have better qualifying chances if they lose because of their win over Poland. You can be sure Spain want to win this. Attempting to qualify on a wildcard with three draws is pushing it. Possible, but pushing it. Also Poland requires nothing less than a win if they want to qualify. Two draws and a loss has very low chances of cutting it. Plus they’d have the added bonus that is they win over Sweden, they’d overtake Sweden in standings because of the head-to-head result!

GROUP F

Group F looked to be the Group Of Death. However a lot of lopsided play has turned a lot of things around unexpectedly. France is one team that has underperformed. One would usually expect a lot of big play from the team that are the reigning World Cup holders. However their 1-0 win over Germany came thanks to an own-goal from Germany’s Hummels and they drew 1-1 to Hungary. Drawing against Portugal will guarantee them qualification, but they will have to win if they want to prove themselves a worthy winner. Isn’t that something? A rematch of the Euro 2016 final happening in group play?

Germany has had it most interesting. They got a loss to France because of an own-goal, but a 4-2 win over Portugal thanks to two own-goals from the Portuguese! A draw against Hungary will guarantee them qualification, but Hungary won’t make it easy as they will want to win. Despite the loss, Portugal are still in good contention after their 3-0 win over Hungary. They can still qualify if they lose to France, but they would have to rely on goal differentials to see if their stats are good enough for the wildcard berth. Finally Hungary proved themselves strong players by drawing 1-1 against France, but they need nothing less than a win against Germany if they want to qualify. That’s how it is for them with just a loss and a draw.

And there you go. This is how things look right now with the teams of Euro 2020 with only one game to go. Matchday Three will finalize everything to decide the thirteen others who will advance and the seven others who will be packing for home sooner than they hoped. Looking forward to it!

UEFA EURO 2020: Group C and Group D Review

Some people are surprised to see me do two Euro 2020 groups in a single post. I admit it’s a break from my usual tradition of doing a single blog per group. I’ve been busy with courses and getting used to new work at my job. Nevertheless it won’t stop me from doing my traditional football blogging. Euro 2020 is an event worth looking forward to. This time I will be blogging about groups C and D

GROUP C

Interesting this is the one group full of teams that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Hard to believe that the 2022 World Cup is just a year away. Hard to believe qualifying matches have already been played and Euro hasn’t even started!

Netherlands (14) – All too often in a World Cup, there’s a semi-finalist that usually struggles to qualify for the next World Cup. Netherlands finished 3rd at the 2014, but the team had been lackluster since. For qualifying for Euro 2016, they fell prey to the Czechs, Turks and Icelandics. For World Cup qualification, they were shut out by France and Sweden.

Since their demise in 2018, they’ve hired a new coach Ronald Koeman, They’ve brought in a lot of new young talent to the team. Most of the players are from Dutch clubs. They’ve been successful in qualifying for this Euro. They’ve however had a mixed bag of results. They’ve won against Germany and Poland, drawn against Spain and Scotland, and lost to Italy, Mexico and Turkey. Whatever the situation, Euro 2020 will be a chance for the Netherlands to showcase their new team. A brand new Oranje!

Ukraine (24) – Ukraine is a team that struggles to define itself. It amazed the world when it got as far as the quarterfinals at the 2006 World Cup. However that’s been its only World Cup appearance. As far as Euros go, out in the Group Stage the two previous times. Their only win was against Sweden on home soil in 2012. 2016 was a disaster with losing all three of their matches.

Since 2016, the team has been coached by the legendary Andriy Shevchenko. Most of the players play for team sin the Ukrainian Premier League with four members playing with Belgian teams and two playing with teams in England’s Premier League. They were successful in qualifying for Euro, but their games since have shown them struggle. They’ve had wins against Switzerland and Northern Ireland, draws against Finland and France, and losses to Spain, France and Germany. They’ve been without a loss in 2020. Anything can happen in Euro 2020 for Ukraine.

Austria (23) – Austria is one team that used to do well in decades past, but struggles now. Their third-place at the 1954 World Cup is just a memory now. Actually the last World Cup they competed in was 1998. They came to Euro 2016 hoping to do better than the showing they did in Euro 2018 when they hosted, but they failed to muster a win there.

