A TV broadcasting a charged match featuring the French national team in the corner of a bar; not football, it’s the 2007 Rugby World Cup. I never really offered much attention to the sport prior to then, but what the hell, when in Rome (or France in my case). I sat at the table attempting to figure out the rules; friends put their best efforts in to assist me, but most importantly, the atmosphere and game action were intense: the timing to be in France was perfect. Well, unless I time-hopped back to 1998 to witness the French football team win their first World Cup.
Today an even better day to watch a game on a pub TV in Mulhouse; France playing Croatia in the World Cup final – 2018 edition. My heart always with Les Bleus, unless Spain or the United States are playing. Croatia gave me so much to cheer for this tournament, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
I awoke before the game (8:00 AM kick off in Los Angeles), drank my water, and immediately brewed up a Nespresso coffee to sip from an espresso mug. In 2007 the day after my flight landed at Mulhouse’s airport, which they share with Basel, a my friend and I departed the train station for her hometown. Along the way, we had one stop in order to switch trains and I drank my first coffee in France. I barely kept it down – the strength was overwhelming. Cheers to you Emilie!
Watching the pregame, however, did present the game more like (at least for me) no matter who won, the football world triumphs. So many Croatian players, including their leader, Modric, struggled as refugees to arrive at this point. They walk as heroes forever.
First Half Thoughts
Croatia began this final proving to any doubters that they truly belong in this match-up. The first ten minutes were a masterclass for the men in checkered shirts. France started the game a bit frantic, playing advantage to a Croatian team with tired legs after three consecutive games that went to extra time. Perišić and Croatia really tested the French right back, Pavard, doing everything but score a goal.
To Deschamps’ credit, France possessing the ball not necessarily part of the game plan, but they awaited their opportunity, which the first came from a Griezmann set piece. This opened the game for France, which they capitalized with a beautiful strike in the 19th minute which glided off the head of Croatian forward Mario Mandžukić. The foul was questionable, and Mandžukić (possibly Croatia’s best player in the half) was a bit unlucky to give France the lead on an own-goal.
Croatia never allowed that to unsettle them, forcing Ngolo Kante to pickup a yellow card early by putting him in a position to give up a set piece. Within ten minutes of France’s opener, Croatia equalize with a phenomenal strike from Ivan Perišić in minute 29.
VAR appeared for the first time in a World Cup final in the 35th minute – after the referee first declaring a cleared corner a goal kick, the Argentinian reviewed the decision, and later determined Perišić’s hand was in an unnatural position in the penalty area, thus conceding the first penalty of the World Cup final. With Griezmann at the penalty spot, the goal seemed inevitable: France 2 – Croatia 1.
The first half ended with fire. The Croatians play with a grit unmatched by many others. They were down by score, but statistically they’d been the much superior team. Of course, as they say, the only statistic that matters is the score, and France carried that category into the locker room at half.
Second Half Thoughts
The second half picked up where the first left off, but if possible, more fire. Within two minutes of play, both goalkeepers were forced to make saves in an end-to-end bit of play. Within five minutes, Croatia earned two corners really pressing the French defense, who seem cool under the pressure, but keeping their fans’ nerves on edge – no doubt.
With the back and forth play and an open game, it was completely ruined by a group of spectators (I won’t call them fans) who charged the field to put an end to a Croatian counter-attack.
France made a tactical change in minute 54, pulling Kante, who had a yellow card, for Steven “Not Kondogbia” Nzonzi; Kante arguably the most impressive player of this tournament.
Not to worry, they still fielded Paul Pogba, who four minutes later had his initial shot blocked but deflected back to his feet, and with a second chance, made the most of it: France 3 – Croatia 1. This all began with a wide open pass to Mbappé, who, streaking down the right side, completely opened up play in the middle. Mbappé’s speed and skill threaten defenses immensely, and ignoring him is not an option.
You’d think things would really begin to unravel after that goal. Neymar’s coming out party, was clearly put to bed when Mbappé scored France’s fourth goal; given space at the top of the penalty box, there was no chance to deny the young phenom. The hearts and spirits of the Croatians would crushed in that moment: France 4 – Croatia 1.
