UEFA Euro 2020: My Prediction For The Final

Will Italy win for the second time? Or England for the first?

Fifty matches, 140 goals, eleven venues and eleven countries. And an event format current UEFA president Aleksandar Cerefin says is too troubling and won’t happen again. I didn’t have a problem with it. Despite it, now the field is narrowed down to the two for the Cup: Italy and England. For Italy, this will be their fourth time playing for the Cup. Their one win came in 1968 and it came after two hugely controversial semifinals. For England, this is their first time ever qualifying for the final! Yes, I find it hard to believe too. Ever since 1996, they’ve been singing ‘It’s Coming Home’ in hopes they win whatever big trophy they’re chasing and now is more chance than ever! For this, I will do my review of Italy vs. England and make my prediction.

Head-To-Head Stats:

Italy vs. England isn’t normally one of the bigger rivalries in football. Italy’s more legendary rivalries are with Germany, Brazil, eastern neighbors Croatia, Spain and France in recent years. England has bigger rivalries with Germany, Argentina and northern neighbors Scotland. Italy and England have played each other 27 times. Italy has won ten times while England has won eight. The last time Italy played England, it was a March 2018 friendly and it ended in a 1-1 draw.

Team Breakdown:

ITALY: It’s hard to believe a team with one of the biggest football legacies of four World Cups has only won a single Euro. It was all the way back in 1968, and after both semifinals consisted of major controversies. In fact Italy’s case was they played a scoreless draw against the Soviet and there wasn’t a penalty kick system like we have now. So a coin-toss was used to decide Italy’s win! Since 1968, they have made it to the final twice: in 2000 and 2012. The Forza Azzurri have always been one of the most dazzling teams in the world, but they can also end up being one of the most unpredictable teams too. There have been many times in tournaments when even if they didn’t win, they would go further than expected. However there are times when Italy has delivered below pre-event expectations. That has especially been the case after they won the World Cup in 2006. However it was right after their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup that it was aware there had to be changes not only in the team, but the Italian football system.

Since their World Cup failure, they have a new head of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) Gabriele Gravina and a new coach in Roberto Mancini. Ever since Mancini took hold of the Italian team, the Azzurri have only lost two games with the last loss being in September 2018. They capped hugely successful, 2019 with straight wins. 2021 was also hugely successful with straight wins until the Euro semifinal where they drew 1-1 against Spain. Their win on penalty kicks is a victory for them as Italy is one of the weaker teams at penalty kick rounds. Italy came to this Euro with a lot to prove and prove they did. The final is another opportunity for them to prove themselves. They showed they can score well and that they have good defense. However even coach Mancini admits that England is a stronger team. He even warned his team to be cautious of players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. That could be their one glitch as they may not be able to fend off England’s star strikers. Another is Emerson Palmieri as the replacement goalkeeper. He plays in the Premier League with Chelsea and some England players may be familiar with his weaknesses. Nevertheless, Italy can rise to the challenge and possibly win their second Euro over in Wembley Stadium.

ENGLAND: Hard to believe this is the first-ever Euro final England has made it to! It’s just as surprising as their one World Cup, which was won in 1966 in old Wembley Stadium. Euro 2020 would be poetic if they won their first Euro in the new Wembley Stadium. Yes, it does seem like England’s win of the 1966 World Cup has made them a one-hit-wonder in football. England has almost always fielded the national team with the most talent and the most skill combined. However its inability to go far on the international stage has almost always seems to be the team not being able to come together and play as a team unit. That often seems to be the case. Ever since their World Cup win, the best England has done at the World Cup was two fourth places. Also the best they ever did at Euro was a third place.

2016 appears to be the turning point. This was after England came off possibly its most dreadful performance as a national team with Roy Hodgson. It involved an out in the Group Stage at World Cup 2014 and an out in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016. After Euro 2016, the English team hired Gareth Southgate as the manager. A former national team player himself, Southgate was coach of the national under-21 team at the time. It turned out to be the best move for England. Southgate’s England squad made it to the semifinals of World Cup 2018: the first time since 1990 and only the third time even England make the Top 4 at the World Cup.

Then Euro came. The current English team consists of some of the best veterans and many top rising talents. All but three play for Premier League teams with one playing for Atletico Madrid and two playing for Germany’s Bundesliga teams. England and Southgate had a lot to prove to the eyes of the world here at the Euro 2020 and boy have they been proving it. It the Group Stage, their only non-win was a scoreless draw against Scotland, but their other two matches were wins of 1-0. In the Round of 16, they beat their common rival Germany 2-0. They would show dominance in their quarterfinal against Ukraine by winning 4-0. The semifinal was the first Euro 2020 where England conceded a single goal. Despite it, England was able to recover and win the semi 2-1 in added extra time to qualify for their first-ever Euro final!

England overcame a lot of ‘team demons’ in order to get where they are now. Back at the 2018 World Cup, they won their Round of 16 game against Colombia on penalty kicks. That was the first time ever in four tries that England won a World Cup match on penalty kicks. Even here in Euro 2020, winning over Germany, a team they commonly lose to in major tournaments, shows how much team chemistry between England has improved over Southgate. However England does have their imperfections. You can look at their semifinal win, for starter. The controversy of a fan flashing a laser pointer to the eyes of Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel as Harry Kane was about to make his penalty kick has given their win a tarnish. The English team has been fined by UEFA for this. Another case, as far as play goes, is that Italy has been noticed to have better midfielders than England. That could hurt England during some key moments. Whatever the situation, Wembley Stadium tonight is their chance to tell the world ‘It’s Coming Home’ instead of ‘It’s Coming To Rome.’

My Final Verdict:

This is a tough call and this is a game that could end up as a draw even at the end of added extra time. However I feel I will have to predict England to win this 2-1.

And there you go! That is my focus on the Euro 2020 final and my prediction. You can bet there will be a ton of excitement over in Wembley Stadium and lots to look forward to. Can excitement and national pride repeat itself 55 years later? Only time will tell!

UEFA EURO 2020: Semifinal Predictions

Four teams left. Who will be the finalists for Sunday?

