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 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 Semifinal Preview — Croatia vs. England (Match 62)

Freed from the chains of their past — some distant and others more recent — Croatia and England vie in Moscow on Wednesday to claim a spot in the World Cup final.

For the Vatreni, the tall order of living up to the 1998 squad led by Davor Suker who reached the semifinals in the country’s first World Cup appearance has finally been achieved. It took becoming the first team to win consecutive shootouts since the 1990 Argentina side to get there, but Croatia booked its spot in the final four with a dramatic victory over Russia on penalties after playing to a 2-2 draw.

Andrej Kramaric scored a first-half goal to level the match and Domagoj Vida’s header off Luka Modric’s corner in the 101st minute gave Croatia a 2-1 lead it relinquished with five minutes left in the second 15-minute extra period.

It would be penalties once more, and after tying a World Cup record with three saves in the victory over Denmark, Vatreni keeper Danijel Subasic made a fourth versus the Sbornaya. Mario Fernandes would add a second miss for Russia, and for the second straight match, Ivan Rakitic would convert the decisive kick into the lower left corner in the fifth round.

The Barcelona midfielder became the first person to take two winning spot kicks in World Cup history.

“I am proud to be part of this team that will remain enrolled as one of the biggest in Croatian sports,” Kramaric told FIFA’s official website. “But we do not want to stop now, we have to make it a step further.

“The match against Russia is yet another victory of our character. We have nerves of steel. We showed how calm and self-confident we are. Perhaps the match was not the most beautiful, but it will be remembered.”

It was an uneven match for Croatia, which at times bossed Russia around the pitch through Modric’s string-pulling while paying heavy prices for mistakes on both goals. Defender Josep Pivaric conceded a free kick just outside the penalty area with a deliberate hand ball that led to Russia’s late equalizer.

Despite taking 18 shots, the Vatreni put only three on target, though a fourth by Ivan Perisic hit the inside of the left post and spun away in the second half. Croatia, though, has made the most of its chances when it gets good looks — its 10 goals have come from 19 shots on target.

England left behind its tortured past in penalties by becoming just the third team in 30 World Cup shootouts to overturn a deficit when it beat Colombia in spot kicks in the round of 16. The Three Lions had a more straightforward victory in reaching the semifinals for the first time since 1990, defeating Sweden 2-0.

Harry Maguire extended England’s dominance in set pieces in Russia with a well-taken header off a corner in the first half, and Dele Alli’s second-half header from close range accounted for the offense. Keeper Jordan Pickford picked an opportune time for his first clean sheet at this World Cup, making two timely saves in the second half and a third top-notch block to continue the surprise run of this young England side.

“The adrenaline was really, really high,” Maguire said. “It was an unbelievable moment, a really proud moment for myself. My first England goal – and it couldn’t have come at a better time. We’d had a nervy start maybe, early in the game, and the goal really settled us down and then we deserved the win.”

It was also England’s eighth goal off set pieces at this tournament, easily the most of any team and the most in World Cup history since Portugal bagged that many in 1966. Three Lions supporters may consider that a good omen, along with the 11 goals they have scored overall since that is how many goals they scored en route to their only World Cup title as hosts 52 years prior.

Striker Harry Kane still comfortably leads the Golden Boot race with six goals, two clear of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, Russia’s Denis Cheryshev and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, though only Lukaku can catch him of the three.

While chasing away the demons of past World Cups has been achieved, there is still one dubious moment in England’s storied history it would like to avenge against Croatia.

The Vatreni famously dumped the Three Lions out of qualifying for the 2008 European Championships with a 3-2 victory at Wembley Stadium in November 2007. Modric was part of a Croatia side that raced to a 2-0 lead, only to be pegged back in the second half as substitute David Beckham led the fightback.

