IT has been an amazing month of football, and we have reached the final weekend. In France versus Croatia, we have a match no one would have predicted to conclude the tournament.
But then again, so much of what we have seen in Russia has been unexpected. Given the worries beforehand, the tournament has been an incredible success. England doing well, no trouble, no racism, lots of great goals and memorable matches.
The World Cup has been a brilliant show of defiance about the importance and far-reaching impact of the international game.
But before we can reflect fully, it’s time to focus on the final, and also a nod to England’s attempts to come third.
Forget the flair, it’s all about the defence
When you think of France, you think of flair, skill, a bit of je ne sais quoi. And of course, teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe has provided all of that. But the real basis of France’s run to the final has been built on a rock solid defence. Four clean sheets in six matches is the reason why they are 90 minutes away from a second world title. Back in 1998, Zinedine Zidane’s two headers against Brazil in the final are what we all remember, but that triumph was built on a brilliant defence. Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu were all fantastic players, with Fabien Barthez as an able last line of defence behind them.
In Russia, goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris has been an imposing and inspiring figure and definitely the best No.1 on show in the World Cup. Then the central defensive pairing of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti has been impenetrable. Just think they have faced Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku in the knockout phase and none of those gilded players has scored against them.
But why we should be surprised? Varane plays for Real Madrid and Umtiti is at Barcelona, and in modern football, that is the barometer for a player’s quality. Varane has emerged at the World Cup as a player of real stature and he can be the leader for France and his club for the next five or six years. Just for good measure, both he and Umtiti have come up with vital goals along the way, further enhancing their value. And remember, there is N’Golo Kante in front of them, the little pocket dynamo and master firefighter, who is so adept at closing down space and nicking the ball from opponents. Coach Didier Deschamps, the captain of Les Bleus 20 years ago, must appreciate what Kante brings to the side, having performed the same role himself which allowed Zidane to shine at the Stade de France.
With three such strong lines of defence, if Croatia can somehow get past them and go on to lift the trophy, it will have been very well earned.
Can the maestro conduct one more command performance?
As proms season begins tonight at London’s Royal Albert Hall, conductors will lead the world’s finest musicians over the next two months. A conductor’s skill is to bring out all the different elements of the orchestra to make one joyous whole and create something special for the audience to enjoy.
In football terms, the role of the lead conductor at the World Cup has been undertaken by Croatia’s captain Luka Modric. Watching him in Russia has been a joy, a player using all the experience gained over so many years at the top level to make his team tick. He has passed, moved, probed, cajoled, and scored a wonderful goal against Argentina.
At 32, this will be his final time on the world stage, but he has led a team from a country of little more than four million people to the World Cup final. He has been one of the best players in Europe for the last decade, but this past month in Russia has finally brought the accolades he deserves. At Real Madrid, it is the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo that have taken the headlines during their four Champions League titles in the last five seasons. But ask regular Madrid watchers, and it is Modric who is the fulcrum of the team, its beating heart. He is used to performing in the biggest games and on the biggest stages and that experience was pivotal in turning around the semi-final against England.
The big question for Croatia is how much is left in the tank after extra-time in all three knockout matches. But this is the World Cup final and they will know it’s their one and only shot at eternal glory. They are already heroes back home but if Modric can inspire one last glorious push from the likes of Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic, they will strike an enormous blow for the lesser sides and the smaller nations across the whole of planet football.
France are a step up in class from anything Croatia have faced so far and Les Bleus should have it in their locker to secure a second World Cup, 20 years on – France 2 Croatia 0.
The booby prize, but it’s better than nothing
IT is the match that nobody really wants. Days after the crushing disappointment of losing a World Cup semi-final, Belgium and England have to gather in St Petersburg for the third place play-off. Players have been so, so close to the biggest game they will ever play, but now they are faced with trying to put on a brave face for one more, seemingly meaningless, game. Suddenly, minds will be focused on home and holidays and limbs will be weary and it’s a case of which team can put those negative thoughts to one side, who will probably prevail.
But for the winners, there is a small piece of history at stake. If Belgium win, it will be their best ever performance at a World Cup. It may not be the reward the Red Devils’ ‘Golden Generation’ wanted, but it is a footnote for the country and something for future players to try and better. Given that England have reached two previous World Cup semi-finals, it is not something for Gareth Southgate to scoff at either, and if they could win, it would represent the best performance since 1966, and the best ever at an overseas World Cup.
The battle for the Golden Boot between Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku will probably be the main focus for the rest of the world, although as Kane currently leads 6-4, the England captain should be going home with that award. While maybe it is the end of the road for this Belgian side, it could be the start of things to come for England. Yet, despite the impressive run to the semi-finals, there is one nagging doubt about Southgate’s England. While daring to go against the current national mood where Southgate can do no wrong (and I am delighted with so many things about his tenure in his two years in charge), Southgate has still not managed to defeat a team of real stature. So if England are to make the next step, beating Belgium, in what counts as a cross between a friendly and a fully-blown international, would be a good first step.
Hard one to call as it’s difficult to predict a team’s motivation or whether there will be wholesale changes. But given that Belgium’s reserves won the group match against England’s reserves, it’s tempting to say they will come out on top again – Belgium 3 England 1.