Hard to believe it took 135 goals in the 48 matches in 11 stadiums in 11 nations to decide the four semifinalists. Anyways the four semifinalists have all been decided: Denmark, England, Italy and Spain. All semifinals and the final for the Cup will be held in London’s Wembley Stadium. You can expect a lot of chants of ‘It’s Coming Home’ to echo. In the meantime, here’s my focus and predictions on the two Euro 2020 semi-finals:

SEMIFINAL #1: ITALY vs. SPAIN

Head-to-Head Stuff: Spain and Italy have played each other 33 times. Nine times they drew. The other 26 times, the results have been split! Their last head-to-head match was in September 2017 during World Cup qualifying which Spain won 3-0. Spain has won five of the last ten meetings including the 2012 Euro final for the Cup. Italy’s only won two of the last ten but their last win over Spain was a Euro 2016 rematch in the Round of 16 where they won 2-0!

Team By Team Analysis:

ITALY: Italy is a team that went from a national embarrassment to success in most recent years. We’re talking about a nation with one of the world’s biggest football legacies with three World Cup and winning Euro 1968. However recent years after their most recent World Cup win in 2006 would soon expose some of Italy’s weaknesses. They failed to win a game at the 2010 which they were defending World Cup champions and found themselves out in the Group Stage. Another out in the Group Stage happened at the 2014 World Cup. 2016 failed to redeem them as they were out in the quarterfinals of the Euro that year. And them World Cup qualifying. Italy was in Group G which was won by Spain. With Italy being second in the group, they were given a playoff chance where they were drawn against Sweden. The first game, that was played in Sweden, the Swedes won 1-0. The second game was to be in Italy, which seemed to assure they would take it. The whole game went scoreless and Sweden was the team going to the World Cup. World Cup 2018 was only the third World Cup without the Italian team present!

What happened after worked in their favor. There would be a new lead of the Italian Football Federation and the team would be managed under Roberto Mancini. The team also showed promise as they would finish third at the under-20 World Cup and fourth at the 2019 under-20 World Cup, showing a lot of potential for young talent to rise. The results turned out to be very winning. Italy’s last loss was to Portugal in September 2018. Italy went through straight wins in 2019. 2020 was a case where they won five of their eight matches and 2021 has been another case of nothing but wins so far. At Euro 2020, they won all three of their Group Stage matches without conceding a single goal. Italy would go on to win their Round of 16 match against Austria and their quarterfinal against Belgium.

Italy find themselves in the semifinal against Spain. Every Euro game, they’ve been showing their renewed strength and reminding people why Italy is a football superpower. However the Spaniards are an experienced team and they might lose out to them. Also if it becomes a case for penalty kicks, it can be a losing battle for Italy as penalty kicks are one of their weaknesses. It will all be decided Tuesday.

SPAIN: Spain is a team that for a long time has been commonly known as ‘football’s greatest underachievers.’ They have always been a team loaded with talent, but couldn’t seem to deliver during the biggest events. Then something changed around the late-2000’s. Spain won their second Euro in 2008. Could it be that Spain could win the World Cup in the near future? The World Cup in 2010 answered that with a big “Yes!” It started off with a loss on their first game, but game after game was win after win up to winning the Cup. Spain continued their success with a win of the 2012 Euro and runners-up at the 2013 Confederations Cup. Then the downfall. At the 2014 World Cup, Spain became the latest defending champion to be out in the Group Stage. Further humiliation came when Spain was out in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016 and the Round Of 16 at the 2018 World Cup.

Things have changed ever since Luis Enrique, who himself represent Spain at three World Cups and Euro 1996. The team began to regroup and reorganize itself better. Of the 35 matches Spain has played since the 2018 World Cup before Euro 2020, they have only lost three matches and won eighteen. Here at the Euro, they started out slowly with drawing the first two games, which is common for Spain, and then let out its best team traits by first winning 5-0 to Slovakia. This then led to a Round of 16 win against Croatia 5-3 in added extra time and a penalty kick win over Switzerland in the quarterfinals. Spain has what it takes to win the semifinal and even the Euro.

They know how to deliver. They just need to do all the right moves in order to make it happen. We should remember that Spain’s 3-3 tie against Croatia after regulation was because of an own-goal. They’re just as capable of losing to Italy as they are winning over Italy. They can’t afford any more bad mistakes or slack play as they’re getting closer to the final.

My Final Verdict:

Fourth straight Euro Italy and Spain cross paths. First was 2008 in the quarterfinals, then 2012 was group play and the final for the Cup, 2016 was the Round of 16, now this semifinal! This is a tough one considering both the head-to-head statistics and the way the two teams have played here in Euro 2020. I anticipate it will end up a 2-2 draw after added extra time that will go to penalty kicks, which Spain will win.

SEMIFINAL #2: ENGLAND vs. DENMARK

Head-To-Head Stuff: England and Denmark have faced each other 21 times. England won 12 of those games. Five have been draws. Denmark has won four. Three of those Denmark victories have been in the last six meet-ups. The most recent being a 1-0 victory over England in October 2020.

Team By Team Analysis:

ENGLAND: England has always been known to have a wealth of talent. And rightly so. Its Premier League showcases the best English football talent has to offer. However the difficulty always comes when trying to get a national team together. So many players who play great for their clubs, and they bring it to the national team. However the national team almost always falls short. Like the team players can’t function properly as a unified team unit. England did win one World Cup all the way back in 1966, but it’s been a struggle since with the most being two fourth-place finishes. England is the only team in the semifinals who never won a Euro; their best result being third-places in 1968 and 1996. However it was 2104 when England appeared to really hit rock bottom when they were out in the Group Stage of World Cup 2014 without a win. Being ousted in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016 didn’t help much either.