Mladen Petric, though, bagged the match-winner 13 minutes from time for Croatia. In England, however, the lasting image of the match was then-manager Steve McClaren shouting instructions to his players on the pitch from under an umbrella, giving rise to the infamous nickname of “The Wally with the Brolly” that has followed him throughout his career.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

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)

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′)

FORMATIONS

While left back Ivan Strinic’s status has yet to be confirmed after he had to leave before the final quarter-hour of regulation versus Russia due to a knock, the hedge is he claims his spot back while knocking Pivaric back to the bench. Coach Zlatko Dalic has gone back and forth between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, with Modric lurking deeper in the latter formation and teaming with Rakitic in the former.

One other thing to look for from the Vatreni is how Marcelo Brozovic changes their shape. When he entered for Perisic on the hour, Croatia went to more of a 4-3-3 look with Kramaric pushing forward.

England will remain in its 3-3-2-2 set-up, though there will undoubtedly be speculation manager Gareth Southgate will drop Raheem Sterling from his starting XI as the Man City speedster has now gone more than 1,000 days without a goal for the Three Lions. The only player who comes closest to a like-for-like switch in such an instance would be Marcus Rashford, who entered as a stoppage-time sub for Sterling versus Sweden.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Croatia has been playing with 22 men since after its win over Nigeria to open the World Cup, sending home disgruntled striker Nikola Kalinic. Strinic is an injury concern, and the fatigue of playing 120 minutes in back-to-back matches means Dalic could juggle some players in this match.

Right back Sime Vrsaljko is also a worry to be match-fit, with Dalic having the option of inserting Tin Jedvaj there or moving Vida wide while pairing Lovren with Vedran Corluka in central defense.

The Vatreni, though, did pull off a remarkable feat in that while they accrued a tournament-high 12 yellow cards, everyone is eligible to play since no one picked up a second booking before they were wiped away by getting to the semifinals.

England’s lone injury worry is reserve striker Jamie Vardy, who picked up a groin injury versus Colombia and did not appear last match. There are reports the training staff are closely monitoring central midfielder Jordan Henderson, who covered two kilometers more ground than any of his teammates in the win versus Sweden.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Croatia — Luka Modric (MF)

Modric is no stranger to English football, having played for Tottenham Hotspur before moving on to Real Madrid and winning four Champions League titles in the last five years. The 32-year-old has looked more 22 in pulling the strings in the Vatreni midfield and was doggedly pursuing the ball and attacking defenders on lung-busting runs deep into extra time versus Russia.

He has been the best midfielder at this World Cup, and the young Three Lions must be wary of his nous and quality as Croatia’s offense revolves around his movements.

England — Kieran Trippier (MF)

Trippier has played very well in this World Cup, pumping in a team-high 37 crosses and 16 corner kicks. He has contributed an assist in the latter method, and while he will get his chances to do so in this match, Trippier is going to have to give serious minutes in defense for the first time in this tournament given Croatia’s depth in attack.

It will start with Perisic, though Modric and Rakitic will invariably work their way down their left side. Trippier cannot afford to be caught too far upfield and too wide given how Croatia can string passes together in lightning-like fashion, evidenced by their first goal against Russia which took all of 12 seconds.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

This will be the first World Cup clash between the teams, and England won the only tournament meeting between the sides, a 4-2 victory in the group stage of the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. Niko Kovac staked Croatia to an early lead before England scored the next three through Paul Scholes and a brace by Wayne Rooney. Igor Tudor pulled one back for the Vatreni on 73 minutes, but Frank Lampard put the game out of reach six minutes later.

England did sweep two qualifying matches from Croatia for the 2010 World Cup by a combined 9-2 scoreline, clinching a spot in South Africa with a 5-1 thrashing in September 2009 as both Lampard and Steven Gerrard had braces before Rooney added gloss to the scoreline. Mandzukic scored the Vatreni’s lone goal in the 4-1 defeat in Croatia.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, England is listed as a favorite with 13/10 odds, while Croatia is a 12/5 underdog. The odds of the match going to a draw are 2/1. The oddsmakers also think there will be two goals scored in the 90 minutes as that returns 23/10 odds, slightly better than one goal (27/10) and three (7/2). A 0-0 draw would return 6/1 odds.

