Date with destiny awaits France & Croatia whilst Belgium claim the bronze
Third place playoff: Belgium 2-0 England
Before we preview football’s biggest game we got the most pointless game in the sport- the third place playoff. This game somehow doesn’t carry the weight of a bronze match at the Olympics instead fans of the participating countries just remember they got to the Semifinals.
But Belgium’s hugely gifted side were in more need of winning this game than most as it underlines this as their nation’s greatest ever World Cup. And they started at a pace and with just 4 minutes gone Nacer Chadli took advantage of some poor England defending to play in Thomas Munier for a quick fire goal.
Belgium could have had more through the creativity of Eden Hazard & Kevin De Bruyne but golden boot chasing Romelu Lukaku fluffed his lines and missed a glorious chance. England were slow to get going but a lofted through ball from Eric Dier saw Raheem Sterling play in current golden boot leader Harry Kane who pushed his shot wide and it was 1-0 at halftime.
England brought on Jesse Lingard & Marcus Rashford at halftime and England vastly improved after the break with Dier going close after a beat 1-2 but Toby Alderwierld cleared. But Belgium remained dangerous on the counter with Hazard outstanding. They then created what would have been a picture book goal with a beautiful counter attack via their star duo but Munier’s shot was saved by Jordan Pickford.
But Belgium secured third place when Hazard got the better of Phil Jones to get clean through and fire in a late second. 2-0 it finished with Belgium boss Roberto Martinez happy to claim his medal but perhaps reflecting on what could and maybe should have been.
Final Preview: France vs Croatia
So here we are 63 games down after a month of scintillating football and it comes down to 2 teams facing each other today in Moscow in the biggest game in World Sport.
From their opening kick off a month ago France expected to be in the final. This hugely impressive squad has defensive strength, midfield power and a pair of special forwards in Griezmann & Mbappe.
Mbappe’s emergence is hardly a shock but not since the Brazilian Ronaldo have we seen a striker with such a potent blend of blistering pace and penetrating power combined with a rare creative instinct that makes him a Ballon d’Or in waiting.
This French team looks more battle hardened than the side that blew the Euro 2016 Final in Paris. Part of the stiffening of the team is down to the fit again Raphael Varane whilst much criticised boss Deschamps appears to have found a shape and a team that clicks. Although whether or not he can come up with a cohesive plan B remains unclear.
Croatia meanwhile are surprise finalists, they played wonderfully well in the group phase and the second half of the semi final against England but flirted with disaster throughout the knockout phase.
The key man is of course Real Madrid playmaker Modric who’s had an excellent tournament whilst Ivan Rakitic has proved an excellent foil and hard running winger Ivan Perisic has provided a cutting edge. Their Achilles heel has often proved a shaky back line but recalled Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren has held that defence together.
But Croatia’s greatest strength has proved to be their mental resolve. With almost all their key players on the 39-32 age bracket making this a last chance for glory for a talented generation the side has galvanised over the last month.
N’golo Kante may hold the key to this game if he can keep Modric quiet, if Modric finds the pockets of space he thrives on and France will be under pressure but keep him quiet and Croatia will find it tough as they did when Denmark pressed him high up the pitch in the last 16 clash.
France’s fullbacks like to push up and that could be dangerous with Perisic and Ante Rebic both constantly looking to get in behind defenders.
At the other end for all their improvements Croatia’s defenders aren’t the fastest and France will be confident of goals if they can isolate defenders 1 on 1 against Griezmann & Mbappe.
Ultimately I can only see Croatia winning if France play badly and it’s difficult to see them doing that in the final again. It will be close but I expect France’s physical power to prove too strong and Mbappe to score.
Prediction: France 3-1 Croatia