Breaking down the FIFA All-World Cup tournament team (July 17)

So FIFA released its World Cup team of the tournament. They broke it out in a 4-2-3-1 formation as follows:

GK — Hugo Lloris, France
LB — Ashley Young, England
CB — Dejan Lovren, Croatia
CB — Raphael Varane, France
RB — Kieran Trippier, England
MF — Luka Modric, Croatia
MF — Paulinho, Brazil
LW — Neymar, Brazil
AM — Antoine Griezmann, France
RW — Eden Hazard, Belgium
ST — Kylian Mbappe, France

Straightaway, Ashley Young is the biggest head-scratcher of this bunch, especially when comparing his play to compatriot Kieran Trippier, who may have had the best tournament of any outfield player on England’s squad.

Harry Kane also had a strong tournament and won the Golden Boot, yes, but Trippier was seemingly everywhere for the Three Lions and through no fault of his own nor lack of industry, Kane was too often starved of service as the opposition got tougher.

Young did not played poorly, but was he better than Croatia’s Ivan Strinic? No. Better than France’s Lucas Hernandez? Again, no.

That N’Golo Kante is not on this list and Paulinho is borders on ridiculous. In fact, you can make a better argument for Casemiro over Paulinho when reviewing the tape of Brazil’s loss to Belgium given how awful Casemiro’s replacement Fernandinho played in that defeat. The fact Kante reportedly played the final while suffering through a stomach bug only adds to his legend on top of the long list of accolades he has accumulated in a three-year span.

Neymar is a questionable inclusion, especially at the expense of for four-goal scorers Romelu Lukaku of Belgium or Denis Cheryshev of Russia. The latter’s goal rate of one per 76 minutes was the best of the tournament.

I have a minor quibble with Lovren because I felt there were times he got away with a foul that warranted a booking. I also think, however, there are only three central defenders you can make an argument for in replacing him — England’s John Stones, Sweden’s Andreas Granqvist and Colombia’s Yerry Mina.

 

2018 World Cup Final Recap — France 4, Croatia 2 (July 15)

France lifted the Jules Rimet trophy for the second time in its history as teenager Kylian Mbappe capped his global coming out party with his fourth goal of the World Cup as Les Bleus recorded a 4-2 victory over final debutant Croatia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.

In a match that typified a World Cup that seemingly had everything to offer, the final had a little bit of everything — an own goal, a penalty after consultation by VAR, spectators rushing the field, a howler by a goalkeeper and a pair of world-class strikes — as the two European sides did not hold back in a rollicking back-and-forth affair that Les Bleus took control of with two goals six minutes apart midway through the second half.

Antoine Griezmann converted a penalty in the first half, Paul Pogba’s goal in the 59th minute stood as the match-winner and France got an own goal from Mario Mandzukic. Les Bleus added a second star to put over Le Coq Gaulois alongside their 1998 victory as hosts.

Unsurprisingly, Mbappe won the Young Player Award while Croatia midfielder Luka Modric was named the Golden Ball winner as the tournament’s best player, the sixth straight World Cup in which the Golden Ball winner came from the runner-up.

The defeat capped a stunning run under coach Zlatko Dalic, who took over the Vatreni for their final European qualifier, a 2-0 victory at Ukraine in October 2017 that got them into a two-legged playoff against Greece from which they emerged victorious to simply qualify for Russia.

England’s Harry Kane claimed the Golden Boot with six goals, while Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois claimed the Golden Glove as the tournament’s top keeper.

With France president Emmanuel Macron cheering on and later offering heartfelt hugs to his and Croatia’s players along with Croatia prime minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic as they received their medals, Les Bleus capped Bastille Day weekend celebrations in grand style and moved on from the disappointment of losing the 2016 European Championship on their home soil.

The second-youngest side behind Nigeria at this World Cup, France will enter the 2020 Euros — played out across the continent before descending upon Wembley Stadium in England for the semifinals and final — as the prohibitive favorite in addition to being a team expected to be on the short list of potential World Cup champions in Qatar in four years’ time.

Manager Didier Deschamps became just the third person to win the World Cup as a player and manager as the talisman of the 1998 squad joined German great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo on that exclusive list. France also joined a select group with its second World Cup title, joining Brazil (5), Italy (4), Germany (4), Argentina (2) and Uruguay (2) as multiple winners.

Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic scored the goals for Croatia, but Perisic’s handball led to Griezmann’s penalty in the 38th minute that gave France the lead for good at 2-1. The Vatreni showed no signs of the fatigue expected of a team that had played extra time in all three of their previous matches and had to go to penalties twice but also lacked a finishing edge in the final third as they gave Les Bleus all they could handle throughout the final.

It was Croatia’s best finish at the World Cup, surpassing its run to the 1998 semifinals — also ended by France — in its first appearance on the global stage following the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Both teams retained their starting XIs from their respective semifinals victories as well as their 4-2-3-1 formations. France was decked out in its traditional blue uniforms while Croatia busted out its large red-and-white checkerboard tops.

Both teams started cautiously, Croatia on the ball first before France getting its first spell of possession. Luka Modric was aggressive early, getting whistled for a pair of fouls. Ivan Rakitic nearly created a scoring chance when he stepped in front of Benjamin Pavard and stormed down the left before being turned away by Samuel Umtiti for a throw-in.

The first Croatian cross came in from the right in the fifth minute by Sime Vrsaljko but was cleared by Raphael Varane. The Vatreni won the first corner kick of the contest in the eighth minute when Pogba deflected Ivan Strinic’s dribble over the end line.

Modric played it short to Strinic on the left, but it was Mbappe’s turn to show he can defend as well as attack, conceding a second corner with a well-timed slide. Modric whipped this attempt into the mixer, but Varane strongly headed clear.

Croatia continued to be the more aggressive team with Strinic pushing forward to pin Mbappe back on the right. Rakitic picked out Perisic over the top on the left in the 11th minute, but Perisic could not control it with an extended boot and it rolled out for a France goal kick.

Pavard got caught out going up for a 50/50 ball as Strinic steamed down the left, winning another corner that failed to amount to anything. Mbappe showed just how dangerous his pace could be when he twisted Croatia’s left back into a pretzel before a cross from the end line was cleared.

Mandzukic’s own goal for France that opened the scoring came completely against the run of play. Griezmann drew a free kick 30 yards out on the right with a foul on Marcelo Brozovic in the 18th minute, and his curling left-footed effort glanced off the Croatian striker’s head and inside the left post.

It was the first goal in the World Cup final scored in regulation since Marco Materazzi scored in the 19th minute for Italy in 2006. It was also the first own goal in a World Cup final and record 12th own goal overall in Russia.

But falling behind in the knockout round has been nothing new for the Vatreni, who trailed against Denmark, Russia and England before fighting back. Modric drew a foul on the right sideline parallel to the 18-yard line, but Domagoj Vida’s header from Modric’s free kick sailed well over the bar in the 21st minute.

Mbappe hared off after a through ball, but Strinic made a vital clearance just above the penalty area. A quick Croatia counter led to another free kick, but Hugo Lloris emphatically punched out Modric’s curling cross into the mixer.

Nestor Pitana brandished his yellow card for the first time in the 28th minute when N’Golo Kante clipped Ivan Perisic’s heels as he carried through the middle. The ensuing free kick eventually led to Croatia’s equalizer in the 29th minute when three headers eventually re-directed the ball to the middle of the penalty area, where Vida knocked it down for Perisic. He touched it to his left before lashing a left-footed shot across Lloris and inside the right post.

It was Perisic’s third goal of the tournament and the third consecutive Croatia goal he was involved in after scoring the equalizer against England and assisting on Mandzukic’s match-winner in the semifinal. It was also the first goal France conceded since Sergio Aguero’s header in second-half stoppage time for Argentina in the round of 16.

A misjudged header by Vida on Lloris’ goal kick trying to pick out Mbappe gifted France a corner in the 34th minute. Griezmann’s in-swinger from the right hit Perisic on the left hand, prompting Pitana to consult VAR and correctly award Les Bleus a penalty.

It pitted Griezmann, who had converted twice from the spot leading up to the final against Danjiel Subasic, who made four saves in shootout victories over Denmark and Russia. The Atletico Madrid showed no nerves in slotting it to his left as Subasic fell in the other direction as France regained the lead at 2-1 with his fourth goal of the tournament.

Croatia nearly answered straightaway as Perisic sent a cross into the middle that Ante Rebic mishit and Mandzukic could not get to quick enough as it spun softly to Lloris. Lucas Hernandez was given a yellow card for cutting down Rebic as the two chased a ball near the right sideline in the midfield.

Modric sent another tantalizing free kick into the mixer in the 43rd minute that Pavard deflected after Perisic got his head to it as France conceded a corner. Les Bleus were forced to concede a second corner that nearly was calamitous before Olivier Giroud fired it clear.

Umtiti went down in the 45th minute after Dejan Lovren fell on his leg in the scramble of the ensuing corner, leaving France with 10 men to deal with another corner that Vida narrowly missed re-directing inside the right post. After three minutes of stoppage time, Pitana finally ended proceedings to a manic first half complete with flashes of lightning and claps of thunder.

Subasic made the first save by either goalkeeper in the 47th minute, calmly catching Griezmann’s shot from 25 yards after Giroud played it back to him in yards of open space. Lloris quickly got his first, tipping Rebic’s sharp-angled blast over the bar with his left hand after he was superbly played in from the left by Rakitic.