Kane is the odds-on favorite as an any-time goal-scorer at 13/10, with Rakitic a distant second at 9/2. Kane is also leading the line for first goal-scorer at 16/5, with Vardy a surprising second at 5/1. Mandzukic is Croatia’s top option at 6/1, and Sterling is the fifth option for the Three Lions at 7/1, behind both Rashford and Danny Welbeck at 13/2.

PREDICTION

Too young, they said. Too inexperienced, they said. It’s OK, we’re in a rebuilding phase, they said. We’ll be happy to get out of the group stage, they said. Nearly a month later, non-stop scenes of goal celebrations complete with the re-emergence of 1996 Euro anthem “It’s Coming Home,” England find itself two wins away from an unthinkable World Cup title.

The Three Lions have looked good in dispatching each opponent they have faced save the 25 minutes against Colombia in which they wobbled, giving up a late equalizer in regulation and suffering in the first extra period. Yet they are deserved semifinalists, and as the old adage goes, you can only play the teams in front of you.

Yet if there is a last gear this team has left to reach, it must find it quickly against a veteran-edged Croatia side that has more talent and nous than any opponent England has previously faced during its extended stay in Russia. Consider the Three Lions opponents: an unfancied Tunisia, an inferior Panama, a second-string Belgium, a Colombia missing its best player through injury and a Sweden squad that while game may also have been the perfect opponent coming off a 120-minute contest.

Now consider Croatia’s foes: A naive yet talented Nigeria, a top-heavy Argentina, a desperate but outclassed Iceland, an average Denmark side with a world-class shot-stopper and overachieving host Russia. The Vatreni have played an extra 30 minutes compared to England to get to the last four, and their road has been more arduous.

Yet there are plenty of places where England can take solace. Kane got so into Lovren’s head in a Premier League match last season when Tottenham Hotspur played Liverpool that the Croatia defender was subbed out a half-hour into the match. The spine of Maguire and John Stones in central defense have been nothing short of phenomenal doing their primary job while carrying forward with the ball and contributing goals off set pieces.

Pickford is coming off the best match of his England career and riding a wave of confidence. That will come in handy because at some point Modric will be able to recycle Croatia’s offense in England’s final third and put the Three Lions under sustained pressure.

It’s fair to wonder how much Croatia has left in the tank coming off back-to-back shootouts, but being able to rest most of its regulars versus Iceland helped mitigate some of that fatigue. Dalic has also shown a willingness to rotate his attacking players, complete with the surprising lifting of Perisic on the hour versus Russia.

This game has the feel of a rope-a-dope by Croatia unless England harries Modric and Rakitic all over the midfield and prevents them from passing forward in rapid fashion. Modric is the more dangerous passer of the two, the one who causes moments of disruption as opposed to the more fluid Rakitic, but the X-factor for the Vatreni could be Ante Rebic.

Rebic has stretches of play when he is borderline unstoppable, but he has yet to sustain it over a full 90 minutes. If he can hook up with Mandzukic, also owning the potential to be a handful, Croatia has a good chance to go forward to its first World Cup final and deny England its long-awaited return and extend 52 years of hurt.

PREDICTION: Croatia 2, England 1

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will face the winner of the France-Belgium match in the World Cup final on Sunday in Moscow. The semifinal losers will play each other for third place Saturday in St. Petersburg.

 

2018 World Cup Recap Match 59 — Russia 2, Croatia 2 a.e.t. (Croatia wins 4-3 on penalties) (July 7)

Ivan Rakitic crushed the hopes and dreams of the host nation, burying the winning spot kick for the second straight match as Croatia advanced to its first World Cup semifinal in 20 years with a nerve-jangling and exhausting 4-3 victory on penalties over Russia on Saturday in Sochi.

Danjiel Subasic, Croatia’s hero of the round of 16 by becoming just the second keeper in World Cup history to stop three penalties in the win over Denmark, added a fourth save when he denied Fedor Smolov to open the shootout. He was also helped when Mario Fernandes — who leveled the match in the 115th minute — dragged his attempt wide of the left post in the third round.

Luka Modric — the tireless Croatia workhorse and talisman — further piled on the pressure by converting his attempt along with Domagoj Vida around successful takes by 38-year-old Sergey Ignashevich and Daler Kuziev for Russia.

With the prayers of a nation hoping Sbornaya keeper Igor Akinfeev could provide one more save after denying Mateo Kovacic in the second round, Rakitic calmly stroked his attempt into the same lower left corner that dispatched the Danes and lifted the Vatreni into their second semifinal in the team’s history.

The other came in their maiden appearance in 1998 led by Davor Suker, and this current golden generation led by Modric no longer have to worry about the comparisons of falling short in matching the squad that put Croatia on the international football map following the dissolving of Yugoslavia into nine different republics.

Croatia, which became the first team to win back-to-back penalty shootouts since Argentina beat Yugsolavia and host Italy to reach the 1990 final, will now try to recover from two draining matches ahead of a semifinal clash with England. The Three Lions advanced earlier Saturday with a straightforward 2-0 victory over Sweden.

Russia more than did its part as the host country but was denied its first World Cup semifinal appearance since 1966. The Sbornaya entered the tournament as the lowest-ranked team in the FIFA standings among the 32 countries in Russia at No. 70, but they showed they belonged on the world stage by advancing out of their group and stunning 2010 champion Spain in penalties in the previous round.

Though neither team wanted to play the extra 30 minutes and penalties after doing so while advancing from the round of 16, it seemed only fitting this contest would go there, especially after the teams traded goals eight minutes apart in the first half and again in the two 15-minute periods after ending the first 90 minutes deadlocked.

Vida put Croatia ahead 2-1 in the 101st minute with a perfectly placed header from 15 yards off a corner from Modric, hitting it downwards and getting it lost in a maze of players as it bounced inside the right post while Akinfeev did not see it until it was far too late. The Russia No. 1 and defender Ilya Kupetov had a miscommunication on a cross that led to the Vatreni corner, with Kupetov not hearing Akinfeev calling for the ball as he cleared it over the end line.

The Sbornaya, however, had one last act of magic for their home fans as Fernandes equalized on 115 minutes. Croatia left back Josip Pivaric was booked for a deliberate hand ball just above the right elbow of the penalty area, and the Brazilian-born right back made him pay dearly as he rose unmarked to meet Alan Dzagoev’s curling free kick and planted his header from eight yards inside the left corner.

That led to Russia’s supporters turning Fisht Stadium into a wall of noise the final five minutes in hopes of a late winner from the Sbornaya, but if the mind was willing, the legs were weak as both players had so little left after each chase of the ball that ended without reward sapped energy further. It may have been a relief to a few players when Sandro Ricci blew his whistle to signify penalties would be the final arbiter of this match.

The teams traded goals late in the first half, with both materializing out of nothing. Denis Cheryshev sent the home crowd into delirium just after the half-hour with his fourth goal of the World Cup.

Cheryshev, the lone player on Russia’s team not toiling in its domestic league, played a 1-2 with Artem Dzyuba laterally through the midfield. He raced onto the return pass and touched it left away from Modric’s slide-tackle before uncorking a curling left-footed drive from 20 yards that whistled into the upper left corner as Subasic stood watching flat-footed from the six-yard box.

Croatia, though, would equalize on 39 minutes through Andrej Kramaric. Ivan Perisic saved Subasic’s goal kick from going out on the left sideline as his flick forward to Mario Mandzukic caught Fernandes upfield.

Mandzukic stormed into the penalty area from the left and he had time to send a cross to Kramaric — despite being surrounded by five Russian players at the top of the six-yard box — who hit a low header inside the right post.

Perisic should have given the Vatreni the lead on the hour, but he hit the left post with the goal at his mercy. Akinfeev got lost in no man’s land tracking a cross to his left post and then he flapped at a second that went back across goal while colliding with two defenders.

The ball fell to Rakitic, who wisely pushed the ball to his right to get space to shoot from eight yards, but he dragged his right-footed shot as it caromed off the woodwork and across the face of goal before spinning over the end line for a Russia goal kick.