Then things changed when they introduced Gareth Southgate, a former Team England player himself, as head manager. Things really improved as the team started to show improvements in their play together. The 2018 World Cup was a case where they finished fourth, but they showed a remarkable improvement in their play and even won their first ever World Cup match on penalty kicks against Colombia! England has since shown impressive play since them. Before Euro 2020, they’ve only lost five of the 30 games they’ve played since and won 21 games. Since Euro began, they haven’t been like Italy and had straight wins, but they do have a tournament milestone that they have not conceded a single goal in the tournament so far. They appear to be getting better every game. For their Round of 16 match against Germany, they won on home soil: 2-0. And to think during Euro 1996, Southgate, who was a player for England at the time, was the one who delivered the missed penalty in the semifinal which got England out! Their 4-0 win over Ukraine was dazzling to watch.

England has the luxury of a talented team that performs better than ever as a team unit. Not to mention the home advantage with the semis and final in Wembley stadium. However it could fall apart right there. Plus that 1-0 loss to Denmark was back in October 2020, so not all that recent. England will have to keep on playing as well as they have in recent games if they want to reach the final for the Cup.

DENMARK: Normally you don’t think of Denmark as a football superpower. I mean they only competed in their first World Cup in 1986 and their best World Cup finish has been the quarterfinals all the way back in 1998. However Euro tells of bigger success. This is Denmark’s fourth time ever in the Top 4. Past success includes a third-place in 1984 and a win in 1992. Denmark did have a downturn in their success as they failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euro. Things changed after they were taken on by Norwegian manager Age Hareide. In qualifying for the World Cup, Denmark finished second in their group against Poland, was pitted against the Republic of Ireland in their playoff matches and won 5-1. Denmark would then go on to finish in the Round of 16. After that was the switch to a Danish manager, Kasper Hjulmand, who has helped make the improvements in the team.

The Danes played their first game in Copenhagen expecting to show the world what they’re made of. Instead the first half of their first game against Finland had a shocker of a moment when midfielder Christian Eriksen suddenly collapsed. The whole stadium was in shock. The whole Danish team was distraught and his wife was heartbroken. The game was ordered to stop. Over time, it became apparent that Eriksen was alive and conscious. Eventually he was taken to a nearby hospital where his condition was diagnosed as cardiac arrest. A bombshell would come the following day that he was deceased for five minutes!

Once it was clear Eriksen was alive and being hospitalized UEFA gave the go-ahead to resume the game more than an hour after it stopped. Many did not like the idea. In the end, Finland won 1-0. Denmark has not fully recovered from the shock when they were to play Belgium. They lost 2-1. Over time, the Danish team overcame the shock. Eriksen recovered well enough to visit his team mates. For their last game against Russia, they really showed what they were made of by winning 4-1. Their Round of 16 match was against Wales which they won 4-0, and then their quarterfinal over the Czech Republic which they won 2-1. As has happened in the past, Denmark has delivered the unexpected. They can deliver the unexpected again in Wembley. However it could easily be the end for them if they don’t play as well as they have in recent games. It can be just as much Denmark’s as it can be England’s on Wednesday. It’s about which team delivers the most.

CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN Update: For those wondering what happened to Christian Eriksen since his cardiac arrest, he has been released from the hospital and has met with teammates in Helsingor, but more importantly, he did undergo a successful operation beforehand on June 18 and he’s since returned to be with is family. No word if he’ll play professional football again. Most leagues won’t allow a footballer to play again after they suffer cardiac arrest.

My Final Verdict: This is a tough prediction, especially since the last England vs. Denmark match was a Danish victory, but I think the win will be England 2-1.

And there you have it. My predictions for the two semifinals of Euro 2020. Hard to believe the final for the Cup is coming so soon. Hard to believe we all had to wait forever for it! Anyways, stay toond!

UEFA EURO 2020 Revised Quarterfinal Predictions

The field has been narrowed from 24 to eight. For most, like myself, not the eight we expected!

Normally I don’t concoct a blog of quarterfinal predictions of a major football tournament if it has a Round of 16. Normally I predict the winners of the Round of 16 matches, then make quarterfinal predictions based on my picks of Round of 16 winners and leave it at that. However those that read my blog of my Round of 16 guesses are undoubtedly laughing at how I only got three right. That explains my rewritten predictions for the quarterfinals. I feel they deserve a redo. So here goes my predictions:

Switzerland vs. Spain – Here is the big irony. Switzerland beat out reigning World Cup holders France on penalty kicks to qualify, and Spain beat out World Cup 2018 finalists Croatia in added extra time to qualify! Additional irony is both teams here had Round of 16 matches that ended with 3-3 after regulation time! Interesting!

This is Switzerland’s first-ever win of a knockout game at a Euro ever, and their first in a major tournament since the 1938 World Cup. For Spain, they’re in familiar territory as they’ve won three Euros and a World Cup in the past. Also in the 22 times the two countries played each other, Switzerland has only won once. Switzerland could come alive in soring prowess like they did against France, but I will predict Spain to win here.

Belgium vs. Italy – Two different teams. One is the result of years of teamwork and perfecting that has taken them to the rank of #1 in FIFA’s World rankings. The other is a fresh team with a history of a legacy that’s making a comeback after failing to qualify for the most recent World Cup. Both teams have one thing in common. They both all have straight wins in this Euro tournament.

This is the one quarterfinal lineup I predicted correctly! Hard to choose. The goal scored by Austrian Sasa Kalajdzic was the first goal Italy conceded not just in Euro 2020 but since their match against the Netherlands in October! Belgium only conceded one goal in Euro 2020 in their group game against Denmark. It’s tough to pick a winner in a quarterfinal of two teams with straight wins in this Euro. I know Italy has beaten Belgium more often in head-to-head matches but I pick Belgium because they are the powerhouse of the moment and this Italian team is a rising power.

Czech Republic vs. Denmark – Another quarterfinal of teams that surprised in their Round of 16 match. Most people would have touted the Netherlands over the Czech Republic. However the Czechs delivered a surprise win of two goals. Also many would have predicted Wales to beat Denmark as they have the more lauded players. Denmark surprised them with four goals!

It’s interesting in these past two games, Denmark scored four goals each game. Their group match against Russia was do or die for them to qualify and it became a case where the Danish Dynamite finally exploded! The Czechs are also a team that appear to be showing their best traits in only their most recent games. For this match, I will predict Denmark because they’re best at pulling surprises. Also if this is a possible draw, which is quite likely with the head-to-head record, I think the Danes will take it in penalty kicks.

