World Cup 2022 Preview Links

And just like that, the 2022 FIFA World Cup is underway. It is so weird to be talking about the World Cup right around the time I’m doing my Christmas shopping. I’m so used to watching World Cup games in hot weather. You find it odd, too?

So far only four games have been played. All teams from Groups A and B have completed their first matches. This tells quite a bit in terms of how things might go, but it doesn’t tell everything. I know I’ve been delivering previews to each of the World Cup groups. This is just simply a post with hyperlinks to all my group analyses. I will also post the two countries from each group I think will qualify for the knockout round. Also even though the teams Groups A and B have already played their first games, my original predictions still stand. So here are the links:

Group A: Netherlands and Senegal

Group B: England and the United States

Group C: Argentina and Mexico

Group D: France and Denmark

Group E: Spain and Germany

Group F: Belgium and Croatia

Group G: Brazil and Serbia

Group H: Portugal and Uruguay

For the record, I’m not listing my predictions as who will finish first and second. I’m listing in group order. Anyways best of luck to all teams and let’s enjoy the show, despite the odd time differences!

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!

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 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.

UEFA Euro 2016: Group B Focus

UEFA-Euro-2016-Live

Here I am with my second review of the Euro 2016 Groups. One thing I won’t do for this tournament is review the stadiums like I did for the World Cups of 2014 and 2015. I prefer to restrict it to World Cups. Group reviewing is something I won’t stray away from. So without further ado, here’s my review of Group B:

WalesWales (24): This is Wales’ first ever Euro. They may have played in a single World Cup back in 1958 but this will be their first Euro. Some will say this is thanks to star player Gareth Bale but you could say it’s more thanks to coach Chris Coleman. Besides there are four other players on the team with more career caps than Bale.

The Dragons may not have the biggest combined talent but they can prove to be a surprise such as winning against Belgium and tying against Bosnia and Northern Ireland. However they will face a tough Group B. They’ve played Slovakia twice ever winning once and losing the other time. They’ve never won against Russia in the four times they’ve played them and they’ve lost to England more often than they’ve won against them. It will have to take the right play and right team unity if they want to get far.

SlovakiaSlovakia (32): This is Slovakia’s first ever Euro. They’ve competed at the 2010 World Cup before but never a Euro. Slovakia doesn’t have too many players on its national team playing for too many major leagues but they play very well as a team. In the past two years, they’ve had wins over Spain, Ukraine, Switzerland, Czech Republic and most recently Germany. They’ve also lost to Spain and Belarus. Leading to Euro 2016, their chances in Group play are iffy. The Falcons have always lost to England, have a win and a loss against Wales and have mixed results against Russia. France will be the grounds where they will take another step in defining themselves.

England fixedEngland (10): What do you do after your team has possibly their most humiliating result in World Cup play ever? Surprisingly England still kept coach Roy Hodgson after World Cup 2014. The Three Lions has since delivered excellent play since winning all but four of their games and losing only twice, to Spain and the Netherlands. Notable wins since include Germany and France. Hey, humiliation can be one helluva motivator.

The big question is can they continue their success streak into Euro 2016 all the way to the win. England has always had the reputation of bringing the most talented players to a major tournament but lacking the necessary team unity to win. They’ve shown since World Cup 2014 that England can play as a united team, and play very good. They will come to France with a lot of young talented players as well some of the young players of World Cup 2014 that have become well-seasoned over time and some older experienced veterans like Wayne Rooney. Euro 2016 will write another chapter for the team.

Russia FixedRussia (27): If there’s one team that’s struggling to make a name for itself, it’s Russia. Ever since the fall of the USSR in 1991, Russian football has struggled to get a reputation. It’s fallen out during the Group Stage in each of the three World Cups they’ve played. They’ve had better success at the Euro with a semifinals placement in 2008 but they’ve been Group Stage each of the three other times including the last Euro.

They want to deliver an excellent performance at this Euro especially with the fact they will host the 2018 World Cup. They want to send a message to the world they’re a force to be reckoned with. One thing Russia has returned to is hiring their own as head coach. In the past they hired foreign coaches like Guus Huddink and Fabio Capello to get their team in action. Now they have Leonid Slutsky who also coaches CSKA Moscow. All but one of the players are part of the Russian Premier League. They have a mixed record in the past two years. They have notable wins against Sweden and Portugal. They’ve only had three losses but to Austria, Croatia and France. Euro 2016 will not only be the arena for them to prove themselves once more but also to prepare en route to the big one in 2018.

Prediction: England has the most consistency. I think they will come out on top. Russia will come in second and Slovakia will come in third.

And there are my thoughts on Group B. Review of Group C up next.

UPDATE:

Here are my reviews of the other groups: