Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Greatest World Cup Matches: France-Croatia (2018)

Russia had been a controversial choice to host the World Cup, but had prepared well for a tournament that covered large distances, but also showed Russia from its best side, despite all the initial misgivings.

France had entered the tournament as one of the pre-tournament favourites, just as they had done two years before at the 2016 Euros, where the team had nevertheless been defeated by Portugal in a very boring final. Manager Didier Deschamps, who had captained France to their 1988 World Cup title most definetly counted with one of the most talented sides in the world: a solid midfield with some of the world’s best midfielders in Manchester United’s Paiul Pogba and the Chelsea’s ever-working genius Ngolo Kanté, as well as Juventus’ experienced Blaise Matuidi. Also defensively the teams stood strong with Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris on goal, behind Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti, and two excellent backs in Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard and Atletico Madrid’s Lucas Hernandez. But what was strongest was its attacking prowess, led by the young genious of Paris St. Germain’s Kylian Mbappé, alongside Ateltico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann and Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembelé. France’s manager, Didier Deschamps, had even cut out the star striker from Real Madrid, Karim Benzema, amid some controversial rows among players.

France had won a difficult qualification group ahead of Sweden, Netherlands and Bulgaria, but were not impressive in the first round of the tournament: they defeated Australia 1-2, Peru 0-1, to tie Denmark 0-0 in a bore of a match to win the group. In the last-16 France faced a potentially strong Argentina with a shambolic defense in what turned out to be a great match, France won 4-3 with some fantastic goals, and France coming back from being 1-2 down. In the end it was in Kyllian Mbappé’s speed that made the difference, him winning the penalty kick of the first goal, and scoring two other goals to put France in the quarterfinals.

Uruguay were defeated 2-0 on goals by Varane and Griezmann for them to face the best team of the tournament in the semifinals: Belgium. In a strong match with many chances but two great goalkeepers, France won 1-0 on a header by the Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti, and were ready for their first World Cup final since their 2006 defeat to Italy, where they were to face a surprising Croatian side.

Croatia had been at the top of World football since their independence, and had already made it far in the 1998 World Cup, when they reached the semifinals. They were always a team to be reconned with, having a long list of players in Europe’s biggest clubs, and the 2018 squad was no exception: an experienced defense that included Atletico Madrid’s SimeVrsaljko, Sampdoria’s Ivan Strinic and Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren, in front of Monaco’s Danijel Subasic in goal. Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Juventus Mario Mandzukic were strong strikers, but the big stars were in midfield, where two of the world’s best midfielders dominated: Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic.

Despite this amazing lineup Croatia had not qualified directly: they had come second to the surprising Iceland (who in 2018 qualified for their first World Cup ever), but had qualified to Russia through a play-off victory over Greece.

Croatia were paired again with Iceland in the first round group, alongside Argentina and Nigeria, and the Croatians cruised through a group that looked difficult: they defeated Nigeria 2-0 in the first match, and completely outplayed Argentina, winning 3-0, in a match where Modric and Rakitic completely tore apart the South Americans. In the last match in Rostov, they defeated Iceland 2-1 and were alongside Uruguay and Belgium the only side to win all their matches in the first round.

In the last-16 Croatia faced Denmark in a very close match that ended 1-1 (with Modric missing a penalty in the dying minutes of extra time), and had to go to penalty kicks, where Croatia proved cooler, winning 3-2.

In the quarterfinals Croatia faced an exciting Russian home-team, who had unexpectedly made it to the quarterfinals after defeating Spain in the last-16. It proved an exciting match, with Denis Cherysev bringing the Russians ahead on a splendid goal, but Croatia equalising through Andrej Krmaric, and then going ahead 1-2 in extra time, before a fighting Russian side equalised in the dying seconds of the match. But as against Denmark, Croatia were the better side from the penalty spot, and were to face England in the semifinals.

There were, as always, huge expectations amid the English fans that they could make their first final since 1966, and probably also a bit of under-estimation of the Croatian side, whose penalty wins were also seen as lucky. And England did indeed start the best, and went ahead after only five minutes, but if anything, Croatia proved that they never give up, and after pressing in the second half equalised through Ivan Perisic, and in extra time Mario MAndzukic gave the Croatians the victory, and their first World Cup final ever.

Against all expectations and in their first World Cup final, Croatia started as the best team dominating possession and controlling the midfield. But as often happens, it was the French who went ahead in what was basically their first attampt: a free kick into the area was touched by Mario Mandzukic head, and the hero of the semifinal had brought France ahead with an own-goal. However, it did not shake the Croatians who deservedly equalized ten minutes later when Ivan Perisic controlled and powerfully shot from the edge of the area.