England vs. Ukraine – Tuesday was a case where the eventual winners were not the favorites going into their Round of 16 matches. England has been known in recent decades of losing to Germany. How easy we forgot they beat Germany to win the 1966 World Cup. And in the old Wembley Stadium. However it was a case of one of the best English teams ever against a struggling German team and it resulted in a 2-0 win! And in the new Wembley Stadium. Their first win of a knockout game since Euro 1996, which England hosted! And current coach Garreth Southgate was a player for the team back then!

For Ukraine, Sweden had the bigger expectations to win considering they topped their group with two wins and a draw, while Ukraine squeaked in with just a win and two losses. Anything can happen in a match. The game drew 1-1 after regulation and then in the stoppage time of added extra time, Ukraine’s Artem Dovbyk scored the winning goal!

England have not yet conceded a goal during the Euro 2020 tournament. Ukraine have lost games during Euro 2020, but have also delivered some surprise moments. In football, anything can happen. England have won four of the seven head-to-head matches while Ukraine has only won once. I will have to go with England on this. Even though they won’t be in their home country for this quarterfinal, it won’t rob them of their luck.

And there you have it. My revised predictions of the Euro 2020 quarterfinals. Interesting that the quarterfinals is the last round that will have the teams play in alternating cities and countries. The semis and finals will all be held in Wembley. Stay tuned for some exciting play!

2019 Grey Cup Preview

Grey Cup

Sunday November 24th will be the 107th contesting of the Grey Cup: Canada’s big day of football. This will be another contesting of East vs. West, as it should be. This time East is represented by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and West will be represented by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

FIFTH TIME FOR CALGARY

This Grey Cup will mark the fifth time Calgary’s McMahon Stadium will host the Grey Cup. The stadium opened in 1960 and has undergone two renovations and four expansions. In addition to four previous Grey Cups (the last one being in 2009), the Stadium has also hosted the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games of Calgary and was part of the Ozzy Osbourne-led 2008 Monsters Of Rock tour. It normally seats 35,400 but can be expanded to 46,020. The CFL was originally planning to have the Grey Cup located to October two years ago, but that plan didn’t go through.

The four-day Grey Cup festival in Calgary started back on November 20th and is to continue until Saturday November 23rd. It will be centred in downtown Calgary and leading to McMahon Stadium. There will be forty festivities and events including a family-friendly festival, pancake breakfast and traditional team parties. There will be a special Grey Cup rodeo at the Stampede Corral and the Fusion Music Festival. The anthem will be sung by Lindsay Kelly with the Calgary Stampede Showband and the half-time show will have Keith Urban.

And Now For The Game

As I mentioned at the beginning, it will be Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs. Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Basically a rematch of the 1984 Grey Cup! The TiCats are the heavy favorites as they led the 2019 Season, but Winnipeg has been a team of surprises. Can they surprise at the Grey Cup too?

WEST: WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS

Winnipeg BB

Winnipeg is the surprise of the Grey Cup. At the very end of the 2019 CFL season, Winnipeg was third in the West, but the rankings were very tight as Winnipeg was 11 wins and 7 losses while group-topper Calgary was 13-5.

Before the playoffs, started, the chances for Winnipeg looked glum as they lost four of their final six games, including Calgary 33-37. Calgary would be Winnipeg’s opponent in the first playoff game. This appeared to be Calgary’s for the taking as the Bombers lost both regular-season games against them, but Winnipeg pulled an upset with 35-14. For the Western final, they had to face Saskatchewan; another team that beat them in both regular-season games. Winnipeg seized control in the first quarter and maintained good enough attack and defense to deliver a 20-13 win.

Winnipeg has not won a Grey Cup since 1990. Here in the Grey Cup, they will be facing yet another team they lost to in both their regular-season games against them. They could pull off an upset if they start with Zach Collaros and Andrew Harris. Keep in mind Collaros led Saskatchewan to a win over Hamilton. So there’s plenty of chance for an upset over here. However it’s about having the right lineup at the start and the team to deliver.

EAST: HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

Hamilton TC

This year has been Hamilton’s year. They led the regular season with fifteen wins and three losses. They only had to play the Eastern final game in order to qualify for the Grey Cup and they did so in brilliant fashion: winning 36-16.

Like Winnipeg, Hamilton has had a long wait since their last Grey Cup: back in 1999. Hamilton beat Winnipeg in both regular-season games against them. Hamilton showed brilliant play in their win against Edmonton. Hamilton can do it again against Winnipeg. They have some of the best talent in the CFL. However some of their best players like Brandon Banks and Tevin Mitchell are injured. Winnipeg could use that as an advantage.

FINAL PREDICTION

Hamilton has been the team that’s been the most on all year and they show no signs of letting go. Winnipeg, on the other hand, appears to have arrived like never before at the playoffs and could carry their streak of success to a Grey Cup win. However I will have to go with my best instincts and pick Hamilton to win 35-19.

So there you have it. There’s my prediction for the 107th Grey Cup. However it will all be decided in McMahon Stadium on Sunday. Anything can happen.

2018 Grey Cup Preview

GreyCup Image

It’s the football event that defines us Canadians. Grey Cup Sunday is back. This year marks the 106th contesting of the Cup. Again it’s East vs. West. Like 2016, it’s Calgary vs. Ottawa.

FIFTH TIME FOR EDMONTON

This marks the fifth time the Grey Cup will be contested in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. The Stadium, which was built in 1978 to host the Commonwealth Games, is one of the biggest in Canada. It features a basic capacity of 56,302 and can be expanded to just over 63,000. Since 2016, the Stadium has been named ‘The Brick Field At Commonwealth Stadium.’

One thing about Edmonton is that they really love their football. It was announced back in February that they’d make Grey Cup festivities twice as big as they were in 2010: the last time Edmonton hosted. The five-day festival which started on Wednesday is to include things like a ZipLine, an artificial hill and a multitude of musical acts and theme parties. Since the Grey Cup would be taking place around the annual Santa’s Parade Of Lights, the event would be combined into one parade. For entertainment, The Reklaws will perform prior to the game as part of the Sirius XM Canada KickOff Show. The half-time show will be performed by Alessia Cara.

And Now The Game

As I mentioned earlier, this is going to be a 2016 rematch of the Calgary Stampeders vs. the Ottawa RedBlacks. The Stampeders are the heavy favorites again, but there are no guarantees in sports. The RedBlacks could win their second Grey Cup in only their fifth year of existence.

stampedersWEST: CALGARY STAMPEDERS

The Calgary Stampeders not only lead the Western division but the whole CFL too. They come as the heavy favorites for this year. But this is a constant repeat. This is the third year in a row the Stampeders have topped the CFL in Regular play and won the West Final. The thing is they lost the Grey Cup both times as the heavy favorite. In no way will they want this to be their third loss of the Cup in a row.

Going over their regular season, Calgary has had thirteen wins and five losses. All of their losses were from teams in the West. In the West Final, they won beating Winnipeg 22-14. They had just lost to Winnipeg three weeks earlier in regular season. That alone can send the message that Calgary can overcome a lot. Calgary has the best defense in the league and they will present a challenge when put to the test. However Ottawa does have a tough offence, which I will touch on later. That could be the one thing standing in the way of Calgary avoiding a three-peat of Grey Cup losses. Not to mention weather could be a factor. I still remember last year’s Grey Cup and how it snowed heavily. The snowy slippery field was too much for Calgary that day.

ottawaEAST: OTTAWA REDBLACKS

The East teams don’t have as jam-packed the combined talent the West does. However the Ottawa RedBlacks turned out to be the only team from the East this year to have more wins than losses in regular season. Their record of 11 wins and 7 losses would have them ranking third in the West. However don’t let sabermetrics fool you. They did beat the Eskimoes, the RoughRiders, the Lions and the Bombers in at least one game. The only loss to an East team was to a game against the Argonauts back in August.

The RedBlacks lost both their games against the Stampeders in the regular season, but both games were in June and July. The RedBlacks are a different team now. Calgary may have the best defense in the CFL, but Ottawa has a tough offense to match. On top of it, Ottawa has a star quarterback in Trevor Harris. In fact Harris scored a playoff-record six passes during Ottawa’s 46-27 win in the East Final. They could just pull another upset.

FINAL PREDICTION

I know it’s tough to pick. Sure, it’s easy to think Calgary’s going to win it, but I thought that in the last two Grey Cups. I think Calgary will do it this time 30-25. Plus the weather will look good for tomorrow.

So there you have it. That’s my prediction for tomorrow’s Grey Cup. I knew I had to complete my VIFF Wrap-Up before I gave my Grey Cup prediction. Glad I had the energy to do both. We’ll see who wins tomorrow!

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 Preview: Group G

One neat thing about FIFA’s World Cup section is that it not only lists the game times in your time zone, but it also lists the networks that will broadcast the games in your country. I was surprised to see all the Canadian channels listed by the game times! Definitely makes things convenient! Crazy thing for all of us living in cities like Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles is that most of the games start at 05:00, 08:00 and 11:00 our time. I’m sure a morning beer won’t hurt.

Now on to my next group to review:

Belgium-Belgium (3)- The Red Devils sure have been ranking very high these past few years. You can attribute that to brilliant play within UEFA matches and world Cup qualifying. However they’re hoping to make a big impression on the world stage. Before the last World Cup, they had a high ranking back then but got as far as the quarterfinals. That’s actually a respectable achievement since it’s their best finish since their fourth place in 1986. However Belgium feels they have more to prove.

Belgium has a strong team. Leading the Belgian team are defenders Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany, midfielder Marouane Fellaini and strikers Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. Interestingly, almost half of Belgium’s team plays for the Premier League. Belgium again delivered in World Cup qualifying with nine wins and a draw. Their last defeat came in a friendly against Spain in September 2016. Looks like Belgian fire could pay off over in Russia.

Panama-Panama (55)- So you may wonder how did a team with an outside shot like Panama qualify for the World Cup? Simple. With just the final game in World Cup qualifying, the US needed to simply tie Trinidad and Tobago to join Mexico and Costa Rica in qualifying. Instead the US lost 2-1 while Honduras beat Mexico 3-2 and Panama beat Costa Rica 2-1. That’s sport. What’s rightfully yours will go to someone else if you’re not there. And Los Canaleros are the ones laughing!

It’s their first World Cup. Interestingly many of the players on the team play for MLS. Only five play for European teams. Interestingly, two for Belgian teams. So far this year they scored a win against Trinidad and Tobago, but lost to Switzerland and Denmark. Whatever the situation, Russia 2018 will be a great experience for Panama.

Tunisia flag-Tunisia (21)- One thing about Les Aigles de Carthage is that they keep on trying. Tunisia has participated in four World Cups but have not yet made it past the group stage. Their only World Cup win was in their debut year of 1978. Tunisia is hoping this is the year in which they finally progress to the knockout stage.

Most of the player play for Tunisian clubs or French clubs. A good percentage of the team’s players are 25 and under. Their coach Nabil Maâloul has coached many club team and national teams in the Middle East. Tunisia’s play has been very impressive in this past year. They won against Iran and Costa Rica and even drew against Portugal.

England fixed-England (12)- England has had a reputation of being a top team that excels in underachieving. However it was the last World Cup where they took it to a new low by failing to advance past the group stage for the first time since 1958. A Round-of-16 elimination at Euro 2016 did not help much either. After Euro 2016, they have been coached by Gareth Southgate who played at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. His experience is expected to help the team do much better this time, if not win.

No doubt England has an easier group this time. Not like last World Cup where they were in the ‘group of death.’ If you ask me, I think they were just underconfident. This year’s team is led by rising newcomer Harry Kane who is already the captain at just 24! England’s last defeat came via France 3-2 and that was exactly a year ago. Since then, they won against the Netherlands 1-0 and Nigeria 2-1 and drew against teams like Italy, Brazil and Germany. Chances are they can finally deliver on their greatness.