Lloris had to make a vital clearance outside the penalty area in the 49th minute after Varane got a touch to a long ball over the top by Brozovic trying to pick out Perisic. Croatia continued to turn the screws on France’s defense, earning its sixth corner when Modric made an aggressive play on the right.

Vrsaljko tried a speculative volley on a headed clearance off the corner that went well wide. The Vatreni were in full flow offensively, playing more directly and looking no worse for the wear despite all the extra yards accumulated from their previous matches as France struggled to find any cohesion and lengthy spell of possession.

Pogba sent Mbappe through on the right and he almost got around Vida before having a sharp-angled shot stopped. The game was then stopped momentarily in the 52nd minute when four spectators raced onto the field and were hauled off by security. Lloris then made a brave punch on Rakitic’s ball over the top, conceding a corner while getting plowed by Mandzukic.

Deschamps, seeing how Kante could not play his normal game sitting on a yellow, lifted the Chelsea midfielder on 55 minutes for Steven N’Zonzi. Perisic, continuing to give Pavard all sorts of issues on the left, overcooked a cross from Mandzukic in the 58th minute.

Pogba started the play that led to his goal in the 59th minute, releasing Mbappe forward on the right from his own half. The teen starlet worked free of Strinic deep in the penalty area and passed it to Griezmann, who laid it off to Pogba at the top of the penalty area. His right-footed shot was blocked by a defender, but his rasping left-footed one caught a screened Subasic flat-footed and made it 3-1.

The match now fully open, France now went about picking apart Croatia on the counter. Mbappe officially kicked off the celebration in the 65th minute, taking a lateral pass from Hernandez and touching it to his right before cutting it inside Vida and the left post from 20 yards for his fourth goal of the World Cup and a three-goal advantage.

He became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, and his four goals in Russia were the most by a teen since the Brazilian legend bagged six in that tournament in Sweden.

Croatia pulled one back in the 69th minute through a moment of sheer madness by Lloris, who tried to play a back pass around Mandzukic, but the Croatian striker tapped the keeper’s crossover into the net for his third goal of the tournament.

Zlatko Dalic made his first swap in the 71st minute, introducing Andrej Kramaric for Rebic, and Deschamps countered two minutes later with Blaise Matuidi making way for Corentin Tolisso.

Rakitic narrowly went wide of the right post from the top of the penalty area in the 78th minute. France had succeeded in slowing the pace down to a degree, yet Croatia persisted in its efforts to find a way back into the match. Deschamps made his final switch in the 81st minute, taking off Giroud for the fresh legs of Nabil Fekir whie Dalic called on Marko Pjaca for Strinic.

Pjaca, though, had a heavy first touch on the right after being picked out by Kramaric. Rakitic had a free kick from the left from 35 yards in the 84th minute, but drilled it right at Lloris.

France’s bench poured onto the field after Pitana blew the final whistle to begin celebrating while many Croatia players collapsed onto the pitch where they were in exhaustion after bending but not breaking a disciplined and pragmatic Les Bleus side that found the extra gear in counterattack.

After the match, the punk rock protest group Pussy Riot claimed responsibility for the pitch invasion, which consisted of three women and one man. The group gained global notoriety after singing a song denouncing Russia president Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral. Two members of the band, including the wife of the male arrested — identified as Pyotr Vezilov — served a two-year prison sentence as part of that incident.

 

 

2018 World Cup Recap Match 63 — Belgium 2, England 0 (July 14)

Belgium secured its best finish at a World Cup as Thomas Meunier’s goal in the fourth minute and Eden Hazard’s insurance marker in the 82nd provided the margin in a 2-0 victory over England in the third-place match Saturday in St. Petersburg.

A sorely missed player through yellow-card suspension in Belgium’s semifinal loss to France, Meunier ghosted in front of Danny Rose and stabbed Nacer Chadli’s cross from the left from six yards past Jordan Pickford. Romelu Lukaku started the play with a smart through ball to Chadli.

Belgium secured the win against the run of play. Hazard, kept onside by Phil Jones, was played through by Kevin De Bruyne into the penalty area on the left, and he beat Pickford inside the near post with a low hard shot from six yards.

While this was the last World Cup appearance for Belgium’s golden generation, they likely will make their swan song at the 2020 European Championships, which will be played across the continent before the semifinals and final are played in England.

Unlike Belgium’s 1-0 victory over England to close group play June that included five first-choice starters combined for both sides, this match was played primarily with the starting XIs for both teams, though England overturned five players since it was playing on one less day of rest after its 2-1 defeat to Croatia after extra time Wednesday.

But like the first match, Belgium controlled long stretches of play and created the better chances between the sides. De Bruyne and Hazard were both menacing going forward for Roberto Martinez’s side, with Lukaku looking to pounce on any inch of space afforded him by England’s back three.

While England striker Harry Kane got more service in the run of play than he did in the previous two matches, it was still not enough to get him to add to his haul of six goals that is all but certain to win him the Golden Boot as the top scorer at the World Cup. It was the second defeat in the third-place match for the Three Lions, who lost to host Italy in 1990.

Belgium’s only previous third-place match before today was a 4-2 loss to France in Mexico in 1986. Meunier was the 10th different goal-scorer for the Red Devils in Russia, tying a World Cup record.

While Gareth Southgate made five changes, Kieran Trippier was a surprising inclusion in England’s XI considering he suffered a leg injury in the final minutes versus Croatia and could not continue after all four substitutions had been used.

De Bruyne nearly doubled Belgium’s lead in the 12th minute, but his 12-yard shot on the left was knocked away by Pickford after it took a deflection. England’s defense took a while to gain its bearings as Belgium’s attacking trio took turns running at the back three.

England had more of the ball than it did in the first match between the sides, but Belgium was also ceding that possession in non-threatening areas before its back three, anchored by Vincent Kompany, blunted the challenges the Three Lions threw their way.

In the 23rd minute, Sterling did well to control a ball over the top from Loftus-Cheek and laid it off to his right for Kane, who tried to knock it inside the left post from the top of the box but dragged it wide as the ball did not settle on his approach.

Belgium won a corner in the 34th minute when Hazard had a shot blocked by Stones after De Bruyne sent him through on the right. De Bruyne angled it to Youri Tielemans at the top of the box, but his scuffed shot turned into a pass as Toby Alderweireld’s 12-yard volley just went over the bar.

Chadli, who came up limping after a charge down the field, made way for Thomas Vermaelen in the 39th minute. Belgium made another push, with Stones shutting down his Manchester City teammate De Bruyne on a shot from just inside the penalty area on the right.

Kane tried to send Loftus-Cheek through on the right, but Courtois was alert to the danger and raced out to collect the ball. Lukaku had one last chance before halftime as he took on Stones 1-on-1, but the Man City defender got the best of the Man United striker, deflecting his shot over for a corner that never came as referee Alireza Faghani blew the whistle for halftime.

Southgate introduced Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard for Sterling and Rose at halftime as Sterling’s scoring drought at the international level continued. He has two goals in 44 international matches, but none since 2015.

Rashford and Lingard, though, injected England with some pace as they harried Belgium’s defense and helped recycle possession in the final third.

Jones made a rare foray forward in the 49th minute, but his cross was too close to Courtois, who comfortably caught his curling attempt from the right. England won a corner in the 51st minute when Vertonghen played Trippier’s cross on a free kick over the end line, but Courtois intercepted the in-swinger from the left.

He rapidly fired it ahead to Hazard, who drew a yellow card on Stones for a tactical foul at midfield. Kane narrowly missed re-directing Lingard’s fizzed shot with his right boot in the 54th minute as Axel Witsel got caught napping on a throw-in from the right.

Lukaku spurned a chance to double the lead in the 56th minute as De Bruyne laced a perfect through ball between Jones and Fabian Delph into the penalty area, but the United striker’s first touch was too heavy as Pickford gratefully collected the ball.

Martinez lifted Lukaku on the hour for Dries Mertens as the United striker ended his World Cup with four goals. It also left France’s Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe as the only players who could potentially catch Kane for the Golden Boot, though both would need to score three goals in Sunday’s final versus Croatia.

Delph made a vital intervention in the 62nd minute, conceding a corner after Hazard played Meunier deep into the penalty area on the right. Belgium earned a second one, but Kompany’s backheel off Mertens’ corner from the right failed to find Vertonghen.

Eric Dier tried a low sweeping shot from 25 yards across goal, but Courtois dove to his right and stopped it easily without conceding a rebound. It was also the Chelsea No. 1’s 26th save of the World Cup, moving him ahead of Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa for the most in Russia.

England’s best chance came to equalize came in the 70th minute as Dier and Rashford worked a 1-2, with Rashford sending Dier through on the right as Kompany slipped. Dier chipped it over a sliding Courtois, but Alderweireld did well to race behind him and clear it off the line.

Rashford drew a free kick 30 yards out on the right after being scythed down by Kompany, but the Belgian defender cleared out Trippier’s indirect cross for a corner by Rashford that was cleared away. The ensuing throw-in found its way to Lingard, who volleyed it into the middle of the penalty area where Jones headed it wide of the left post.

England continued to be the aggressor, drawing another free kick. Harry Maguire got to Trippier’s free kick and headed it just wide of the left post, but the linesman had raised his flag.

Mertens should have done better in the 76th minute when after De Bruyne picked him out on the left in a countermove, but he could not get the ball out from under his feet and horribly mishit a shot wide of the right post.

Maguire waas booked in the 78th minute before Martinez made his final substitution, introducing Mousa Dembele for Tielemans. England continued to pin Belgium in its final third, pinging the ball around looking for a crease.

But Belgium broke on the counter in the 80th minute as Mertens and De Bruyne broke out after a nifty 1-2 in the midfield. De Bruyne played it out left to Mertens, who reversed field with a cross to Meunier, whose searing volley for the far post was knocked away with a strong right-handed save by Pickford.

After Hazard’s goal, his third of the World Cup and Belgium’s 16th overall, the game completely opened up as the teams traded barnstorming runs for a spell. Even Kompany got into the act, making an intervention in his third and taking off in hopes Hazard would slot a return pass from the right.

 

2018 World Cup Preview Match 64 — France vs. Croatia

A man unlikely to score a goal and not playing goalkeeper could heavily sway the outcome of the World Cup final between France and Croatia on Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Take a moment to examine the credentials of N’Golo Kante, whose five-year meteoric rise from Ligue 2 and Caen could reach its apex if Les Bleus add a second title to the one they won as hosts in 1998. After helping Caen win promotion to Ligue 1 in 2014 and playing a second season there, he appeared on the radar of Leicester City and well, you know the rest.

The rags-to-riches story of the Foxes going from relegation-threatened to regality with their 2016 Premier League title. Sensing what he could do in front of a three-man backline that brought him so much acclaim at Juventus, Antonio Conte poached Kante for Chelsea, where he became the first player in Premier League history to win back-to-back titles for two different teams.

His trajectory at the international scene has been slightly uneven, with the chance of him joining Mali in 2015. Kante made his competitive debut for France at the 2016 European Championship, helping Les Bleus get to the final, where he sat unused for 120 minutes in Paris as they lost to Portugal after extra time.

Manager Didier Deschamps — himself the “water-carrier” on the 1998 team playing the same role as Kante — has not made that mistake a second time in Russia, as a win would make him the third person to win the World Cup as a player and manager alongside Franz Beckenbauer of Germany and Mario Zagallo of Brazil.

Kante has logged all 540 minutes over France’s six matches en route to its third World Cup final in 20 years and covered 62.7 kilometers of ground, 27.4 of which have come with his team not in possession.

He has won 58 balls and lost only 31, forming a lethal tandem with Blaise Matuidi in front of France’s back four as Les Bleus have recorded back-to-back clean sheets in wins over Uruguay and Belgium.

“NG is always very reserved, very calm and very timid,” France midfielder Paul Pogba said at Thursday’s press conference per Reuters. “Except when he is playing cards.

“We understand each other very well, we talk, we give each other advice. It is a very special relationship. He is just a great guy.”

Kante’s dominance allows Pogba the freedom to roam forward in attack and join stars Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud. But it was clearly apparent in France’s 1-0 win over Belgium that the Manchester United midfielder has bought into his defensive responsibilities, often backtracking into his penalty area and man-marking while helping his defenders win aerial clearances.

While Griezmann may be the string-puller on offense with three goals and two assists, Pogba is showing the two-way game Jose Mourinho was trying to coax out of him all season with United.

Though Kante is France’s immovable object of the midfield, Croatia counters with an irresistible force of its own in Luka Modric in its first World Cup final appearance. The Vatreni burst onto the international football scene in France 20 years ago, reaching the semifinals before falling to Les Bleus and claiming third place in their maiden showing.

This is the first World Cup they advanced from group play since 1998, with Modric and his teammates taking the longest road to get to Moscow. Croatia has gone to extra time in all three matches, beating Denmark and Russia via penalties before defeating England 2-1 after 120 minutes Wednesday without the stomach-churning agony of spot kicks.

At just under 63 kilometers, Modric is the only player to have covered more ground than Kante, helped by the extra 64 minutes he has been able to play because of Croatia’s three extended matches. But there is much quality as there is quantity to the midfielder’s game as he and Ivan Perisic gradually took over the semifinal match against England.

While Modric bossed the midfield, Perisic was a torment on the left side and had a massive match as he scored Croatia’s equalizer and assisted on Mario Mandzukic’s winner in the 109th minute. Modric, Perisic and Mandzukic all have two goals and an assist, and while Ivan Rakitic has scored just once in the six matches to get to the finals, the Vatreni would not be here without him since he converted both decisive penalties.

“Again there was drama, it couldn’t have been otherwise,” Perisic told FIFA’s official website after Wednesday’s win. “Three times now we’ve been a goal down and have come back, and that really says a lot about our team spirit. And that is a real feature of this generation of players. We have one more game left, and we have never been more motivated.”

The combination of the extra 90 minutes of play plus the one day less to recover could loom large in Croatia’s preparation for this match, perhaps even forcing coach Zlatko Dalic to make changes on the periphery surrounding his axis of Modric, Perisic, Rakitic and Mandzukic.

Left back Ivan Strinic has not been 100 percent the last two matches, with Josep Pivaric serving as a capable understudy versus England after a shaky performance against Russia. It is possible Andrej Kramaric gets the start over Marcelo Brozovic similar to Dalic’s XI versus Russia in which Modric lays deep in a diamond midfield.

Dalic does have options, though some changes may be out of strategic necessity due to the cumulative fatigue. Still, with so much pride from so small a nation — at just over four million people, Croatia would be the second-smallest country to win the World Cup behind only 1930 and 1934 winner Uruguay — it would also not be surprising to see him present an unchanged XI from the semifinal victory.

“We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and have character. What our players did today, the strength and stamina they’ve shown, the energy level, I wanted to make substitutions but nobody wanted to come off,” Dalic said. “We’re preparing for another daunting task but we’re ready for it. We had three times extra time, but that’s up to us. We didn’t score earlier, we can ask why didn’t we finish the job in 90 minutes.

“There will be no excuses, we should not take that path. We have to play as if this was the first game of this tournament. We are not going to fish for excuses.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE

France
June 16 — France 2, Australia 1 (Griezmann 58′ (PK), Jedinak 62′ (PK), Behich 81′ (og))
June 21 — France 1, Peru 0 (Mbappe 34′)
June 26 — France 0, Denmark 0
June 30 — France 4, Argentina 3 (Griezmann 13′ (PK), Di Maria 41′, Mercado 48′, Pavard 57′, Mbappe 64′, Mbappe 68′, Aguero 90+3′)
July 6 — France 2, Uruguay 0 (Varane 40′, Griezmann 61′)
July 10 — France 1, Belgium 0 (Umtiti 51′)

Croatia
June 16 — Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (Etebo 32′ (og), Modric 71′ (PK))
June 21 — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Croatia 2, Iceland 1 (Badelj 50′, G. Sigurdsson 76′ (PK), Perisic 90′)
July 1 — Croatia 1, Denmark 1 (Jorgensen 1′, Mandzukic 4′) (Croatia wins 3-2 on PKs)
July 7 — Croatia 2, Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31′, Kramaric 39′, Vida 101′, Fernandes 115′) (Croatia wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 11 — Croatia 2, England 1 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)

FORMATIONS

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it for France, which has been in a 4-2-3-1 set-up since late in its opening match against Australia and is likely to use this starting XI for the second straight match after yellow cards forced Matuidi to miss the quarters. Two of Les Bleus last three goals have come from their central defenders as Griezmann provided the passes for both Umiti’s and Rapahel Varane’s goals around his goal in the quarterfinal versus Uruguay.

While Croatia sometimes lets Modric operate as a lone midfielder in front of his back four, there is plenty of flexibility as the Real Madrid man often forms triangles with Rakitic and Perisic on the left. Sometimes Rakitic will drop back to help similar to how France delopy Matuidi and Kante, which allows Rakitic the space to pour forward and find creases in opposing defenses.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Neither team has a player ineligible for this match, though Croatia has been operating one man short since sending Nikola Kalinic home after its opening match for not entering as a substitute when Dalic asked. While Strinic has come out in each of the last two matches, it would seem difficult to believe he would make way for Pivaric at left back.

Deschamps has a full 23-man roster to utilize, with Corentin Tolisso, Ousmane Dembele, Steven N’Zonzi and Nabil Fekir has top options off the bench depending on strategy for substitutions.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France — Olivier Giroud (F)

While Giroud has failed to place any of his 10 shots on target in Russia, he has done all Deschamps has asked of him by being the target forward France needs to create space offensively. He played a higher line against Belgium, which allowed Griezmann and Mbappe to try and find space with their quickness. While many have derisively compared his contributions to Stephane Guivarc’h from the 1998 squad, Giroud likely will happily take them if it means he gets to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.

Croatia — Danjiel Subasic (GK)

His quality at stopping penalty kicks aside, Subasic did not have a match to remember against England in the semifinals. He failed to create a quality wall that led to Kieran Trippier’s goal off a free kick, failing to even locate the ball until it was right on top of him and in the upper right corner of the net. Subasic has made 12 saves in his five matches at this World Cup, and given his counterpart Hugo Lloris’ fine run of form heading into this final, the Monaco No. 1 is going to have to raise his game if Croatia is to spring a large World Cup upset.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1998 (France) SF — France 2, Croatia 1 (Suker 46′, Thuram 47′, 70′)

France did not trail at any point as host in the 1998 World Cup until Davor Suker put Croatia ahead 26 seconds after the restart, latching onto a smart chip over France’s defense by Aljosa Asanovic for his fifth goal of the tournament. Les Bleus would strike back immediately as defender Lillian Thuram dispossessed Zvonimir Boban and worked a 1-2 with Youri Djorkaeff before going across across Drazen Ladic for the equalizer.