That is until Lloris’ howler of an assist to Mario Mandžukić to put Croatia within two; hope reinstalled, but short lived. If France can get 100% credit for one thing this tournament, it’s their ability to win games. They did that today, Croatia were a great adversary, and in truth, the final score does little to indicate how this match felt.
France claiming their second World Cup crown and earning that second star on their shirt felt fitting. Loaded with young talent, they will be a top contender for a number of years to come so long as health accompanies them.
Well done France, Allez Les Bleus!
This World Cup created so many memories, so much heartbreak, and so much entertainment. The United States failing to qualify dampened the tournament, but only slightly. This was by far one of the most entertaining World Cups of my lifetime, and it’ll be difficult to forget it. Part of the tournament I spent in Canada and another part on a road trip throughout California, but the excitement gave me enough reason to pull aside in moments on the road and tune in.
It’s been a fairly wild World Cup thus far – some upsets and more obviously some missing competitors. On that note, I’ll make an argument for why the USA’s failure to qualify was a MUCH bigger deal than that of the Netherlands and Italy. Here it is, Panama are utter trash, and their inclusion (though deserved through qualification) was an absolute diminishment in competition at the group level. I’m not saying the USA were poised to make a deep run into the tournament, but they would have been a much more significant opponent for others. The drop in competitiveness when Italy and the Netherlands were omitted is not nearly as steep, because (spoiler alert) Sweden are awesome.
Another note: three consecutive World Cups have seen the defending champions eliminated in the group stage. Germany finished last in Group F, failing to make it through their group for the first time in the tournament’s history. World Cup winners have this tendency to hold onto the nostalgic players that won the tournament for them. This year’s competition has proven that the game is changing because of globalization and the power structure is shifting. I generally dislike parity in professional sports, but in amateur competitions such as the World Cup, what could be better?
In any case, here is my review of the upcoming knockout round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
URUGUAY 🇺🇾 VS PORTUGAL 🇵🇹
The Uruguayan team is loaded. Suarez and Cavani are the front men and the face of their team in many ways. If you had to find two guys that can score from just about anywhere, they would certainly be among the top to choose. However, if they are to win this game, it’ll be due to the stellar combination of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. Both play for the most vaunted defense in La Liga together, and that continuity on the international level is suffocating. Uruguay have only one player with a yellow card, and that Juventus midfielder, Rodrigo Bentacur – this is likely evident of an easy time strolling through group play.
Now, is Portugal the better team, no. Does Portugal have the best player, yes. Should Portugal win this game, probably not. Will Portugal win this game, I think so.
Believe me when I say this, I’m throwing logic out the window in my belief that Portugal will defeat Uruguay, who have a superior defense, superior midfield, and superior combined attack. What they don’t have, however, is Cristiano Ronaldo, in what might be his final World Cup. Portugal also have a European title to defend. I know that’s a weak argument and there is little reason behind it, but World Cups are built on the unreasonable – right? Otherwise Germany would still be alive.
I’m not alone in my thinking, even fivethirtyeight tends to agree (even though I’m not sold completely on their methodology solely based on the fact that they have Real Sociedad listed as a better club than Valencia). Portugal have a slightly higher power ranking and that extra je ne sais quoi. At times Portugal looked like they really struggled against Morocco and Iran, but they also punished Spain with a Ronaldo hat-trick. Their defense is old and their midfield is above average; however, I think they have enough spark in the attack between Ronaldo, Guedes, Quardesma, and Silva to make something happen. They have six players on yellow cards (none named Pepe), so that may influence the lineup a bit; however, we’re now at the stage where the only thing that matters is to win and advance.
I do not anticipate a ton of goals, low scoring, and Portugal getting a late winner to move on to the quarter finals.
FRANCE 🇫🇷 VS ARGENTINA 🇦🇷
The scariest team top to bottom might be France, although, there are a few other really good ones in the World Cup. Their roster is almost a walking preview of the UEFA Champions League, and truthfully, they are still missing their best midfielder – Geoffrey Kondogbia – yes, I’m biased, but honestly, he was a primary reason behind the beautiful season at Mestalla. No words can describe their attacking depth, so I wont try (Griezmzn, Giroud, Dembele, & M’bape). Their only “weakness” is in goal, but Lloris is still top class. If you end up against them this tournament, good luck, that is if they actually find a way to play as a team. France’s biggest problem thus far is their inability to link up in a way that looks like an actual strategy. They’re more likely to rely on the individual brilliance of their roster – and it is quite brilliant.
Years ago when Samuel Eto’o was at his prime with Cameroon, you could say that his World Cup team was a one man show, and that’s not to discredit his teammates, but to highlight that his skill level far out did that of the others on the squad. Oddly, Argentina, through much of the tournament so far, have played in a weirdly similar fashion – but not really. It’s Messi’s team, much like Portugal is Ronaldo’s team; however, on paper, Argentina have a much better squad. Nevertheless, even with the depth, if Messi is unable to find the game, the team really suffers. I didn’t anticipate them making it through the group, but they proved me wrong by beating Nigeria with minutes to go in their final match. That doesn’t give me much confidence heading into the first round of the knockouts. I’d expect Otamendi and Mercado starting as a pair on the right side of a four man defense – both have yellow cards. Otamendi worries me, he’s short tempered, evident by him nearly kicking Ivan Rakitic’s face off against Croatia.
This is France’s tournament to lose. They have the squad depth and the star power. They are a complete team – if they can start acting like it, and it would not shock anyone to see them storm through the June World Cup into July and lift that beautiful gold trophy at the end of it all. They should win this game, it really shouldn’t be close considering the dysfunction with Argentina. I feel for Leo Messi, he deserves better than that which is around him.
BRAZIL 🇧🇷 VS MEXICO 🇲🇽
Mexico’s amazing start to this tournament nearly ended in tragic fashion, but they were salvaged by the South Koreans defeating Germany. They’ve been quite exciting to watch, especially as a North American, but the big question will be how they react to a humiliating conclusion to their group play – losing to Sweden 3-0. Sometimes that is a momentum crushing blow, other times it is an opportunity to re-galvanize. It’ll be interesting to see how they rebound. No matter what happens, it’ll happen without veteran CB Hector Moreno, who will be out of this match due to yellow card accumulation. That’ll mean 39 year old Rafa Marquez will likely slot in as his replacement.
The bigger trouble, however, is Mexico will need quite the rebound to overcome a surging Brazil. In the first two games of the World Cup, it was as if the Brazilians were trying to locate their groove. They found it in the 90+ minute of the Costa Rica game, and exploited their newly found mojo against Serbia. Neymar and co. are poised to win this tournament, and God help those who stand in their way. Marcelo left the Serbia game early and was replaced by Felipe Luis, who is not drop off in talent, and many have suggested worked better as a partner with Neymar in attack on Brazil’s left.
Like France, Brazil are loaded with star players backing up star players. Unlike France, they are playing like a cohesive unit. Mexico are a bit unlucky to face Brazil right away in the round of sixteen, and they could have possibly made it deeper into the World Cup, but this matchup is a BIG uphill battle for them. They could pull the upset, but they’ve already showed their capabilities against the defending champs – Brazil will be well aware of that.
BELGIUM 🇧🇪 VS JAPAN 🇯🇵
Before the World Cup began, I thought that if there is one team that will win this tournament, who has yet to win it, it will be Belgium. I still stand by that thought. I’m not saying they will, but if there is a team that has yet to do it, it will be them. This is the zenith of their golden generation of players.
They’ll play a Japan team that looked like a hard working, persevering group against Senegal and Colombia. Before the final game of their group stage matchups, I would have said Japan could be a bit challenging to play. They looked to be a well coached and compact unit. I didn’t feel the same way when I watched them play Poland. It’s not like they had everything in the bag and were just playing subs, they needed a result depending on how the Colombia v Senegal game played out. The more I watched them, the more it proved they were fortunate to have played Colombia in their first game; it likely wouldn’t play out the same way again. I like some of their players, especially midfielder Inui, but I’m not sure he is good enough to help Japan deep into the tournament.
The Japanese team plays with a ton of spirit, and it is evident when you watch them. However, that hard work won’t be enough to overcome the talent of Belgium. Four years ago Belgium nearly lost in this round to the USA thanks to the superhero like performance of Tim Howard. I expect a similar game – except Kawashima is no Tim Howard.