The 2018 World Cup had been the first to introduce Video Assistance Refereeing (VAR) to help referees in difficult decision. And VAR intervened for the first time in a World Cup final, although not without controversy. During a French corner kick the ball hit Ivan Perisic’s hand; initially the Argentine referee did not make a call, but watching the repeat on the VAR screen, he changed his mind and gave France a penalty kick that Antoine Griezmann scored.

In my opinion it was not a penalty.

2-1 at halftime, and although Croatia came out to play their chance in the second half, France appeared in control and ready to utilize the young Kylian Mbappé’s speed for their counter-attacks. France made it 3-1 by Paul Pogba, and it was indeed Kylian Mbappé who made it 4-1 with a powerful shot from the edge of the area. At only 19 years of age he became the youngest goalscorer in a World Cup final since the legendary Pelé in 1958. While Mbappé was not the revelation of the tournament, he was the tournament’s best young player, and had probably been awarded player of the tournament award had it not been for the brilliant Luka Modric.

With a 4-1 lead the match was effectively over, but France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris decided to give Mario Mandzukic a present but losing control of the ball in front of goal and letting Mandzikic push it into goal. Mandzukic is thus the only player to have scored for both teams in a World Cup final.

4-2 and France were champions for the second time since 1998, but Croatia had been a worthy and dignified finalist, and won many hearts. It was also the first final since 2002 that did not go into extra time, and was thus one of the most special finals in World Cup history, and a worthy final for a great tournament in Russia.

July 15th 2018  
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow 
Attendance: 78,011 
Referee: Nestor Pitana (Argentina) 


France: Hugo Lloris (c); Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez; Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kanté (Steven Nzonzi, 55), Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Blaise Matuidi (Corentin Colisso, 73), Olivier Giroud (Nabil Fekir, 81). Manager: Didier Deschamps 

Croatia: Danijel Subasic; Slime Vrsalkjo, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic (Marko Pjaca, 81); Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ante Rebic (Ante Kramaric, 81), Luka Modric (c ); Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic. Manager: Zlatko Dalic 

France-Croatia 4-2  


1-0 Mario Mandzukic (OG) (18) 
1-1 Ivan Perisic (27) 
2-1 Antoine Griezmann (p) (38) 
3-1 Paul Pogba (59) 
4-1 Kylian Mbappe (65) 
4-2 Mario Mandzukic (69)

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Real Madrid- Barcelona 3-1

 After Leo Messi's and Cristiano Ronaldo's farewell to the Spanish league both Barcelona and Real Madrid have, after some adjustments, returned to the top of the Spanish League, and after Real Madrid's awesome league win last season, both teams were head to head at the top of the league as they were to face one another in the "Clasico" in Madrid.

Real Madrid went ahead after only 12 minutes on a goal by Karim Benzema, who has risen to become the star of the team, and after 35 minutes the Uruguayan Federico Valverde brought Real Madrid ahead 2-0 on a great strike at the edge of the penalty area. Despite this, Barcelona was not shaken, and in particular in the second half threatened Madrid's goal, and when Ansu Fati came on he certainly put pressure on the home team. Ferran Torres scored one back, and Barcelona came very close to an equalizer (and in my opinion should have had a penalty), but in the last seconds of the match VAR gave Real Madrid a (correctly called) penalty kick, which Rodrygo scored on to give Real Madrid all three points, and they are now three points ahead of Barcelona at the top of the table.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Greatest World Cup Matches: Belgium-Brazil (2018)

Belgium entered the 2018 World Cup in Russia as one of the favourites to take the title. They were ranked 3rd in the FIFA World Ranking and the “Golden Generation” that had made it one of the best sides in the world were in their best age. The entire Belgian squad played in some of Europe’s best clubs, and looked strong in every position. Among the stars were the fantastic Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, as well as strong strikers with the Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Napoli’s Dries Mertens. The defense was led by Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, alongside some highly experienced players in Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Finally, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois was perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world at the time.

Belgium had qualified in style, scoring an incredible 43 goals in ten matches, and they basically continued scoring goals in Russia: they opened by defeating the debutants of Panama 3-0, then defeated Tunisia 5-2, before winning their last match against England 1-0 and winning their group.

In the last-16 the Belgians were favourites against Japan, but had to struggle when they went down 0-2 early in the second half, and appeared on the way out. But the team showed great stamina when they came back from behind to win 3-2, and make it to the quarterfinals, where they were to face the mighty Brazilians.

After the 7-1 debacle at the 2014 World Cup Brazil had entered a period of refelction and renewal under the manager Tite, who had focused on taking advantage of Brazil’s technical skills and attacking prowess. In qualification they had swept aside opposition, only losing one match on the way. As always, Brazil was a team of stars from European clubs and strong in all positions: Liverpool’s Allison on goal, behind a solid defense with players such as PSG’s Thiago Silva, Inter’s Miranda, Real MAdrid’s offensive winger Marcelo and Atletico Madrid’s Felipe Luis. In midfield the Brazilians had stars such as Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho, Manchester City’s Fernandinho and Chelsea’s Willian. And up front the biggest star of them all, PSG’s Neymar.