The current team hope to finally achieve their first-ever Euro win, and hopefully take it even further. Nineteen players play in Germany’s Bundesliga. Austria has an impressive record since the start of 2020. They’ve won against Norway, Greece, Northern Ireland and Romania, but they’ve also had a loss to Romania as well as losses to Denmark and England. Euro 2020 is another chance for Austria to show the football world what they’re capable of.

North Macedonia (62) – Just being at Euro 2020 should be enough to excite the fans of North Macedonia. This is the first time North Macedonia ever qualified for a major football tournament. The new format of the Euro qualifying which would allow for teams of smaller-populated countries to contend added to North Macedonia’s boost and allowed them to qualify. for those curious, their nickname is ‘Lavovi’ (The Lions).

North Macedonia’s players are in various clubs in Europe with most in Croatia, Italy, Spain and Cyprus. Since the start of 2020, they’ve had losses to Armenia and Romania, draws against Georgia, Estonia and Slovenia, and wins against Kazakhstan and Germany. Euro 2020 can be the ideal arena for North Macedonia to be the Cinderella team of the tournament.

My Prediction: I predict the Netherlands to top it with Austria in second and North Macedonia to come in third and advance as a wildcard.

GROUP D

The four teams of Group D really make for a lot of variety in terms of playing style and in terms of past achievements. Two of them even met during a World Cup semi-final! I’m saving the term the ‘group of death’ for another Euro group, but here It’s possible any two or three of the teams can qualify and go far.

England (4) – Team unity has normally been England’s biggest weakness. The Three Lions did the smart thing after Euro 2016 by ditching Roy Hodgson as coach and hiring Gareth Southgate. In two short years, England went to becoming a new team at the 2018 World Cup where they went as far as the semi-finals, had the best goal scorer with Harry Kane, and even won a World Cup match on penalty kicks for the first time ever!

England is hoping this success will continue on into Euro 2020. since the beginning of the year 2020 they’ve had a lot of excellent wins to Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Poland and Belgium, but they also had a loss to Belgium and lost to Denmark too. The furthest England has even gone in a Euro is the semifinals and England is hoping to make this their best Euro ever. This could very well be it.

Croatia (14) – Croatia come to this Euro looking to shed the bad memories of the fan disturbances during Euro 2016. They also come after their brilliant performance at the 2018 World Cup where Vatreni surprised everyone by making it to the World Cup final! They became the first nation with a population of under 5,000,000 to qualify for the World Cup final since 1950.

Zlatko Dalic is still coach of The Blazers. Since the start of 2020, they’ve struggled in play. They’ve had wins against Sweden and Switzerland and a draw against Turkey, but they’ve also had losses to Portugal, France and Belgium. One thing Croatia hopes to do at the very least during Euro is win their first-ever knockout match. Whatever the situation, Euro 2020 is the ideal arena for Vatreni to pull another surprise.

Scotland (44) – Euro 2020 marks the first time since 1996 Scotland qualified for the Euro. Scotland have been known to be a sentimental favorite that just can’t seem to edge itself out of group play, whether it be either the World Cup or the Euro. With the recent creation of the UEFA’s Nation’s League, Scotland got a boost when the upgraded themselves from the Division C to Division B with brilliant play.

Most of the players play for either England’s Premier League or the Scottish Premiership. Since the start of 2020, they’ve won against Slovakia and the Czech Republic twice. However they’ve had draws against Serbia and Austria and had three draws and a loss to Israel. Euro 2020 can be the chance for Scotland to finally prove to its naysayers, that they have finally arrived.

Czech Republic (40) – Ever since Czechoslovakia split up in 1992, the Czech Republic has struggled to prove its football greatness. The team would always have great stellar players, but they would frequently struggle as a team. They’ve qualified for every Euro since 1996 and even made it into the semifinal round twice, but only qualified for one World Cup and only got as far as the Group Stage.