And that’s my summary of Group E. Now my prediction for which two I think will progress. Drum roll, please! My predictions are for Belgium and England.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

As we’re getting closer to the last group, I’ll be reviewing the two biggest stadiums for the Cup. Meanwhile this will be the last stadium spotlight where I focus on a stadium that seats less than 50,000.

NIZHNY NOVGOROD: Nizhny Novgorod Stadium

Nizhny Stadium

Year Opened: 2018

Capacity: 44,899

World Cup Groups Hosting: D, E, F, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 and a Quarterfinal

This new stadium cost $290 million to build. The stadium is inspired by two key elements of the region: water and wind. It adds a new vibe in an area with a lot of classic buildings without compromising the area’s classic feel. The biggest features the stadium has to offer are extra spaces for people with disabilities as well as accessible elevators and special navigation. The stadium also features top safety features like alarm and public alert systems, metal detectors and indicators of hazardous liquids or explosives. The arena is designed for multifunctional use.  It will serve sports events and entertainment events and even exhibitions and expos. The arena grounds will include a park, futsal fields and tennis courts. The stadium will also be the home venue for FC Olympiec Nizhny Novgorod.

BONUS FEATURE: 2018 Mascot – Zabikava

Zabivaka

Yes, what’s a review of the World Cup without a focus on the mascot? Most sports events which Russia hosts has a bear as the mascot. The World Cup decided to go with something different: a wolf. Actually it was online voting that decided what the mascot would be. The tiger and the cat were the other two rivals.

Zabivaka was introduced on December 4, 2016. Zabivaka is Russian for ‘the one who scores.’ He was designed by a University Student who was inspired by Disney images to create the wolf mascot. There has been some disapproval. The disapproval of some being how Zabikava appears to wear ski goggles. They’re actually supposed to be ‘sports goggles’ to ‘protect his eyes as he runs really fast.’ He not only has his own page at the FIFA site but also his own Facebook page as well.

And there you go. My review of Group G along with another stadium review and a look at the mascot. One last group to go.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group C

Group C may prove to be one of the groups that’s hardest to predict. Some may appear to be clear favorites or likely to be eliminated at the end, but don’t be so quick to judge. Don’t forget nobody expected Costa Rica to top Group D at the last World Cup. So without further ado, here’s my review of Group C:

France fixed-France (7)- Les Bleus has had a reputation of being an all-or-nothing team. France is never short on talent. The 2014 World Cup saw a lot of young French talent on the rise like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezman. This World Cup’s team promises a big mix of the old and the new. The team is still coached by legend Didier Deschamps and are poised to perform very well, especially after the strength of making it to the finals of Euro 2016. France’s play since Euro 2016 has been consistent with wins against England and the Netherlands, but they have also lost to Sweden 2-1 and Columbia 3-2. 2018 is an opportunity for France to win their second World Cup. It’s a matter of them all being there and delivering.

Australia-Australia (40)- When Australia made it to the Round of 16 at the 2066 World Cup, people were expecting more to come from the Socceroos. However they haven’t done as well as originally hoped. In fact they’re coming back from three straight losses in 2014. Not everything is down for Australia. They did win the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. Their play is still struggling to show. The only win against a team outside of Asia was against Honduras in a World Cup playoff.

Australia is coached by Bert van Marwijk who coached the Netherlands to the World Cup final. The team consists mostly of players from the Premier League and Australia’s A-League. 38 year-old Tim Cahill leads the team in what will be his fourth World Cup. The team has a good mix of young and old. Australia can provide another surprise again.

Peru-Peru (11)- Ten of this year’s teams at this year’s World Cup had to wait longer than four years to return to the World Cup stage. Peru has had the longest wait of all: 36 years to be exact. Things have changed ever since they’ve been coached by Argentine Ricardo Gareca who was part of Argentina’s World Cup-winning team. The team consists of players whom play mostly for teams in North and South America. The players are a good mix of youth and experience with defenseman Alberto Rodriguez leading. Peru may have the most experience playing against South American teams, but they’ve had three wins this year against European teams like Croatia, Iceland and Scotland. Peru could be the surprise of the Cup.

Denmark fixed-Denmark (12)- The last time the Danish Dynamite made it to the World Cup was back in 2010. There they didn’t advance past the group stage. Since then, they’re recently acquired Norwegian coach Åge Hareide. The team was able to qualify for the 2016 Olympics and finished in the quarterfinals. They’ve done very well having not lost a game since 2016. They’ve had some notable wins against teams like Ireland and Poland and even drew against Germany last year. Denmark’s current lineup consists of players mostly from the Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Denmark looks poised to be one of the teams from Group C to advance. Russia will be their big test.

Now my prediction for the two that will advance. It’s a toughie but I believe it will be France and Peru that will advance.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Two more stadiums. Both in focus are at least five years old. Both were also built to host major events before this World Cup.

-KAZAN : Kazan ArenaKazan Arena

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 45,379

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 & a quarterfinal

Kazan Arena was first build to host the 2013 World University Games. Kazan Arena has also hosted the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. The stadium has the largest outside screen in Europe and the largest LED installed on a football stadium in the World.

After the World Cup, Kazan Arena will be the home venue of team FC Rubin Kazan, replacing the 25,000-seat Central Stadium.

-SOCHI : Fisht Olympic StadiumSochi Fisht

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 41,220

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, F, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (A1 vs. B2) & A quarterfinal

If you remember the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, you will remember this stadium very well. This is where the opening and closing ceremonies took place. You may also remember the hefty price tag of the Sochi Olympics. This stadium cost $779 million to build!

Names after Mount Fisht, the stadium was originally built to be an enclosed stadium, but has stayed an open-air stadium since 2016 in order to conform with FIFA rules. The stadium complex now serves as a training centre and match venue for the Russia national football team.

And there you have it. The four teams of Group C and two more stadiums. Less than two weeks to go!

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group B

The funny thing about World Cup draws is the surprises they end up having. The biggest surprise about Group B is how close the countries are to each other! As in 2014, Spain is in Group B. However their Iberian neighbors Portugal is in the same group! Their very first match of the Cup will be another episode in their Iberian rivalry and the first on the World Cup stage! Then there’s Morocco just underneath Spain. And Iran isn’t too many thousands of miles away. Actually I think Group B is the group with the least geographical separation! Here’s my take on the Group B teams:

Portugal Fixed

-Portugal (4): The 21st century has seen the coming of age of The Navigators. Their biggest breakthrough came at the 2016 Euro where they went from drawing all their games to claiming the Cup in the end. This will prove to be an exciting World Cup as many believe this will be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to try to win the World Cup, as he will be 37 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around.

Portugal is more than just Cristiano Ronaldo. There’s striker Ricardo Quaresma, midfielder Joao Moutimho and star defensemen Pepe and Bruno Alves. Portugal looks consistent leading up to the Cup. They’ve had a good record since their Euro win. However they’ve had some notable losses like 3-0 to The Netherlands back in March and 3-2 against Sweden last year. They’ve also had some noteworthy draws such as 1-1 to the US and 2-2 to Tunisia. Portugal could just be able to come back to action here in Russia.

Spain Fixed

-Spain (8): Things have been a real struggle for La Roja after the 2014 World Cup. The most notable being ousted in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016. It bit Spain so badly, Vicente del Bosque was sacked as team coach. They now have a new coach: Julen Lopetegui. He comes off of coaching Spain’s youth teams and Portugal’s Porto team. The change of coaching has worked very well. Spain came on top of the World Cup qualifying group. Spain have also not lost a match since Euro 2016 and even had a spectacular 6-1 win against Argentina back in March. However Spain has had some noteworthy draws like a 3-3 draw to Russia and a 1-1 draw to Germany. Much of that is due to Spain’s set of strikers being young and lacking experience.

Leading to Russia 2018, Spain will be led by captain Sergio Ramos; one of four players on the team with more than 100 caps. Spain’s team consists of all but seven players who play for La Liga. Spain also has a lot of strong midfielders in Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and David Silva. Along with Ramos, Spain has Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba adding to their strong defense. 2018 can be another stellar year for Spain.

mo-lgflag

-Morocco (42): Nigeria may be most lauded African team but Morocco deserves some credit. They are the first African team to advance past the Group Stage; all the way back in 1986. This will be Morocco’s fourth World Cup and their first in 20 years. They were lackluster in play over the last two decades or they’d just pull a surprise and soon fade away during that time. That has changed since 2016 when they acquired French coach Herve Renard. Renard had coached Zambia to the 2012 African Nations Cup. Ever since Renard helped Morocco qualify for the World Cup, he’s signed with the team until 2022.

Morocco has had an impressive record these past two years. Despite losses like 2-1 to The Netherlands and 1-0 to Finland, they have scored notable wins like 2-1 against Serbia, 2-0 against the Ivory Coast and 3-1 against South Korea. Not too much is expected of Morocco with Spain and Portugal being favorites, but they could pull off an upset in Russia.

Iran

-Iran (36): This is Iran’s fifth World Cup. No doubt they’re hoping this will be their first where they make it past the group stage. Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz has been kept on as manager of Iran since 2011. He’s the coach that has coached the most games involving the national team. Most of the team’s players play for Iran’s Persian Gulf Pro League and Greece’s Superleague. Iran’s victories in the last while have been mostly to Asian teams. However they have drawn 1-1 against Russia and South Korea sending the message that they are capable of more than what most expect. Russia 2018 could just be their moment.

And there’s my look at the teams of Group B. As for who will advance to the Round of 16, I’m going to go with my best hunches and declare Spain and Portugal. However either Morocco or Iran could pull off a surprise.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Two ore stadiums added to the mix. Both will host four matches, all in the Group Stage. And both with host a Group Stage match for Group B. So without further ado:

-KALININGRAD: Kaliningrad Stadium

kaliningrad stadium

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 35,212

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, D, E, G

Kaliningrad Stadium is known for its unique location. It’s in the city of Kaliningrad which is part of the tiny Kaliningrad Oblast: a Russian Oblast bordered by Poland and Lithuania and situated over 400 miles west of the Russian mainland! It’s location at the Baltic Sea explains why Kaliningrad Stadium is also nicknamed Arena Baltika.

This new stadium wasn’t cheap. It came at a cost of € 257 million and had lost its original developer when it filed for bankruptcy in 2014. The stadium is located on Oktyabrsky Island and is expected to reduce its capacity to 25,000 after the World Cup. After the World Cup, the Stadium will serve as the host stadium for team FC Baltika Kaliningrad.

-SARANSK: Mordovia Arena

Mordovia

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 44,442

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, G, H

Like Kaliningrad Stadium, Mordovia Arena will also be practically fresh for the World Cup. However this World Cup Stadium is more about its design. The design is based on the image of the sun, the main symbol of ancient myths and legends of the Mordovian people. The stadium is situated around the Insar River and is part of a big land development for the city of Saransk. Part of the development includes a new residential neighborhood, a new park, and a space for recreation, public festivities and leisure activities.

The stadium has hotels, fan zones and attractions located within walking distance. After the World Cup, the stadium is expected to reduce its capacity after the World Cup to 28,000 and will serve as the host venue for team FC Mordovia Saransk. The stadium will also be turned into the largest sports, cultural and leisure center in Saransk and Mordovia.

So there you have it. Another Group Stage group summary and two more stadiums in the spotlight. More World Cup reviews coming.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group A

It’s a given. Whenever there’s a Euro or a World Cup, I do a rundown of the teams that will be competing. Those of you who remember I did it for the 2014 World Cup, I’m back. As I did for 2014, I will again do a separate blog for each of the eight Group Stage groups. Once again, I will give a preview of the twelve stadiums that will be the stages for this event and save the stadium for the Grand Final for last. Now let’s start with Group A. For the record, my summary of the teams will be done in their drawn World Cup order rather than their FIFA ranking of May 2018. FIFA ranking of that month will appear in brackets.