Brazil were certainly a team that would compete for the title, but did not look strong in their opening match when they only managed a tie 1-1 against Switzerland, but they still went on to win the group with two 2-0 victories over Costa Rica and Serbia respectively. In the last-16 Brazil faced Mexico, also winning 2-0.

Despite Belgium’s victory over Japan they had looked shaky against he quick Japanese attacks, and manager Martinez had decided to start with Felllaini and Chadli, both players who had come on against Japan and scored. In the meantime Brazil’s center-backs, Thiago Silva and Miranda, had looked solid throughout the tournament. Against Mexico Neymar had looked strong and able to shake up every defense, but the Brazilians were without Real Madrid’s Casemiro, who had been replaced by Fernandinho.

First half was very entertaining. Brazil managed to put pressure on a Belgian defense that sometimes played very deeply, but who had the sure hands of Courtois to take some chances that came near. The closest was an attempt following a corner kick which Thiago Silva did not control, but the ball hit the post nevertheless. In the meantime Belgium also managed to create chances with their highly mobile and quick atatcks that put the otherwise solid Brazilian defense under pressure. It was Belgium who first scored: after a corner kick the ball struck Fernandinho’s arm as he was trying to head away, and instead went into goal.

Brazil continued attacking looking for an equalizer, while Belgium felt more comfortable on the pitch, and looked incredibly dangerous when they counter-attacked. And it was in one of these counter-attacks that the movement of Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne tore the Brazilian defense apart as De Bruyne received the ball and struck marvelously hard and precise into goal.

Belgium were leading 2-0 at half-time and were looking as semifinalists, although everyone expected Brazil to come with everything in the second half as Firmino came on for Willian, and later on Douglas Costa and Renato Augusto came on for Gabriel Jesus and Paulinho respectively. Belgium instinctively pulled back but continued to be dangerous on the break (Eden Hazard had a close attampt on a counter-attack), but it was a game largely dominated by Brazil who, when them managed to get a shot, were most often stopped by Courtois. It was only in the 73rd minute when Renato Augusto scored on a header after a lovely flip into the area by Coutinho, and gave renewed hope to the Brazilians who put extra pressure. Both Firmino and Renato Augusto had some big misses, but in the end it was Courtois who, in the dying seconds of the match had a spectacular save on a shot by Neymar: one of those saves that is worth a goal and a title, and which made Courtois Man of the Match.

Belgium won 2-1 and with five straight wins were looking to take the title. But in the semifinals they lost 1-0 to France. Belgium went on to win third place against England; Belgium’s best World Cup result ever, but not what had been expected from them after their fantastic victory over mighty Brazil.

6th July 2018
Kazan Arena, Kazan
Attendance: 42,873
Referee: Milorad Mazic (Serbia) 


Belgium: Thibaut Courtois; Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweirld, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Meunier; Axel Witsel, Nacer Chadli (Thomas Vermaelen, 83), Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne; Eden Hazard (c), Romelu Lukaku (Youri Tielemans, 87). Manager: Roberto Martinez 

Brazil: Alisson; Miranda (c), Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Fagner; Fernandinho, Phillippe Coutinho, Paulinho (Renato Augusto, 73), Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa, 58); Neymar, Willian (Roberto Firmino, 45). Manager: Tite

Belgium-Brazil 2-1


1-0 Fernandinho (OG) (13)

2-0 Kevin De Bruyne (31)

2-1 Renato Augusto (76)

Sunday, October 02, 2022


 I have not had much time to watch or think football lately. I have missed many great matches, but today I took time to get up early and watch the Manchester Derby between Manchester City and Manchester United. Both teams have looked fairly strong of late, with Manchester City trailing Arsenal in the second spot of the league table, and Manchster United on a positive curve, with four victories in a row. Therefore the derby was expected to be interesting.

But it was not.

Basically Manchester City trashed United in the first half, leading 4-0 at halftime. The entire team seemed on fire, and with Phil Foden and Erling Haaland in particular, each scoring two goals. In the second half Manchester United tried meager pressure, and perhaps got a bit of hope when Antony scored for the reds. But Foden and Haaland were not done and each scored again, to bring the score to a humiliating 6-1. In the dying minutes of the match Anthony Martial scored two for United, making sure that the humiliation was not total, although no doubt there will be strong criticism for losing like they did to their home-city rivals.

Haaland has surely been the signing of the season. He has scored 14 goals, topping the goalscorers list, which he appears sure to win!