Most of the players play for teams in the Czech First League. Since 2020, the Czechs have had a mixed bag of play. They’ve won against, Slovakia, Israel and Estonia, and drawn against Belgium, but lost to Germany, Italy and twice to Scotland. Euro 2020 is another proving point for the Czech team and they just could prove themselves to be a better team than most people first estimated.

My Prediction: I will pick Croatia to lead the group with England second and Scotland third with enough game cred to qualify as a wildcard.

And there you have it! Those are my predictions for Group C and Group D of Euro 2020. Hard to believe it just starts in two days. Yes, we’ve all waited long enough for this!

World Cup 2018: My Prediction For The Final, And Third-Place Playoff Too

Final

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.

BelgiumBelgium: 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 fixedEngland: 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.

THE FINAL

Whos Next
Which team will be next?

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.

FranceFrance: 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.

CROATIA footballCroatia:

“Everybody cheers for David. Nobody cheers for Goliath.”

-Wilt Chamberlain

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.

World Cup 2018: Semifinals Predictions

WC2018 Final Four

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

Head-To-Head Stuff:

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:

FranceFrance: 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.

BelgiumBelgium: 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.

Red Devils 2002
In 2002, a Belgian magazine published an article about young rising footballers. Count the number of Red Devils here in Russia!

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:

EnglandEngland: 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?

Southgate
England coach Gareth Southgate consoles Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after he missed his penalty shot (right). Southgate knows what it’s like to miss a crucial penalty (left; during Euro 1996).

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 footballCroatia: 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.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group D

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-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-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 ficed-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-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.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

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 Arenavolgograd

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.

 

VIFF 2016 Review: Quit Staring At My Plate (Ne gledaj mi u pijat)

quit_staring_at_my_plate-h_2016
Quit Staring At My Plate is the story of Marijana: a young Croatian woman who knows she deserves better.

Being a young adult may be loaded with fun but it also has its difficulties. Quit Staring At My Plate tells the story of a young Croatian woman with a difficult life and the choices she needs to make.

Marijana Petkovic is a 24 year-old with a difficult life in Sibenik. She lives in a cramped apartment with her parents and her older brother Zoran. She works at a hospital testing specimens. She is however the breadwinner of the family as she’s the only one with a job. Her family life is rough as her parents are known for slam-talking her and her brother. Her father is very controlling. Also her brother is either too irresponsible or too disheartened to find a job. Because of the family’s low income, most of the food they have is either cheap or old. Her job at the lab doesn’t look too promising as the staff are threatened by the potential of layoffs.

Then it happens. Her father has a stroke, leaving him in a bedridden catatonic state. Marijana now has to be a nurse to her father. She also has to be a parent-figure to her brother. It doesn’t leave much room for fun or even dating in her life. Things change as Marijana goes on a bus trip to the beach with Zoran and her mother. She meets Andjela: old classmate from medical school and learns she works as a maid for a rich American family. Her mother is forbidding of her to become a maid, preferring she stick to her job in the labs. However things change in Marijana’s life as she no longer has the control her father had on her. She starts going places she never went before, she starts seeing more men and even sleeping with them, she even meets up with Andjela and learns of her job. She accepts the job as she learns she can make more money that way, but secretly so her mother doesn’t know. She’s even part of Andjela’s clique of friends.

Once Marijana accepts the job and starts working with Andjela, she’s able to make life easier for the family as she’s able to afford more. One day, Marijana takes Zoran and her mother out for ice cream. Andjela is also at the ice cream bar. It’s after her mother hurls insults at Andjela that she learns the truth about Marijana. This leads to her mother berating her like never before. It’s after spending the night away from the family and staying with two men she never met before that she learns of opportunity in Zagreb: a city she’s never been to before. It’s right after learning one of her colleagues was fired that she makes it a goal to take off to Zagreb despite her mother begging her to stay. It leads to an ending that may be surprising to some but very personal too.

No doubt this story is focused on Marijana: 24 year-old Sibenik woman with an uncertain future. She goes from living in a cramped apartment with an unpromising job and no love life to being head of the household. Her mother disapproves of a job with better pay. You’d think she would explode any minute. She gets more freedom now that her father is bedridden and no longer browbeating her and her brother. However the freedoms come at a price as her mother smacks the heck out of her when she learns the news. You can easily see why she’d want to run away from it all and pursue better in Zagreb. She is a medical school grad; she deserves better than this.

The thing about this story is that it’s a very common story. I can remember when I was in my 20’s living in Winnipeg, I had just graduated from University but I was still living with my parents and I was working lousy jobs that didn’t give me enough hours. Yeah, that was Winnipeg in the 90’s for you. It was even more frustrating when others I knew had their independence. Eventually I did get better jobs, I did get more freedom in my life, I did establish my independence and I did move to Vancouver in 2000. I saw Marijana’s struggle similar to the struggle I faced when I was her age. I can easily see why she would want to leave it all behind especially after experiencing her new freedoms. Doors appear to open. Why stay in the same place?

One thing about the film is that I don’t think it did the city of Sibenik much justice. If you saw the film, you’d think Sibenik was a city where nothing happens, everything stays the same and that there’s not much promise in sight. I’ve never been to Sibenik so I can’t say. However the film may leave you thinking that. Even that scene of the rich wife who disses every woman she walks by makes you wonder about this town.

Top marks for the film go to writer/director Hana Jusic. This is the 32 year-old’s first feature-length film and it’s very impressive. It’s not that often you see a film from Croatia featured from a woman’s point of view. Hana does a very good job in capturing the silent frustrations and confusions of Marijana and created a story that is a reflection of many women just like her. Also top marks go to Mia Petricevic playing Marijana. What surprised me about the role is how much emotional control this role needed. I’ll admit I was expecting Marijana to explode or break down any minute. Mia had to make Marijana into a woman who was hurting and frustrated on the inside silently but still holding her head high. She did an excellent job especially with her moments of silence. You could tell what she was feeling. There were also good supporting performances from Niksa Butijer and Arijana Culina. The techno score also fit the film well. Techno scores have been more common in films lately.

Quit Staring At My Plate is a silent but honest look at the struggles of a young Croatian woman. You can easily see Marijana reflect many other young women of today.

UEFA Euro 2016: Group D Focus

Euro Logos

Wow! Euro 2016 is not even a week away. Fast notes about the ten stadiums staging the Euro. Six were venues of the 1998 World Cup. The other four are new stadiums that opened anywhere from back this January to four years ago. Glad to see this Euro isn’t that big of an expense. Although five of the ‘older’ stadiums did need upgrades for this event. Anyways here’s my look at the Group D teams:

TurkeyTurkey (13): Turkey is a team known for its infrequent successes. It has competed in three Euros and two World Cups. It finished third in the 2002 World Cup–its first World Cup since 1954– and hasn’t qualified since. Turkey didn’t qualify for the 2004 Euro but finished in the semis in 2008 and didn’t qualify for 2012. Turkey’s back now. All but six players play for Turkey’s Super Lig, three play for German teams and captain Arda Turan plays for Barcelona. The team has done very well in play the past year and a half including wins against the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Sweden. Their only loss came to England two weeks ago and the score was 2-1. Turkey is one team that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Croatia ficedCroatia (23): Croatia has a reputation of being world class ‘minnows’ that will surprise you when you least expect it. However Vatreni has struggled to regain their strong reputation they had back in the late 1990’s. In fact the team’s play has been mostly quiet news. However they still should not be underestimated. They may have lacked a standout moment for the team in recent major tournaments but they’ve continued to exhibit consistent play. They may lack a standout superstar but they function excellently as a team unit. Since World Cup 2014, they’ve regained the consistency they’re known for. They’ve had wins against Russia, Israel, Norway and Bulgaria and have even drawn against Italy. The team has only had two losses in that time: against Argentina and Norway. In this group, their toughest opposition will be Spain as they’ve only won against them once in the last 25 years. In that same time, they’ve never lost to Turkey and the Czechs. Euro 2016 is another time for the team to prove themselves once again.