In the 70th minute, Thuram completed his brace with an inch-perfect curling strike from 20 yards on the right, bending it inside the far post on the bounce. France held out the final 16 minutes with 10 men after defender Laurent Blanc was sent off. While Blanc did make contact with Slaven Bilic with an open hand and shove to Bilic’s chest, the Croat play-acted as if the contact was on his face, and referee Jose Manuel Garcia did not have VAR reveal the truth.

The last meeting between the teams in a tournament setting was a 2-2 draw in group play at the 2004 European Championship. David Trezeguet gave Les Bleus a contentious draw with his equalizer on 64 minutes after it appeared he controlled the ball with his hand before scoring.

The Vatreni have never beaten France in five all-time matches, losing three and drawing two.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, France is a heavy favorite at better-than-even odds (10/11), and Croatia is a firm underdog at 18/5. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalty kicks are 11/5. Oddsmakers are expecting a two-goal total as that returns 23/10 odds, closely followed by a 1-0 verdict at 5/2. A three-goal haul has 15/4 odds, and a scoreless contest checks in at 11/2.

For first goal-scorers, Griezmann and Mbappe are joint-favorites at 9/2 followed by Giroud at 11/2. Mandzukic is Croatia’s top option at 15/2 and seventh overall in the pecking order.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

Nestor Pitana opened the World Cup as the referee for the Russia-Saudi Arabia match, and the Argentine will close the tournament as the man in the middle for the final. It will be his second match involving the championship teams, having overseen Croatia’s round of 16 victory over Denmark and France’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay. Pitana also was in charge of the group stage match between Mexico and Sweden.

“We won’t change what we’ve been doing up until now,” Pitana told FIFA’s official website.  “We’ll be very focused as always, that’s what has got us here. This team have worked so hard to get where we are, we’ve managed one of the greatest achievements in the world of refereeing. And now we want to finish the job, in the best way possible.”

PREDICTION

While some people have complained that Deschamps has gone “anti-football” in stifling both Uruguay and Belgium in the last two matches, the other truth is that he has gotten his offensively gifted players to play two-way games as a checks and balances that augment the playmaking skills of Griezmann and Pogba.

Griezmann is a No. 10 without the No. 10, a shrewd player who knows where and when to pop up to receive the ball in advantageous situations. Much had been made of Pogba after an inconsistent season with United, and while he does not have a goal or an assist, he has done what Deschamps has asked of him in being a destroyer over a facilitator because Les Bleus have plenty of facilitators.

Giroud could be the X-factor in all of this. He could have done better against Belgium, most notably failing to get his feet together when Mbappe delivered a perfect cross. He knows this and the world knows this. But Deschamps is going to ride him because of how much better France’s offense flows when he’s on the pitch and also because he’s still capable of delivering on set pieces, an area Croatia has struggled in giving up goals the last two matches.

For all the talk Croatia’s players have made in insisting they will be ready for Sunday, one is allowed to wonder just how much they have left to give. Mandzukic was almost let for dead before his professional goal in which he found the half-second of time to ghost into the space England defender John Stones should have been on the winning goal.

Someone behind the big three of Modric, Perisic and Rakitic must deliver, and the most likely candidate is Ante Rebic. If he can pin Lucas Hernandez back and allow Sime Vrsaljko to get forward from right back, the Vatreni can create problems offensively.

While France has played a more offensively loaded team already in Argentina, Croatia is a far better balanced squad that can diversify its attacks narrow or wide, though it did far more damage against England when it was able to utilize the flanks.

This should be an entertaining match for purists, especially as Kante and Modric battle all over the pitch since neither will give the other any quarter or moment of respite. But between France’s quality at seemingly every position as well as the cumulative fatigue Croatia has accrued in its valiant quest to get to the final, it is difficult to see an outcome other than Les Bleus getting a second star as World Cup champions.

PREDICTION: FRANCE 2, CROATIA 0

UP NEXT

France will kickoff the new Nations League hosting Germany on Sept. 6, while Croatia’s first match in UEFA’s new set-up will be at Spain on Sept. 11.

2018 World Cup Preview Match 63 — Belgium vs. England

When Belgium and England played last month to close out Group G, there was nothing on the line. Though third place at the World Cup may feel like little more than nothing, the teams will clash Saturday in St. Petersburg to complete their respective journeys in Russia.

The golden generation of Belgium has pride on the line, looking for its best World Cup finish after losing to France in the third-place match in 1986. Roberto Martinez’s team was on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline in Tuesday’s semifinal, also against France.

The counterattack that served the Red Devils so well in their knockout victories over Japan and Brazil was completely stifled by Les Bleus. Belgium, which entered the match with a World Cup-leading 14 goals, was limited to three shots on target as Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel had the side’s best chances on either side of halftime.

Romelu Lukaku, who is tied for second in the race for the Golden Boot with four goals, was starved of service up front and neutralized by France’s central defenders. While he did have an assist against Brazil, Lukaku has furthered a dubious reputation as a flat-track bully by failing to score in all three knockout matches after bagging his braces against Panama and Tunisia in group play.

“I’m proud of the way we performed and of our World Cup,” Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne told FIFA’s official website. “France maybe played a little defensively but the beauty of football is that you can choose the way you want to play. I respect that.

“We feel we’ve given our all and we need to focus on the positives. We’ve got just one wish now: to win a sixth match in Russia so we can go away on holiday even more at peace with ourselves.”

Coach Roberto Martinez, whose tactics succeeded against Brazil, faltered against France in opting for Mousa Dembele as Belgium sorely missed suspended wing back Thomas Meunier in the semifinals. Keeper Thibaut Courtois again did well between the sticks, finishing with four saves, and has made 12 in his last two matches after making 10 in his first four contests.

Of Martinez’s first-choice XI, at least five players could be making their final World Cup appearance, most notably talisman and central defender Vincent Kompany. Alderweireld, Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Jan Vertonghen also could all be marking their international farewell with this match, though all five could also be in Martinez’s plans for the 2020 European Championship.

As Belgium begins a cycle of transition to some of its younger players to build around the axis of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, England is looking to take one last positive from an overachieving World Cup experience. The Three Lions, the second-youngest team in terms of experience in Russia, have brought a renewed sense of optimism to a fan base that had come to expect — and endure — the worst over the past 20-plus years.

Gareth Southgate’s team has an incredibly quick turnaround following its heart-breaking 2-1 defeat in extra time to Croatia on Wednesday. Kieran Trippier gave the Three Lions the lead in the fifth minute with a sumptuous free kick, but the fearlessness of youth finally gave way to the nerves of the moment.

The lack of a true playmaking midfielder doomed England, who did not have a shot on frame for 94 minutes after Trippier’s goal. There was much for the Three Lions to rue in that short time frame after the final whistle Wednesday and kickoff Saturday as both Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard spurned chances with the opportunity to double England’s lead in the first half.

Then there were the split-second moments and decisions that led to Croatia’s two goals — Kyle Walker going too low on his headed clearance that allowed Ivan Perisic to score the tying goal in the 68th minute and John Stones’ brief lapse that let Mario Mandzukic ghost behind him for the match-winner 11 minutes from time.

Still, considering the low expectations England faced considering its 2014 group play exit and embarrassing loss to Iceland two summers ago in the round of 16 in the European Championships, this stirring run to the semifinals and an opportunity to play a seventh match at the World Cup was more than anyone could have projected.

“It shows we can be up there,” Kane said. “It shows we can win knockout games, it shows we can get to the semi-finals. It’s a great foundation we have built over the last couple of years with the gaffer, and we’ve just got to carry that on. We are proud of what we’ve achieved, but we want more. We’re sad that we couldn’t give the fans here and back home a Final.

“It’s tough. We’re gutted, you know. We worked so hard. I’m sure there was stuff we could have done better, but we worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it’ll hurt for a while, but we can hold our heads up high.

While the match gives both Martinez and Southgate another chance to again use their reserves as a reward working hard at practice, one regular who wants no part of the bench is England keeper Jordan Pickford. The Everton No. 1 was one of England’s top players in the knockout matches and wants his 11th cap.

“Hopefully I will get the nod against Belgium. I’d love to be the goalkeeper of the tournament,” Pickford told The Sun. “We came to win this tournament and we can’t do that now but we want to finish third. It will be a tough test against Belgium — again.

“It will be hard to get ourselves up for it. That’s where character comes in. It’s a chance to show our togetherness. We want to finish a great tournament on a high.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Belgium
June 18 — Belgium 3, Panama 0 (Mertens 47′, Lukaku 69′, 75′)
June 23 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (Hazard 6′ (PK), Lukaku 16′, Bronn 18′, Lukaku 45+3′, Hazard 51, Batshuayi 90′, Khazri 90+3′)
June 28 — Belgium 1, England 0 (Januzaj 51′)
July 2 — Belgium 3, Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48′, Inui 52′, Vertonghen 69′, Fellaini 74′, Chadli 90+4′)
July 6 — Belgium 2, Brazil 1 (Fernandinho 13′ (og), De Bruyne 31′, Augusto 76′)
July 10 — Belgium 0, France 1 (Umtiti 51′)

England
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 7 — England 2, Sweden 0 (Maguire 30′, Alli 59′)
July 11 — England 1, Croatia 2 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)

FORMATIONS

It’s uncertain whether Martinez will overhaul his lineup for this match considering he already did in the group match. The hedge is he will at least give Lukaku a chance to try and catch Kane for the Golden Boot and include him in the starting XI. That leads to the belief Belgium’s primary attacking trio of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard will be out there at the start.

Meunier likely will be restored to the starting lineup since he’s the freshest player of either team after serving his yellow-card ban in the quarterfinals. It would not be surprising to see Dedryck Boyata in central defense, but the hedge is Martinez will use this match as a farewell for his stars.

Southgate will probably have a mix of his starters and substitutes, though Trippier is almost certain to miss this match after having suffered a lower-body injury in the final minutes of extra time in the loss to Croatia. It’s also possible Eric Dier could start in central midfield after Jordan Henderson ran himself into the ground in five of the six matches for the Three Lions.

Like Lukaku, there is an expectation Kane will at least be out there for the start to let him try and hunt out a seventh goal that would set an England record at a single World Cup. The one area of intrigue would be playing youngsters Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold together again like Southgate did in group play.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Meunier is available after serving his one-match ban, and while it is not definite, Trippier is likely the only person on either side who is not expected to play due to his injury. England striker Jamie Vardy was fit enough to play the final eight minutes after missing the Colombia match with a groin injury.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium — Romelu Lukaku (F)

After a frustrating match against France, Lukaku has one last chance to pip Kane for the Golden Boot. His assist against Brazil secured the Silver Boot since he is the only player among fellow four-goal scorers Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). If Lukaku fails to score in this match, France’s Antoine Griezmann could claim second with a goal since he has two assists.

England — Jordan Pickford (GK)

Pickford came to Russia with just four caps and plenty of question marks. He will leave this World Cup as a world-class keeper and full of confidence ahead of returning to Everton for the upcoming Premier League season. Only France’s Hugo Lloris has had a better overall run in the knockout stages between the sticks, and Pickford has answered the call in crucial moments time and again for the Three Lions.

The fact he wants to start this match bodes well for Southgate as Pickford wants a stranglehold on the No. 1 shirt as England begins its next cycle — the 2020 European Championships.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1954 (Switzerland) GS — England 4, Belgium 4 a.e.t. (Anoul 5′, Broadis 26′, Lofthouse 36′, Broadis 63′, Coppens 67′, Anoul 71′, Lofthouse 91′, Dickinson 94′ (og))
1990 (Italy) R/16 — England 1, Belgium 0 a.e.t. (Platt 119‘)
2018 (Russia) GS — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)

Belgium’s victory in Kaliningrad last month was just its third in 22 all-time matches (3-4-15) versus England and its first in three World Cup matches (1-1-1). The previous two World Cup matches came in 1954 and 1990 — the first being a wild 4-4 draw in group play in Switzerland in which an own goal by England’s James William Dickinson in the 94th minute was the equalizer.

The teams meet again in Italy 36 years later, with England winning 1-0 after extra time in the round of 16 as David Platt’s superb volley on a free kick from Paul Gascoigne in the 119th minute spared the Three Lions potential misery in penalties.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Belgium is a firm favorite with 23/20 odds, while England is listed as a 9/4 underdog. Bettors do not seem too keen on the match ending in a draw and going to penalties as the listed odds are 27/10.

Punters are also expecting goals in this contest as two and three-goal totals are joint-favorites at 3/1, and a four-goal outcome is listed at 4/1. For first goal-scorers, Kane nudges out Lukaku as favorite with 10/3 odds, while Lukaku is 4/1. Michy Batshuayi is third on the list at 9/2 odds while Hazard and Vardy are joint-fourth at 11/2.

PREDICTION

It’s the match nobody wants to play yet both Belgium and England will be keen on exiting Russia on an up note. It is the first rematch in a World Cup since 2002, when Brazil beat Turkey in the semifinals after doing so in group play. It is the fifth time overall since 1962, with Brazil involved in three previous instances.

Everything about predicting what could happen in this match is a crapshoot give the emotional hangover of losing a World Cup semifinal, more so for England considering the Three Lions have a shorter turnaround and had the more excruciating defeat by losing in extra time.

You expect professionalism on both sides, and with so many players familiar with one another playing in England’s Premier League, there should be enough motivation to avoid being needled on the club training grounds to put forth such an effort. In the last third-place game in 2014, host Brazil’s hangover from its 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany most certainly carried into its 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands.

Last month’s group stage closer saw 17 of the 22 starters on the bench for the opening kickoff. It would seem likely that number will be significantly less while still operating with a noticeable mix of holdovers and reserves.

At the very least, the hope is both teams pick out their star strikers to try and help their cause to win the Golden Boot. Both Kane and Lukaku were spectators in Belgium’s 1-0 victory, and while Kane may be the more tired of the pair given his 120-minute effort versus Croatia, the Three Lions talisman undoubtedly will give it his all should Southgate ask him to lead the line.

In the end, though, look for Belgium to aggressively pour forward and while England may have more opportunities to counter than it did in last month’s 1-0 loss, it may also be picked apart more by a higher-quality Red Devils side.

PREDICTION: Belgium 3, England 2

UP NEXT

England’s first Nations League match will be at home against Spain on Sept. 8, while Belgium’s first match in the new UEFA set-up will be Sept. 11 at Iceland.

2018 World Cup Recap Match 62 — Croatia 2, England 1 a.e.t. (July 11)

Mario Mandzukic’s goal in the 109th minute propelled Croatia to its first World Cup final in its young history, breaking the hearts of England with a 2-1 victory Wednesday in Moscow.

The Vatreni, whose only previous semifinal appearance came in their maiden World Cup appearance in 1998, showed plenty of courage in advancing to Sunday’s final against France while playing their third straight match that went into extra time.

Unlike the victories over Denmark and Russia, Croatia this time avoided going to penalties as its veteran savvy found the half-second of advantage against the young Three Lions that made the difference.

The game-winning play started when Kyle Walker popped his clearance only as far as the left elbow of the penalty area. Ivan Perisic, who scored the equalizer in the 68th minute, won a 50/50 ball against Kieran Trippier and headed it backward towards goal.

Mandzukic ghosted behind John Stones and lashed a left-footed shot from the elbow of the six-yard box across Jordan Pickford and inside the right post. England could not create a threatening chance in the final 11 minutes, its chances literally hamstrung when Trippier came up lame in the 115th minute and played the final five minutes and stoppage time with 10 men having used all four of their substitutions.

The final attempt came with a free kick 35 yards from Croatia’s goal, but Marcus Rashford’s chip did not go deep enough to draw Croatia keeper Danjiel Subasic off his line as Perisic was able to bundle it away from danger before referee Cuneyt Cakir blew his whistle.

The Vatreni will stay in Moscow to face Les Bleus, their first World Cup encounter since France eliminated them in the 1998 semifinals in Saint-Denis with a 2-1 victory. Croatia will be seeking its first victory over France as the countries are meeting for the sixth time.

Though denied their first World Cup final since winning it on home soil in 1966, the Three Lions will return to England with their heads held high after Saturday’s third-place match versus Belgium in St. Petersburg.

Gareth Southgate’s team — the second-youngest behind Nigeria in Russia — came of age behind talisman Harry Kane, who is likely to bring home the Golden Boot as he leads with six goals, and keeper Jordan Pickford, who cemented himself as England’s No. 1 going forward with commanding performances between the sticks in the three knockout matches.

England has scored a record nine goals off set pieces at this World Cup, accounting for 75 percent of its goals. Trippier added to that ledger with his well-taken goal five minutes after the opening kickoff.

With only five players on the roster born before England’s previous semifinal appearance in 1990, Southgate’s young players continued to prefer writing their own narrative as opposed to looking back to the half-century of almosts and never-weres. The Three Lions got off to a dream start in the fifth minute through Trippier.

Luka Modric chopped down Dele Alli just above the penalty area, 25 yards out and virtually straight down the middle. Trippier struck a quality curling effort with his right foot, over Dejan Lovren in Croatia’s wall and in the upper right corner as Subasic had no chance in stopping it.

The Spurs wide back became the third England player to score in a World Cup semifinal, joining Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker. The Three Lions continued on the front foot, with Raheem Sterling again causing an opposing backline issues with his pace while failing to create any scoring chances for himself.

England earned another pair of corner kicks inside the quarter-hour. Maguire was able to get his meaty forehead to both, but they failed to result in a goal as each went wide of the right post. His second effort was the better of the two, bouncing wide from 15 yards on a diagonal effort.

Croatia’s first shot came in the 19th minute when Perisic whistled a low effort wide of the left post from 20 yards. The Vatreni gifted Sterling the ball on the right side with a ghastly turnover, but he picked out Kane in an offsides position.

England should have doubled its lead on the half-hour through Kane. Jesse Lingard did well to control a pass and played Kane through on the left. The striker tried a shot from six yards that Subasic did well to get down quickly and stop, but the ball popped back to Kane near the left post.

He tried to slam the ball inside the post, but it thumped the woodwork and Subasic before spinning over the end line for a Croatia goal kick. The Vatreni finally tested Pickford in the 32nd minute as Modric picked out Ante Rebic on the right side after dribbling with the ball in and out of the penalty area, but Rebic’s shot arrowed right at the England No. 1.

Jesse Lingard became the second Three Lions player to spurn a chance to make it 2-0 in the 36th minute, snatching at his shot from 20 yards after a neat lateral pass from Alli after he drew three defenders to him.

Cakir was content to let the teams play, though the chippiness was steadily increasing throughout the first half. Rebic should have been booked for a cynical challenge from behind on Ashley Young, while Lovren had a pair of tactical midfield fouls that would have warranted a yellow card on most occasions.

Croatia had one last chance before halftime on a free kick and while there was a penalty shout for Maguire holding Lovren, VAR deemed it insufficient as the teams went to halftime.

After the restart, Rebic continued to try and influence the match but overcooked a cross for Perisic in the 53rd minute. England fashioned a corner three minutes later, but Lovren did well to get his foot to Trippier’s in-swinger before Kane could get his head to it.

On the hour, Croatia finally started switching gears as the triangle of Modric, Perisic and Ivan Rakitic grew in stature. Rakitic pounced on a poor clearance from Stones and had time to load up a right-footed shot from the top of the box in the 65th minute, but Walker threw himself in front of it and absorbed it in the midsection.

Three minutes later, though, the Vatreni would have their equalizer. Rakitic sent a reverse-pitch pass to Sime Vrsaljko to the right, and Croatia’s right back quickly fired in a cross while England’s back line was static. Perisic ghosted in front of Walker, getting his right foot to the ball with a high flick above Walker’s head and sending it past Pickford on 68 minutes.

Croatia had its tails up at this point and nearly grabbed the lead four minutes later when Perisic took advantage of another poor clearance by Stones and was able to do a stepover to create some space on the left side of the penalty area before ripping a shot across Pickford that dented the right post.

It came right to Rebic, who was unable to pick out a corner and hit the rebound almost directly at Pickford as England averted a crisis. Southgate made his first switch right before the final quarter-hour as Sterling made way for Rashford.

England finally looked threatening as Lingard fizzed a cross and Henderson went over the bar 12 minutes from time. But the nerves came back as Walker sent a slow back pass towards Pickford that Perisic nearly latched onto before Trippier touched it further back to his keeper as he belted it upfield.

Manduzkic had a shot stopped by Pickford, but then the England keeper had a weak punch that fell to Perisic in the penalty area, but his chip over Pickford also sailed over the bar. England was simply hanging on and looking to get to extra time as Croatia hemmed the Three Lions in their final third, but Lovren gave them a respite when he tried a heroic 30-yard shot that sailed into the crowd.

England had the last chance of regulation, with Kane nodding an unmarked header wide of the left post on a free kick from Trippier. Southgate burned his second sub before the start of the first extra period, introducing Danny Rose for Young.

Alli did himself a disservice in the 93rd minute by failing to shoot as opposed to his lay off that was cleared by Croatia’s defense. Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic was forced into his first change as Ivan Strinic came up hobbling, and Josep Pivaric entered at left back.

Unlike its match against Colombia, England was demonstrably better in the opening 15-minute extra period and came agonizingly close to grabbing the lead in the 98th minute.

Trippier sent a perfect corner from the right, and Stones got all of a header he angled for the left post. But Vrsaljko was perfectly stationed, unlike most teams who opted not to have players stationed at the posts, and he jumped to head a sure goal off the line.

Croatia made one last push in the waning moments of the first extra 15 minutes, with Dier making a vital block of a drive by Andrej Kramaric, and then Pickford came up with a magnificent reflex save on a shot by Mandzukic after Perisic whipped in a cross from the left.

The teams switched sides for the second extra period, and one could sense England’s fatigue was more mental than physical as Rakitic played a wily short corner on the left for Marcelo Brozovic, but he ripped his 10-yard shot into the side netting as opposed to going across his body.

After Mandzukic’s goal, Southgate’s final roll of the dice came with Jamie Vardy entering for Walker. Subasic comfortably claimed a cross from Rashford, and Croatia won a corner as it began its bid to see off the match.

Pivaric hit a 25-yard curler right at Pickford, but Trippier came up limping and hobbled over the end line, instantly knowing his match had been run and waited for help from England’s physio staff. Now down to 10 men, England continued to pour forward, and Alli won a free kick on the left.

What should have been a corner kick was ruled a goal kick after Rashford’s play into the area was nodded out by Lovren and not Maguire. The indefeatigable Modric was lifted in the 118th minute for Milan Baldelj as the Vatreni were set to bunker and chase.

Kramaric could have done more in the 120th minute, but he opted to shoot instead of send Perisic through and went into the side netting. Pivaric inexplicably gave England one last lifeline in stoppage time, hitting a cross right at Pickford rather than killing time in the corner.

Badelj was whistled for a handball 35 yards out, but Rashford’s chip went begging, and a weary yet unbroken Croatia side was through to its first World Cup final.

 

2018 World Cup Live Blog ! — Match 62 England vs. Croatia (July 11)

120+3 — Pivaric with a head scratcher

Rather than kill time in the left corner, Pivaric tries a cross Pickford catches easily. England push forward. Alli has one cross blocked by Badelj, but a second one is whistled for a hand ball. The ball is 35 yards out just to the left of the D. Rashford is over it as Croatia has all but one player in the penalty area.

His chip is successfully intercepted, Rakitic clears it out and Cakir blows his whistle! Croatia is through to its first final!

120+1 — Croatia burn some time and Rakitic and Alli get into it

Now it’s all out there. Rakitic fouls Alli and the two come nose-to-nose when England try a quick restart. A long belter of a forward pass is caught comfortably by Subasic. The ball gets pinged around and Vardy fells Rakitic as the pair go up on a 50/50 ball in midfield.

120+1 — Four minutes of injury time!

120 — Kramaric goes wide

Oh and there was a chance for Croatia as Kramaric had a chance, but he put it into the side netting on the irght. He also had Perisic all by his lonesome on the left.

118 — Croatia sub — Badelj for Modric

Dalic burns his last sub as he brings in Badelj to reinforce the midfield as the talisman Modric makes way. England is still with 10 men as Trippier is finally at the England bench.

117 — England free kick

England have a free kick from 30 yards on the left, and it looks like Rashford is going to take it as both Trippier and Young are unavailable. Everyone save Modric is in the penalty box, and as Maguire gets slightly undercut by Corluka, the ball goes out of bounds. Goal kick Croatia despite the protestations of the Three Lions.

116 — Trippier also hurt

With no substitutions, Trippier looks like he cannot go on due to a groin injury. England is down to 10 men. Pivaric curled a 25-yard shot right at Pickford, but it’s clear Trippier is done as England’s training staff are helping him to the bench.

114 — Croatia win a corner

Croatia is trying to kill off the match and Kramaric carries the ball forward. His shot is deflected and spins over the line for a corner, and Mandzukic drops to the pitch again. Dalic makes his third switch, pulling off the potential hero of a nation for defender Verdan Corluka as the Vatreni are now in bunker mode.

113 — England pour forward

Rashford had a cross from the left snuffed out by Lovren and cleared only as far as Kane at the top of the penalty area. Modric, though, appears to have found his second wind and spirited it away from Kane before clearing it down the field. Mandzukic went down and no one cared since it was not a head injury as England again tried to find something but to no avail.

112 — Vardy the last roll of the dice

It’s already squeaky bum time as Southgate’s final roll of the dice is Jamie Vardy for Kyle Walker. It’s all or nothing for England.

110 — What does England have left

It’s a huge gut punch for the young Three Lions, who have 10 minutes to find an equalizer. Stones had a brief lapse in letting Mandzukic get behind him, and it could prove fatal.

109 — MANDZUKIC SCORES FOR CROATIA!

It may have been coming, but Croatia is ahead through Mandzukic. A clearance by Walker gets popped into the air, and Perisic nods it forward on the left. Mandzukic flies in behind Stones and he rifles a left-footed shot from the six-yard box across Pickford and into the right side of the net. 2-1 Croatia!

106 — Pickford slices a clearance

It’s the little things sometimes. Croatia gets a throw-in when Pickford slices a back pass over the right sideline. The Vatreni have possession, calmly looking for a lane, and Perisic’s pass for Pivaric is deflected over for a corner.

Rakitic played it quick and rolled it for Brozovic, but he’s unable to get it across his body and goes wide of the left post from 10 yards. Cunning play with no result by Croatia.

106 — Fifteen minutes to settle it

Will it go to penalties (again)?

AET 2 — Croatia has two subs left, England has one

105+2 — What a save by Pickford!

Pickford has come up with a monstrous save at an absolute vital moment. Croatia again poured forward from the left with Perisic whipping in a dangerous cross. Mandzukic got his right foot onto it, but Pickford made enough contact with his right thigh to send it over the bar before flattening the Croatia striker.

Modric plays a short corner, but it fails to amount to anything as Cakir blows his whistle to end the first 15 minutes.

105+1 — Dier with a vital block

Croatia launches a counter that sees Perisic take off down the left flank. He carries into the penalty area and has the patience to wait for Kramaric, but his first-timed shot from the top of the box on the left is blocked by Dier.

105 — Kane gets too ambitious

Rose does well to clear the ball off the right sideline, and the ball gets to Kane. He has both Rashford and Alli going forward, but his attempt to pick out Alli is too ambitious and sails over his Spurs teammates head.

104 — England more calm

Compares to the last half-hour of regulation, England has been far more composed and has controlled the action in this first extra period. Rose has been a threat on the left side, but the Vatreni have been able to get their defense back in numbers to prevent anyone from England latching on to those crosses.

101 — Croatia wins a free kick

The far linesman misses a second ball that should have gone England’s way as Vida was adjudged to have kept it from going out. The Vatreni play it forward, and a reverse-pitch pass goes to Vrsajlko, who has space to pour forward. He’s cut down by Rashford, leading to a free kick. Modric tries a short pass to Rakitic, whose cross is blocked by Rose, who drops from the impact. Modric, though, ends the movement when he’s caught in two minds and accidentally touches it to England’s defense.

98 — England win corner, Vrsajlko saves the day for Croatia!

Alli does well to maintain possession at midfield and plays it left to Rose. The ball works its way back into the midfield, where a shot is deflected over the bar for a corner on the right. Trippier sends it in, and Stones has a beautiful 10-yard header cleared away in equally excellent fashion by Vrsajlko, who denied a sure go-ahead goal for the Three Lions.

96 — Rebic gets a yellow, Dier enters for Henderson

Rebic goes into the book with a tacitcal foul on Rose as a poor giveaway in midfield nearly sent England tearing into the Croatia half. England’s free kick is almost exactly in the middle between the midfield line and goal. Trippier tried to pick out Maguire, who was well-covered as he sent his header over the bar.

Dier is now England’s third sub, replenishing the central midfield as Henderson makes way. The Three Lions have one sub left. Croatia has yet to have any substantial possession in the first extra period.

93 — Alli with a half-chance, Croatia sub — Pivaric in, Strinic out

Alli may have done himself a disservice trying to pick out Lingard with a lateral pass rather than have a go from 20 yards as it’s cleared away by Croatia. The Vatreni are going to make their first switch as left back Strinic appears to have strained a groin muscle and will be replaced by Pivaric.

Pivaric, as you may recall, committed the handball infraction that led to Russia’s equalizer in the 115th minute in the quarterfinals.

AET1 — England sub 1 (Rose in, Young out)

Southgate burns his first sub right before the restart as Danny Rose enters for Ashley Young. Cakir has blown his whistle to start the first 15-minute period. The linesman missed a corner for England, giving the Three Lions a throw-in. They had possession for the first 60 seconds before losing the ball. Croatia looks like it’s trying to recoup some energy at the moment and is ceding possession to England in non-threatening areas.

AET1

How does England cope? Croatia bossed most of the match over the final half-hour but has been susceptible on the counter through the middle. Much to ponder in the break before the restart.

AET1

So for the third straight match, the Vatreni are playing extra time, while England is doing so for the second time in three matches. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic did not use any substitutes in the first 90 minutes, so he has four at his disposal, while England counterpart Gareth Southgate has three after bringing on Rashford for Sterling.

90+3 — Only three minutes of stoppage time

It may go to a fourth after that free kick. Croatia kicks it about, and Perisic has it on the left, but Walker does well to shut it down with a clearance, Cakir blows his whistle, and it’s another half-hour of football!

90+1 — England wins a free kick!

Oh now we have drama! Rakitic fouls Rashford in a dangerous spot, about 30 yards from goal in the right channel. Trippier the goal-scorer bends it in, and Kane gets to it, but his downward header is more down than forward and it goes wide of the left post.

90 — Why Lovren why?

Croatia had England hemmed in its own third, working the ball patiently, and Lovren ruined it by needlessly firing over the bar from 30 yards. Hero football at its finest.

88 — Croatia sloppy in possession

Rebic should have done better after being played forward on a nice backheel by Perisic on the left, but his cross is severely overcooked and goes out for an England throw-in.

87 — Kane the playmaker

England are creating nervous moments with its passing, but no one is getting in position to shoot. Kane was the most recent one as he sent in a cross that Lingard pulled up on before Vida let it roll over for a Croatia goal kick.

86 — Perisic is everywhere

The Croatian midfielder is bustling all over the pitch, carrying the ball, breaking up passes. He’s unable to get to a reverse-pitch pass from Strinic, however, as the ball goes out for an England throw-in.

82 — Croatia coming in waves

Croatia is showing its tacitcal nous now as Rakitic, Perisic and Modric are influencing this match. Mandzukic was able to get a shot on target Pickford parried. The ball quickly was recycled back into England’s end, and now it’s Pickford with a nervy moment as his punch only goes as far as Perisic, whose chip had too much pace and sailed over the bar from the left.

81 — Walker again creates anxiety

Walker makes a second nervy backpass as Perisic bears down on Pickford before he belts it upfield. The first bad pass was by Tripper, and Perisic was thisclose to getting a touch to it.

80 — Rashford has a moment of naivete

Rashford should have done better latching onto a through ball by Alli on the right side of the penalty area, but his half-second pause was enough to let it skid over the end line for a Croatia kick. England is trying to wrest control back, but Croatia is still showing plenry of fight, but more importantly, getting wide to create chaos.

78 — England cross goes begging

The Three Lions nearly create something from thin air as Lingard carries into the penalty area but fizzes a cross unanswered. England regain possession and cycle the ball to Henderson. His initial pass is headed right back at him and the Liverpool man fires over the bar. Crackling stuff.

77 — Croatia’s comeback kids

It’s the third straight match Croatia has rallied to pull even, though this time the Vatreni took a little longer in finding it. They needed three minutes versus Denmark, eight minutes versus Russia and 63 versus England.

75 — England trying to regroup

After about three minutes of hyperventilating, England is kicking it about right now trying to get some composure, but the ball goes out for a Croatia throw-in. The Vatreni cycle possession and work it wide to Vrsajlko, who sends it into Rebic in the penalty area. His cross for Rakitic gets snuffed out. Croatia is in the ascendancy right now.

74 — ENGLAND SUB 1 — Rashford in, Sterling out

Southgate makes his a like-for-like switch as Rashford enters for Sterling, who did yeoman’s work stretching Croatia’s defense.

72 — CROATIA NEARLY TAKE THE LEAD

England is discombobulated at the moment as Croatia nearly take the lead through Perisic. Rebic’s hustle created a moment of confusion as a deflected ball found its way to Perisic. He carried into the penalty area and fired a left-footed shot across goal that rings the far post. The rebound comes to Rebic, who can only hit a soft 12-yard shot right at Pickford.

71 — GAME ON

England is trying to re-accelerate through its gears, and Kane’s forward cross trying to pick out Trippier at the right post is a bit too ambitious as Croatia gets a goal kick.

68 — CROATIA LEVEL THROUGH PERISIC!!

And there is the Vatreni equalizer! Rakitic sends a reverse-field pass to Vrsajlko, who curls a cross in from the right side. Perisic ghosted in behind Walker and got his right foot to it above Walker, who stooped for a header but went too low. Pickford didn’t have a chance, and it’s game on at 1-1!

67 — Kane has a tough angle

Kane has a go from a near-impossible angle as he touches it from his chest on the right side. He lets fly with a right-footed effort that rouses the side netting.

65 — Croatia has its best chance!

Croatia has its best chance to draw level in the match!! Modric sends a cross in from the right that Stones clears, but only as far as Rakitic at the top of the penalty area. Rakitic loads up a fierce right-footed blast that Walker sacrifices his body for and takes it right in the stomach. The Vatreni have their tails up.

63 — England trying to get forward

Sterling has backtracked into his own half on a few occasions to help the cause as England win a throw-in on the right. After a failed clearance, Henderson wins the ball on the sideline and sends Sterling through on the right. The Man City speedster gets around Vida, who recovers to make a timely challenge to help Subasic clear the ball away.

61 — Rakitic gets ambitious

Rakitic tries a speculative volley on Walker’s attempted clearance, but his left-footed effort is nowhere near target as England gets a goal kick.

59 — Croatia turing the screws

Croatia gets another corner as Walker miscues his clearance and sends it backward. Modric sends a dangerous ball into the mixer, but Pickford emphatically punches it clear. You also get the point Lovren is going to be given a yellow card because he’s riding a fine line between physical and thug-like with his shoves and fouls.

58 — Might be time for Dalic to ponder a switch

Mandzukic has been largely anonymous through the first hour of the match, and after a chipped pass leads to a Croatia turnover, it may be time for a switch.

56 — Lingard wins corner

Some quick Route One work wins England a corner as Kane plays it off to Sterling, who plays it off to Lingard. His 20-yard shot is deflected by Lovren over the bar for a corner. Trippier’s in-swinger from the right is cleared but not far enough as it gets cycled in for another cross by Trippier that is again cleared by Lovren as he gets a boot to it before Kane gets his head on it.

54 — Walker into the book

Now it’s time for Cakir to assert himself. Walker gets a yellow card for time-wasting, holding onto the ball after another slide tackle as Croatia tries for a quick restart. The Vatreni win a corner on the left, but Lovren is called for a foul in the penalty area. Goal kick England.

53 — Rebic overcooks cross for Perisic

Croatia has a good build-up that earns a throw-in from the left sideline after a good tackle by Walker. The ball finds its way to Rebic, but his cross for the far post trying to pick out Perisic goes well over the end line. Perisic, though, appreciates the gesture.

51 — Walker does well to wall off Rebic

England get a goal kick after Walker does well to shield Rebic from the ball as he tried chasing down a long pass from Croatia’s back line.

49 — Rebic is getting agitated

Rebic is desperate to make an impact on this match as he’s been Croatia’s best player so far. But after a pass from Strinic goes out on the left sideline, the frustration is palpable from the attacking winger.

48 — Mandzukic gets a yellow card

Cakir fishes into his pocket to finally brandish a yellow card, but it’s to Mandzukic for his dissent of a foul called on Rebic as he went up with Walker on a 50/50 ball. Little bit of ref show there.

46 — No subs

The same 11 are out for both sides. Of course, since Croatia has played 120 minutes in both its knockout victories, will fatigue be a factor for the Vatreni?

46 — Back to action

Cakir blows his whistle and we’re back to action in Moscow? Does Croatia has an equalizer? Does England find a second? Let’s find out!

HT — Croatia 0, England 1

Trippier’s moment of magic is the difference thus far, but England has definitely been the better team thus far. Sterling has been a pest to Vida with his pace, and the Three Lions were close on a pair of occasions to doubling their lead. Croatia has not found much success through its build-up as England has done well to keep the Vatreni narrow in attack.

Rebic has been Croatia’s best player thus far offensively, and that needs to change if Croatia is to find a way back into this contest.

45 — Walker nearly creates a disaster

Walker had a moment of indecision and it nearly cost England dearly as he played it back to Pickford under pressure. While Pickford cleared it, it went right to a Croatian player who got it ahead to Rakitic, who did a superb chest trap and tried to get into a better position to shoot, but Walker was able to snuff it out.

Croatia earned a free kick on the left, and while the danger was cleared, a late VAR consultation for a potential penalty on Maguire for holding Lovren does not warrant a chance from the spot. Cakir blows his whistle and it’s 1-0 England after 45 minutes.

43 — Vrsaljko goes into Row Z

Croatia is getting frustrated and starting to realize it must pour down the sides since crosses for Mandzukic from the middle are being cleared out with ease by Stones and Maguire. Vrasaljko tried a speculative effort from 30 yards that turned into a souvenire for someone at Luzhniki Stadium.

41 — Rebic cuts down Young

At some point, Cakir has to show a yellow card to prevent this match from getting really chippy. Rebic should have gone into the book for a cynical challenge from behind on Young as he carried up the left sideline. It was a senseless foul, and hopefully, it will be the last such foul Cakir lets go unpunished.

39 — Croatia being forced narrow

England is doing very well limiting both Strinic and Vrsajlko from getting into threatening positions out wide. While Rebic has shown the industry to create some opportunities on the right, the axis of Perisic, Rakitic and Modric really have not put their stamp on this match yet.

37 — Spurned chances

You get the sense England is more likely to add a second before Croatia can equalize, but as the spurned chances mount, you also get a sense the Vatreni could swing this match if they find a breakthrough.

36 — Ooohhh Lingard

Lingard is going to want that attempt back after Alli did well to find him wide open just above the penalty area. Sterling did well to go forward to keep that space open as Croatia’s defenders tried to shut down Alli, but Lingard snated at his shot, and his right-footed effort went wide of the right post.

34 — Croatia earns corner

The Vatreni are playing more direct, and this may be the way they get back into the match. A long ball that seemed too far was just far enough for Rebic, but Young tipped it away before the Croatia winger could tee up a shot from six yards on the right. Croatia played a short corner that failed to threaten.

32 — Rebic gets stoned

Modric has a spell on the ball, dancing into the penalty area and spinning out on the right. Rebic instinctively cuts towards goal and Modric finds him. A cross is blocked, but Rebic is able to get to the rebound and rip a left-footed shot Pickford stopped comfortably.

30 — Croatia 0, England 1, but Kane foiled on bid to add to the lead

It has been a better second 15 minutes for Croatia, but as soon as those words are typed, Kane has two glorious chances to double England’s lead. Lingard did well to control a pass and play Kane in one-on-one on the left, but Subasic got down quickly on the six-yard attempt. The Spurs forward got to the rebound, but banged it off both Subasic and the post as it then spun out over the end line.

28 — Pickford feeling it

England’s keeper has yet to be severely tested, but Pickford has continued his stellar distribution. After a back pass, he shows some footwork skills as Mandzukic draws near before belting it upfield.

27 — Sterling draws a foul

Sterling’s speed continues to cause problems, this time drawing a foul on Lovren as he chased a lost cause on the left sideline. Young’s free kick is from about 35 yards out. He curls it to the back post, but Subasic calmly gets a fist to it and sends it out for an England throw-in.

24 — Sterling continues to showcase speed

Sterling continues to make life miserable for Vida, twisting and turning the Croatia central defender as he tries to find that half-space with the ball to get around him. Nothing materializes as Subasic collects the ball, but still, Sterling is working hard enough you expect him to be rewarded at some point.

21 — Lovren flattens Kane

Croatia is starting to become more ambitious going forward, but England has had the answers so far as Stones blocks a shot and a low cross goes begging. Lovren should have been booked for a tactical foul on Kane, flattening him with both hands on his chest, but Cakir simply calls a foul. The Vatreni then had a ghastly giveaway, gifting Sterling the ball, but he played it ahead to Kane, who was clearly offsides.

20 — Trippier tries to shake off knock

Trippier was a little slow to get up from a challenge as he lost the ball on the right sideline. He’s up and back, but you can see the accumulation of nips and challenges take their toll here in match six.

18 — Croatia looking for answers

The Vatreni have yet to find space in the channels as both Young and Walker have done well to close off those routes. Croatia tried a reverse-pitch pass but Rakitic’s effort had too much pace for Vrsaljko. Modric was able to find Perisic, who was able to shuffle into a dangerous area and try a 20-yard shot on the left that skids wide of the near post.

16 — First quarter-hour, advantage England (1-0)

The first quarter-hour is in the book, and England has clearly been the better side. The Three Lions have been lively and also controlled possession with smart passes and attacking play. Full marks thus far.

14 — Another England corner

England performa a swift movement that starts with Young on the  left. Alli carries it to the right and sends ahead to Trippier, whose cross is deflected by Perisic for another Three Lions corner. Trippier’s outswinger finds Maguire deep in the penalty area, but his diagonal header from 15 yards bounces wide of the right post.

12 — England corner

Another set piece for England, this time a corner on the left conceded by Brozovic. Young hits it well, but it’s rising when Maguire meets it at the far post, but old “Slab-head” sends it well over the bar.

11– Sterling continues to aggravate

While that statement can be taken for both teams, England is doing a good job letting Sterling unnerve Croatia’s back line with his pace, sending him through at every opportunity to try and stretch the Vatreni back line and then hoping to pounce on a poor pass or clearance.

8 – England concedes corner

Rakitic puts in a dangerous ball into the England mixer, and Young, covering the far post, traps it and lets it go over the end line for a corner that fails to threaten.

7 — England’s set piece magic continues

It’s the ninth goal England has scored off a set piece in Russia, accounting for 75 percent of its 12 goals. A truly wonderful strike by Trippier. Croatia tried to attack straightaway, but Pickford came out to corral a looping cross and fired a sidewinder to a streaking Sterling on the right. Vida hooked it to safety, but the throw-in gave Sterling another chance to hare in from the right, but Subasic came out to smother it.

4 – England with a free kick! AND A GOAL!

The first scoring chance of the match belongs to England after a foul by Modric on Alli gives a free kick just above the D staight on from 25 yards. Young, Maguire and Trippier are all line up, and now Maguire goes into the wall.

And it’s a dream start as Trippier hammers it into the upper right corner as Subasic has no clue about it until it’s way too late. Trippier put it right over Lovren’s head, curling it inside the right post. 1-0 ENGLAND!

3 – WORKING THE NERVES OUT

Both teams are getting the adrenaline rush out, kicking the ball about. Cakir has called a pair of fouls, one in each direction, though he did have a word with Lingard over a robust challenge.

UNDERWAY

1 — Cuneyt Cakir blows his whistle and we are underway in Moscow? Croatia, wearing black, is going from left to right on your TV screen while England, in its traditional all-whites, going from right to left.

WILL FATIGUE MATTER?

Much has been made of Croatia winning back-to-back shootouts, becoming the first team to accomplish the feat since Argentina in 1990, and the fatigue of playing consecutive 120-minute matches. It makes the first half-hour of the match important since England should have the legs to unleash a high press.

That said, I’ve always felt Croatia is like playing that annoying team on your lunch hour at the Y since it’s fundamentally sound and quick passing.

LINEUP OBSERVATIONS

With England not changing anything (Ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?), Dalic bringing back Brozovic means he expects Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to push forward and stretch the midfield. While England rightfully believes it can strike on the counter, Modric is not prone to sloppy passes that create such opportunities. But Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli will be influential players for England since they must help Jordan Henderson shut down those passing lanes.

I’m still amazed Croatia turned professional fouling into an art form after 12 different players picked up the team’s 12 yellow cards. That is some hard damn work right there.

ODDS AND ENDS

Something I learned over various pre-match reading was that Slaven Bilic, a member of that 1998 Croatia squad that finished third in France, played through a stress fracture in his hip. That is ridiculous. As someone who writes Premier League previews, I’ve appreciated the fact Bilic never ducked a question in his news conferences before failing to get West Ham United out of the spiral that led to his sacking.

I’ve also always felt he would be a better coach of a national team than a club team, and selfishly, I’d love to see USMNT at least place a feeler out to him.

It’s that time again! I’m going to crank up the blog as England plays Croatia for the right to play France in the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday. So grab yourself a drink of choice, some munchies and read along while I have some fun with wry observations and witty repartee.

So without further ado, here are the lineups to mull over:

England 

Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Lingard, Henderson, Alli, Young, Trippier; Kane and Sterling.

Croatia

Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic; Brozovic; Perisic, Modric, Rakitic, Rebic; Mandzukic.

England has retained its starting XI from its quarterfinal win over Sweden, while Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has made one change with Brozovic replacing Kramaric.