GROUP A:

Russia Fixed-Russia (66)- Russia had its glory days on the World Cup scene back during the days of the USSR. Since the USSR dissolved in 1992, Russia has qualified for three World Cups but always ended its trip in the group stage. It’s been a frustration. They went through two top ranked Dutch coaches Guss Hiddink and Dick Advocaat and Italian coach Fabio Capello, but would always come up short. Just before Euro 2016, they went back to a Russian coach, Leonid Slutsky, but again fell out in the group stage. Since Euro 2016, they’ve stuck to having a Russian coach. This time it’s Stanislav Cherchesov whose managed Dynamo Moscow and Legia Warsaw in the past.

The Russian team still remain an enigma. Only three of the team’s players play for teams outside Russia. Their recent game results also come into question. They’ve played six games since the Confederations Cup, but only won one: against South Korea 4-2. They’ve since had to deal with losses to big-name teams like Argentina, Brazil and France. The world Cup draw is made so that the host nation doesn’t have that hard of a time to make it past the group stage. Russia’s chances look comfortable as Uruguay appears to be its only tough rival. How far Russia goes is up for the world to see.

Saudi flag-Saudi Arabia (67)- The Saudi team looked like it was heading to better times after they made it past the Round of 16 at World Cup 1994. However the big reluctance to export players to the bigger European clubs has always proved to be the biggest obstacle. The Saudi team would face an exit at the Group Stage during the next three World Cups.

Russia 2018 marks the first World Cup since 2006 with the presence of the Saudi team. All but three of their team members play for Saudi teams. The other three play for La Liga teams from Spain. As for play, Saudi Arabia does not have a very consistent record for the past year. Their biggest win this past year came through Greece. However they’ve also had to endure losses to Belgium, Iraq and Portugal. However anything’s possible in football and the Saudi’s could surprise in Russia.

Egypt-Egypt (46)- This is only the second time Egypt has been to the World Cup. The only other time is in 1990. However Egypt is ready to play well. They’ve hired Argentine coach Hector Cuper to coach the team. The team’s players play for various team in Egypt, Europe and the US. However many consider the heart and soul of the team to be led by 26 year-old Mohamed Salah who as a striker for Liverpool won 2017 CAF footballer of the year. Many see Salah as an emerging great and could boost team Egypt in the future.

Their record leading up to World Cup 2018 is very much in question. Their only wins this past year have come against African teams. Their last win against a team from outside Africa was Bosnia-Hercegovina back in 2014. This year they’ve faced losses to Portugal and Greece. Russia is another proving point for ‘The Pharoahs.’ They may be out in the group stage or they may surprise everyone.

Uruguay-Uruguay (17)- This is the team from Group A that has the most clout. For a long time, Uruguay was seen as a team that was a blast from the past. Their biggest glory days came with World Cup wins in 1930 and 1950 and Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928. However a resurgence of Uruguay on the world scene starting with World Cup 2010 has catapulted the team back to the top of the world elite. It started with Diego Forlan and has now transferred to Luis Suarez. Uruguay’s stint at the 2014 ended in disgrace after Suarez was banned from nine games following a biting incident on an Italian player. And to think Chewy Louie was the player that infamously blocked a potential goal from Ghana at 2010.

Since the incident, Suarez has kept his promise of not ever biting another opponent. He has matured a lot as a player since and serves as Uruguay’s top star. However Uruguay is not just Suarez. The team also boasts another top striker in Edinson Cavani, midfielder Cristian Rodriguez and top defencemen Diego Godin and Maxi Pereira. Uruguay can prove themselves to be a top force to be reckoned with here in Russia.

So there’s my review of the first World Cup group. As for predictions, I’ll just settle for predicting the two countries that will advance past the Group Stage right now, and I predict it will be Russia and Uruguay.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Once again, I get to focus on the various stadia that are hosting the World Cup. I figure the arenas are worth talking about. Russia will have has twelve stadia that will facilitate for the World Cup including two in Moscow. Only three are older than ten years old. All are situated in the European cluster of Russia. Just like Brazil in 2014, Russia all twelve of the stadiums will hold four Group Stage matches but they will be matches for four different groups. Also just like in Brazil 2014, all six of the Group Stage games for each individual group will again be played in six different stadiums, and not all will be that close by. Once again, a lot of traveling around for the 32 teams in a huge cluster of a country. One of which, they will have to cross the border of Lithuania to play in.

It’s confusing, but no less confusing than Brazil 2014. Here I’ll give you my first taste of my Stadium Spotlight of 2018. Note that each stadium I show in my Stadium Spotlight feature will be a stadium that will contest Group Stage matches for each respective group. These two I will focus on will host Group Stage matches in Group A. So without further ado, here are the two stadiums in focus:

-YEKATERINBURG: Central Stadiumyekaterinburg-world-cup-stadium-1024x576

Year Opened: 1957

World Cup Capacity: 35,696

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, F, H

Central Stadium is one of only two stadiums at this World Cup that was built in the 20th Century. Though there’s no doubt they’ve had to undergo extensive renovations over the years including preparations for this year’s World Cup. Actually the arena was a stadium for speed skating. The shift to football and other sports have been the focus since the downfall of the USSR.

The stadium will have 12,000 temporary seats for the World Cup. After the World Cup, it will be the host venue for team FC Ural Yekaterinburg. In addition, there are plans to add a fitness centre and a Valeological centre.

-SAMARA: Cosmos ArenaCosmos Samara

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 42,374

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, E, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (E1 vs. F2) & a quarter-final

Cosmos is one of many stadiums built fresh for this World Cup. It came at a cost of $320 million. The building of the stadium was first meant to be built on an island close to the city, but the intended construction of a bridge, and the public’s uproar over its total expense, led it to be built in the north area of the city.

After the World Cup, it will be the host venue of team FC Krylia Sovetov Samara.

And there you go. My first preview of the World Cup teams and stadiums. Seven more groups and ten more stadiums to review before World Cup 2018 starts. Stay tuned for more.