SPAIN 🇪🇸 VS RUSSIA 🇷🇺
I’m extremely bias and this will have a huge impact on how I see the remainder of this World Cup playing out. It is important for authors to recognize and be up front about that, so there. Spain have the best food, the prettiest country, and the most beautiful women (my wife the most among them).
Spain has their technical tika taka passing style of the past with the added power up front in Diego Costa. They are a team that has traditionally passed others into submission. Oppositions will chase passes for 80 minutes, and when their legs are worn out, La Roja will slice you with a dagger. In the past, Spain were known as La Furia Roja, but when Luis Aragones took over prior to their ’08 Euro triumph, he ditched the “furia,” opting for more brains and less guts. Costa changes that dynamic a bit and maybe brings a little of that Furia. He’ll lose the ball at times when Spanish players of the last ten years wouldn’t. But he’s physical and a big target man at the top, and just when an opposition feels they will push the ball around with dainty passes, they can punch you in the mouth.
In the match between Russia and Uruguay, Uruguayan Diego Laxalt punished the Russian defense on their defending right side; this is the exact spot that Isco, Iniesta, and Jordi Alba like to roam. This will definitely spell trouble. Even if the Russians plan for it, they are nearly impossible to stop for 90 minutes.
Russia began this tournament like a firework that blasted off with amazing force, but it seems they will fail to display anything beautiful in the end. They were shredded by Uruguay, and Spain will not be a team making it any easier on them. Their weaknesses were clearly displayed in their last game and Spain has more than enough ability to exploit them.
La Roja will paint the town with their beautiful red and yellow against Russia, and they will officially become public enemy number one in the host nation for the remainder of the World Cup. This has all the making to become an absolute embarrassment for the hosts. Fans of the game will hope for something exciting, and it’s quite possible the fireworks we see will be from the Iberian Peninsula.
CROATIA 🇭🇷 VS DENMARK 🇩🇰
Croatia easily has the best central midfield in the tournament with Luca Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic. They also have one heck of a forward in Mario Mandzukic. Their biggest weakness is in defense and in goal. If Denmark can breakdown the midfield and sustain a solid attack, it’s a good possibility that they can score. That’s certainly easier said than done, but Croatia will need to be aware of a dangerous counter-attack.
Denmark will likely struggle through much of this game with possession, but they are a team that could shock Croatia, and I wouldn’t be too terribly surprised if they pulled off an upset. A few players that could link up for a counter attack goal are Christian Eriksen, Pione Sisto and Yussuf Poulsen – Sisto is secretly one of my favorite players in the world.
Ultimately, Croatia are too tough. Their midfield will take control of this game. After 70 minutes, they will be punishing a Denmark team that is stuck chasing the ball.
Denmark are truly a whiffed penalty away from watching Peru in this matchup, while Croatia made easy living of their assignments. The problem Croatia faces is what to do with virtually their entire team on a yellow card. If they get through, it’ll make a tougher road against (potentially) La Roja of Spain if they can’t stay out of the referee’s book.
SWEDEN 🇸🇪 VS SWITZERLAND 🇨🇭
No Zlatan, no problem. Sweden probably should have finished this group with nine points, and were unlucky to walk away without a victory against Germany (let alone a loss). They should have received penalty calls – yes a few – in that game. They won’t mind that today; they’ve won their group. Sweden are the team most likely to be the Cinderella of the tournament, and I’d venture to say they could surprise many with a deep run into the knockout stages. They are extremely solid in defense and can be quite scary on the counter-attack. In past years opponents and fans would focus on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their most iconic player, but his exclusion from this squad has almost made them a better unit. No one player stands out and they play extremely well together. If they do win, they’ll have to do it without veteran Sebastian Larsson who will need to sit out on yellow card accumulation.
Switzerland have some quality players, too: defensively Ricardo Rodriguez and pushing forward through the midfield Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. They play well as a unit, collectively, but have gotten stretched and need to defend quite frequently – highlighted by Costa Rica. They were a bit fortunate to get a win against Serbia, and really played quite poorly in their final match against Costa Rica. Unfortunately, they’ll need to do a lot of defensive work against the counter-attack without captain Stephan Liechtensteiner.