Spain FixedSpain (6): We’ve talked about England trying to recover from its 2014 World Cup embarrassment. England’s not alone. Spain entered the Cup as the reigning holders only to lose their first two Group games which meant their elimination as Group play concluded. Like England, La Roja didn’t drop their coach: Vicente Del Bosque. Their road to redemption did have a struggle for the remainder of 2014 as they lost three of their six 2014 games after the Cup. Spain did have challenges bringing in new players who aren’t as well seasoned as their veterans still on the team. However Spain were very good in qualifying for the Euro and their only loss in 2015 came to the Netherlands. This past week they scored big wins against Bosnia (3-1) and South Korea (6-1). No doubt they will be coming to France with something to prove.

Czech Republic fixedCzech Republic(29): The Czechs are an enigma in football. Since the divorce of Czechoslovakia in 1992, the team has qualified for every Euro even being finalists in 1996 and semifinalists in 2004. However they’ve only qualified for one World Cup: back in 2006 and they were out in Group Stage. Their play since the 2014 World Cup has also been enigmatic. They’ve lost to the United States, Slovakia, Iceland, Turkey, Poland and Scotland. However they’ve also won against Iceland, the Netherlands, Serbia and Russia. France will be another chance for the team to prove themselves.

Prediction: This is a tough one because both teams have a lot of strengths but they also have a lot of very noticeable weak spots. You could call this a ‘group of death.’ I predict Spain to top it with Croatia second and Turkey third.

And there are my thoughts for Group D. Next up my review of Group E.

UPDATE:

Here are my reviews of other groups:

 

2016 Eurovision Song Contest Final Preview

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I’ll admit I had no intention of posting a preview blog about the final. I was just content with watching the performers and playing ‘armchair judge’ for my own leisure. Besides I intended for my detailed blog of the ESC to be my only blog about it.

However that all changed last night as I was on Youtube and the ESC channel watching video after video of the night’s semi-final performances. Hey, when the show’s on live at noon your time, that’s your resort. That all changed after I added comment after comment with many of the videos. And that’s what inspired me to do this preview of the final for the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.

For this preview, I’ve decided to post my opinions about the performances in the semi-finals. I will be judging the performances of both the competitors from the semis as well as those from Sweden and the Big 5 whom I will call ‘automatics’ because they automatically have their berths in the Final and their performances in the semis are simply a dress rehearsal for the Finals.

I felt it best that I place my judgements mostly on their semi-final performances. A lot of people have based their judgements from the song’s official music video released on YouTube months before the Contest. The videos are very telling in terms of how well each song will do however I feel the performances in the semis are more telling as it gives a good sense what their live show will be and even how together they are as a performer. Sure the semi won’t tell it all but it will tell it most. I do feel that the song is the key thing to base a judgement on. No matter how big of a show you put on, the song and its content is unavoidable. However I will consider showmanship as a performer will still have to make the song entertaining and eyecatching. Simply put, I will give top kudos to those performances who deliver best.

I will also start with my first section where I give opinions of the performances that have qualified for the final. I will then give my personal picks for who I would give the biggest point to if I were a jury. Note I will not be making predictions like I normally do. I will be giving my preferences and opinions. I’m not familiar with the music tastes of most European countries nor am I familiar with jury tastes. So here goes:

SEMIFINAL 1:

  • Hungary: Freddie  ‘Pioneer’ Very good song with a very dramatic opening. Freddie has very good vocals in singing the song. The song is far from boring. It will catch your ears. A deserving finalist.
  • Croatia: Nina Kraljic ‘Lighthouse‘ – Nina came to Stockholm in hopes of breaking Croatia’s bad-luck spell of missing out in the finals since 2009. She did exactly that. As for her performance, you’ll think her outfit at the beginning is ridiculous but that’s part of adding drama or theatrics to the song. I’m cool with that as long as it’s done right. Her performance was very good and deserving of her final berth.
  • Netherlands: Douwe Bob ‘Slow Down‘ – This is one of my delights of the night. I’m impressed to see how the Dutch know how to do bluesy rock or rockabilly. The Dutch did it before in 2014 with ‘Calm After The Storm‘ and they do it again here. Best song of the evening that delivers as a great alternative after so many techno numbers. Stage show is minimal but it works for the song instead of against it. I ranked it my 3rd place of this semi.
  • Armenia: Iveta Mukuchyan ‘LoveWave‘ – It’s not the best of the night but it’s still good and a deserving finalist. Very good song with good vocals. I felt the stage show was a bit iffy. Otherwise very deserving nonetheless.
  • Russia: Sergei Lazarev ‘You Are The Only One‘ – What can I say? For me that was the show of the first semi and my #1 pick for that night. It didn’t have the same song quality the Netherlands had but still an entertaining song with the most entertaining stage show of the evening. Definitely an eye-catcher and it will not surprise me if this song is a top contender for the win on Saturday.
  • Czech Republic: Gabriela Guncikova ‘I Stand‘ – Not exactly a song that stands out too much. Nevertheless Gabriela did sing it well and perform it well on stage. what it lacks in catchiness, it makes up for in its consistency and professionalism. A very deserving finalist. Especially since this is the first time in five tries a Czech performer qualifies for the final. Great job!
  • Cyprus: Minus One ‘Alter Ego‘ – You’d think with this being Cyprus, it would be ethnopop, right? Actually this is a hard rock song high in energy. I could even feel the energy of the song while watching it. Great song and great performance which was one of my favorites of the night. I feel it should do strong on Saturday.
  • Austria: Zoe ‘Loin d’Ici‘ – This was my surprise of the night. I like it when a song goes beyond my expectations. At first you’d think a number too sweet would come off as saccharine to you. However this is one ‘sweet’ song that actually did everything right and even charmed me. Excellent stage show that tried mimicking what was in her video. However if anyone had doubts about her song while watching her video before the Semi, I think her performance in the semi increased her chances of winning. It was better than the video. I consider this my 2nd place of the semi.
  • Azerbaijan: Samra ‘Miracle‘ – Once again a case of an Azerbaijani singer performing a song written by Swedes. This is one of only two semifinalists whom I did not have on my list of my ten ‘finals picks.’ The song was good but I’ve seen better performances by Azerbaijani acts in past ESCs. I think 2013’s ‘Hold Me‘ is their best ever.  Also the back-up dancers did a real tacky job of dancing. That’s all I can describe about it. Their dancing was tacky. Nevertheless Samra was dressed well and she did sing her song very well despite t not being much of a song. I just feel it didn’t deserve to be in the semis.
  • Malta: Ira Losco ‘Walk On Water‘ – Once again a case of a stageshow that was hard to swallow thanks to backup dancing. Ira did her song very well. However the dancer on stage just plain came off as ridiculous and irritating. It actually turned me off the song. This is the other finalist from the first semi that I felt didn’t deserve it.

SEMIFINAL 2:

  • Latvia: Justs ‘Heartbeat‘ – The biggest thing about the song is its arresting instrumentation. The stage graphics fit the song very well and Justs delivers the song in style and with the right moves you’d expect from a male pop singer. Justs does it solo without backup singers or backup dancers and does it with style. I ranked it the best performance of this semi because it grabs your attention from the very start and won’t let go.
  • Poland: Michal Szpak ‘Color Of Your Life‘ – This is a good ballad delivered very well from Michal. Its style really stands out. Michal delivered it very professionally despite missing a note near the first chorus. The biggest glitch I feel has to be the vintage military jacket he wears on stage. I don’t think it fit the performance that well. Especially since Justs that was on just before him came on stage with a leather jacket. Backup violinists and stage graphics blended well with the performance.
  • Israel: Hovi Star ‘Made Of Stars‘ – This is an excellent ballad delivered very well with excellent singing from Hovi. I almost thought he was doing a cover of an Adele song. The stage graphics added excellently to the song. However the two dancers on the spinning hoop had me questioning whether they were worth it or not? Do they add or subtract? Because Hovi delivers well in a no nonsense performance.
  • Serbia: Sanja Vucic ZAA ‘Goodbye‘ – It’s both a ‘Balkan Ballad’ and a power ballad. Excellent vocals full of emotion and a set up back-up singers that add to the drama and power. Might bring back memories to some of 2007 winner ‘Molitva’ but it holds its own. The male backup dancer didn’t add but he didn’t subtract from the performance either. If there’s one weakness, it’s her stiff black dress. Overall an excellent package and I rank it second-best of this semifinal.
  • Lithuania: Donny Montell ‘I’ve Been Waiting For This Night‘ – A powerful song with a lot of energy and Donny knows how to deliver it vocally. However I didn’t like how he added Michael Jackson-like dance moves to his performance. I feel it did not fit the song at all. Maybe the front flip near the end helped but the dancing didn’t. This is one of two from this semi that qualified for the final that didn’t make my personal Top 10.
  • Australia: Dami Im ‘Sound Of Silence‘ – A very powerful ballad delivered excellent by Dani. I also have no problem with the dress since it was meant to fit the song. However I’m not too happy about some of the stage choices she was given such as sitting on that platform until after the second chorus. She does walk around after that and deliver the song well but I don’t think she was given enough movement.
  • Bulgaria: Poli Genova ‘If Love Was A Crime‘ – Many people felt Poli was robbed of a finals berth five years ago with ‘Na Inat‘ but she finally gets it here. I’ll admit this is not that much of an attention-grabber of a song. Nor were a few of her dance moves the best. Nevertheless Poli delivered the song well and gave it its energy and made it enjoyable to hear. It’s very good for the most part.
  • Ukraine: Jamala ‘1944‘ – This is the first song at the ESC with Crimean Tatar lyrics. This is probably the most political song at this Contest. She has a song with a message and she delivers it with emotion in the song. The wailing at the end of the song is a big plus and especially shows off her vocal abilities. However political songs are touchy grounds at the ESC. They welcome it as long as it’s subtle. I feel this is deserving of its finals berth.
  • Georgia: Nika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz ‘Midnight Gold‘ – The number starts with a lot of potential with some exciting rock instrumentation and fitting stage graphics. However it goes downhill when the singer delivers vocals with notes that don’t seem to fit the song. I don’t know if he did it for creative purposes but his choices don’t really fit at all. Can’t complain about the instrumentation as it’s the best part. However this is the second qualifier to the final from this semi that I felt didn’t deserve it. Actually I ranked it second-to-last of this semi.
  • Belgium : Laura Tesoro ‘What’s The Pressure‘ – At last! A song that makes you wanna get down! Laura delivers a funky, feel-good energetic number that delivers all the best qualities of a pop number including vocals, dancing and even trying to get the crowd involved. I ranked this the third-best of this semi.

AUTOMATICS:

  • France: Amir ‘J’ai Cherche‘ – Good song, has a lot of energy, very good singing, but it comes across as rather boring. I don’t know what it is but when I saw Amir perform, I felt like there was something missing. I don’t know how this will fare on Saturday.
  • Spain: Barei ‘Say Yay!‘ – Now this is one number I feel will go far. A very good song that is full of energy and has good potential of being catchy. Also she performs excellently on stage. She dances like she’s in control and delivers the song as she should. I question her dress, especially with the 03 on it. However I feel she will be great on Saturday night.
  • Sweden: Frans ‘If I Were Sorry‘ – Sweden has one of the best success records at Eurovision. This number however is very questionable. Frans delivered a boring performance where the background tries to make the song interesting by flashing key words. He does sing the song well but his accent is too thick to comprehend some of the lyrics. I think he might score well in the popular vote because of his teen idol status but I don’t think he’ll score well with the judges.
  • Germany: Jamie-Lee ‘Ghost‘ – I have to say a good song and Jamie-Lee is a very good singer. However her outfit was too over the top. I’m cool with a weird outfit done for theatrical purposes such as Nina Kraljic’s outfit during the opening of ‘Spotlight’ but that was too ridiculous like Alice In Wonderland went through a flower garden. The backup singers had on sensible clothes and the trees that shot laser beams worked good but that outfit is dumb and works against her performance. However the outfit will make her win the Barbara Dex award.
  • United Kingdom: Joe & Jake ‘You’re Not Alone‘ – I have to say it’s a very good song with a very good performance. The two sing the song very well and add to the young energy of the song. It’s hard to find something to dislike about this number, especially since it’s very low in gimmicks. I think the one cheesy thing was probably the jumping near the end. One thing we have to keep in mind is that ‘no nonsense’ performances like these are great but they face the obstacle of winning attention from both televoters and the juries. Nevertheless I do wish the best for both of them. Especially since the UK used to have quite a Eurovision legacy and the 21st century has been very unkind to them with only two Top 10 finishes.
  • Italy: Francesca Michielin ‘No Degree Of Separation‘ – Italy rarely disappoints. They’ve mostly delivered some top notch performances to the Contest over the years, even in the last few years. And this year’s entry is a delight too. 21 year-old Francesca Michielin is already a seasoned pro. You’ll notice it as she sings the song consistently and with feeling. Adding the feeling to the song is a big plus. A big minus to the song however is all those stage props and stage graphics. I don’t know if they were trying to reflect a theme or emulate the music video but I feel it went too far and they were distracting from the song. This could work against her performance which holds its own without all the added stuff.

So those are my thoughts for the qualifiers. As for the ‘also-rans’:

Semi-Final 1: I know I said Malta and Azerbaijan didn’t deserve to be in the final. In their place should be Iceland and Moldova. They did their performance better. Finland’s Sandhja was good but came off as flat. That’s not good especially when you’re first up. Greece must have forgotten the golden rule of rap acts at Eurovision: rap acts go nowhere, even if it’s mixed with ethnopop. It’s a shame because I usually like the Greek numbers. San Marino’s Serhat had a style but I didn’t see it as enough to qualify for the final. Estonia came off as ridiculous in his stage antics and his voice. Montenegro’s number sounded like a mashed-up song and Bosnia’s on-stage theatrics made me wonder if it was really necessary for the song.

Semi-Final 2: If I were to trade Georgia and Lithuania from the finals, I’d put in Ireland and Macedonia. Ireland was full of energy and delivered well. Macedonia was also excellent, especially in her vocal range. Switzerland had a good song but it all fell apart with all the on-stage props and moves she was given. Belarus had potential but I thought the face stripes were dumb. Slovenia was good but the singer delivered awkward stage poses that worked against her. The Danish vocal trio came across as rather boring. Norway delivered a song that alternate from one tempo and mood of the verses to a different tempo and completely different mood in the chorus. It didn’t really mix well. And Albania had good potential but I feel her chances were marred by lousy backup singers.

Overall I have to say this is a mostly good set of performers for this Contest. There is a bit of the eccentric in some elements but it’s nothing compared to the ‘freak shows’ of five years ago or even ten years ago. I think the freakiest moments will come from Germany and Italy. I guess the country’s are now getting the message that doing something super-eccentric or super-gimmicky doesn’t pay. I didn’t notice too many off-key moments and those that did recovered well.

Like I said, I don’t know enough about European music tastes to make predictions. So instead I’m giving my personal Top 10. Eurovision style, of course:

  • Poland, 1 point.
  • Australia, 2 points.
  • Spain, 3 points.
  • Cyprus, 4 points.
  • Netherlands, 5 points.
  • Belgium, 6 points.
  • Serbia, 7 points.
  • Austria, 8 points.
  • Latvia, 10 points.
  • And my personal 12 points goes to…Russia!

So there’s my summary of the 2016 Eurovision finalists and their semifinal performances. I’m glad I don’t have to be a jury member because it’s a headache ranking them. Mind you anything can change on Saturday. They may go off key or something may malfunction or the energy that was there in the semi may not be there in the final. Even things like performance order can play a factor. How ironic how Belgium who ended the second semifinal will open the final? Ending the final will be Armenia. Whatever the situation, I wish all the performers the best and the winning performer’s country to get ready to host next year!