I look forward to this game, and I think if either of these two teams gains some momentum and steam, they can make a real impact on the World Cup in the coming weeks. I expect Sweden to win. By the way, my Spanish speaking friends, this one might be a nightmare for you (is it Suecia or Suiza, and which is which? – If you get it, you get it). I’ll take Suecia.
COLOMBIA 🇨🇴 VS ENGLAND 🏴
THIS is the best match of the round of sixteen. Either one could win; they both have the talent. Each have suffered some real heart break over the last few decades at World Cups, and no matter what, one of these teams/countries will be disappointed to end their quest so soon.
Colombia were in dire straights heading into match number two of the group, but after a solid beating on Poland, they took matters into their own hands and won the group with a win over Senegal. They have a great starting XI and two play makers in particular that can change the course of a game in seconds: Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez.
They’ll have their work cut out for them trying to break down a stingy English defense. For English fans, however, I think Harry Kane is the real gem. He is everything they wanted Wayne Rooney to be, but Kane actually is. I still can’t believe they have a player in the race for the golden boot, but here were are, and yes they do. This might be the best England squad that’s competed at the World Cup in at least two decades.
Unfortunately, the tournament will be coming to a conclusion way to soon for either England or Colombia, both for the fans of one of these teams and fans of the World Cup. This is a toss up for me, but I’m putting my figurative money on Colombia. I like the play making potential of Rodriguez to Falcao, plus Juan Cuadrado, as annoying as he can be on the ball, he’s equally nifty and can make some incredible things happen.
MY FINAL PREDICTION (WHICH I’VE LIKELY RUINED SPAIN, SORRY)
Generally, with a number of weeks remaining in the season, it can feel premature to think about your summer wishlist. However, La Liga’s Champions League spots (knock on wood) are pretty much secured with Barcelona, Atleti, Real Madrid, and Valencia in safe positions. As I sit and watch the Champions League semi-final matchup of Liverpool v. Roma, I wonder what realistic improvements are available for Valencia this off-season to compete with the major clubs in Europe – and maintain a solid base to continue to compete in the league.
There is no question that the RB spot is the biggest glaring weakness for Valencia. Martin Montoya – as much as I generally like him – is not up to par with competing against the top teams in La Liga, let alone the top teams in Europe. My personal thoughts are that he’s sufficient to fill-in against bottom table teams, but Valencia is in major need of upgrading this spot. In a perfect world, Valencia will secure a transfer for someone of the caliber of Hugo Mallo from Celta.
Carlos Soler has done an admirable job at RM this season, but it’s evident at times that he’s not playing his natural position. Valencia needs to find a way to bring in a young player that can play the position more naturally, such as Serge Gnabry (even if only on loan from Bayern Munich). This should be a big help with the impending departure of Andreas Pereira.
It already seems likely, but it’s vital for Valencia to secure a permanent move to keep Gonçalo Guedes. The current value, per some media reports, is €40 million. They also need to exercise the option to make the move for Geoffrey Kondogbia long-term. Both players have been integral to the success this year at Mestalla.
Rodrigo, Zaza, and Santi Mina have all been delightful to watch this season, each picking times to peak throughout the year and combining for some wonderful finishing – the best in 28 years. The connection between Guedes and Mina for Valencia’s only goal against Celta Vigo last week was one of my favorites this year.
There is definitely a chance one of those three will be missing next year, and we can assume Vietto will not be a part of the club for the 18-19 campaign. My hopes are that all three of our important attackers are back for another year, and Valencia can add a realistic addition like Florin Andone, who will most certainly be leaving Deportivo La Coruña in the summer – he is too skilled to be in La Segunda Division.
Rumor has it that Mario Mandžukić will be looking for a new home this summer. This is likely the longest shot, but he is in the latter stages of his career, and he (or another former Bianconeri Fernando Llorente) could be a strong addition. Mandžukić would bring a ton of Champions League and La Liga experience. Outside of securing a solid Right Back, he may be the biggest (and most unlikely) signing possibility this summer.