Croatia dominated possession for the next stretch of play, with Russia interrupting with a half-chance in the 72nd minute when Alexander Erokhin skied a 10-yard header off a cross by Fernandes on the right.

Subasic tweaked his right hamstring in the final minutes of regulation scrambling to avoid a goal kick, extending the five minutes of  second-half stoppage time to seven. The Monaco keeper was tested early in the first extra period, parrying a sharp-angled shot by Fedor Smolov.

The extra half-hour of play, though, may have done Subasic some favors to stay loose ahead of the shootout, though he did crumple to the pitch at the end of the first extra period after catching a deep free kick.

Croatia withstood an early spell of pressure from the host at the start of the match but quickly signaled its willingness to engage. Ante Rebic did well to spin off Fedor Kudriashov near the end line and forced Akinfeev to drop and knock his cross over the end line, and Rebic put the ensuing corner over the bar after it was headed in his direction by Dejan Lovren.

Mandzukic should have done better in the 11th minute when he miscued a right-footed attempt from 12 yards after a smart cross from Sime Vrsajlko on the right. Rebic accelerated through a pack of Sbornaya to draw a free kick 20 yards from goal on the left in the 16th minute, but Rakitic blazed over with a curling right-footed attempt.

Much like its win over Spain, Russia was showing two disciplined banks of defenders as Croatia could not unlock the defense on the flanks as it mainly played narrow and let Modric try to find the killer pass. Ivan Perisic created a nervous moment in the 28th minute when his stooping header from a cross by Vrsajlko skipped wide of the left post.

Both managers made one change to their respective lineups from their round-of-16 victories, with both new players — Cheryshev and Kramaric — scoring the goals.

In what may be one of the more amazing statistics of this World Cup, the Vatreni accrued 12 yellow cards over their five matches, but no player picked up a second booking that would have resulted in missing the England match as all those cautions will be chalked off.

2018 World Cup Quarterfinal Preview — Russia vs. Croatia (Match 59)

After pulling off the biggest upset in World Cup history in terms of FIFA rankings, host Russia looks to continue an incredible and unlikely journey by making its first semifinal appearance in 52 years as it takes on the underdog role again in the round of eight Saturday versus Croatia in Sochi.

The Sbornaya appeared as though they had done their job as hosts in reaching the knockout round, where they were expected to be little more than fodder opposite 2010 champion Spain. Separated by 60 spots in the FIFA rankings and with the dubious distinction of being the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup at No. 70, Russia opted to defend at all costs and try its luck on the counter against a La Roja team that would spend the match cycling the ball around Russia’s half of the pitch with little success.

The teams traded fluke goals in the first half — Russia conceding first via an own goal by defender Sergey Iganshevich before equalizing through Artem Dzyuba’s penalty after Spain’s Gerard Pique was whistled for a handball in the box — before the battle of attrition was fully waged over the second 45 minutes and 30 of extra time.

Igor Akinfeev, the most decorated keeper in Russian history, then became the toast of a nation as he made two saves during the shootout. He successfully turned away Koke in the third round before ending the match by getting his top leg to a shot by Iago Aspas in the fifth while diving away from the ball after guessing incorrectly.

“I really had to persuade [my players] that this was the only way out,” Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov said. “We don’t like this kind of structure but this is what we had to do with three defenders. Thank God my footballers understood what I was telling them. They trusted me.

“I spoke with every player individually more than I had in the past and I had to explain to them why, where, what, and it has worked out as you see. I believe that my players have been victorious because they have adhered to my strategy.”

The result has turned Russia into a football-mad country, with the scenes of celebration spreading throughout the country in wildfire fashion. For a country with such little success on the biggest stage — the only previous occasion the Sbornaya advanced to the knockout round of any major tournament since 1990 came at the 2008 European Championship — the chance to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time since claiming fourth in England in 1966 borders on an impossible fantasy they are excitedly willing to believe can happen.

On the other side is Croatia, which is seeking a stirring run of its own to the semifinals for the first time in 20 years since its maiden appearance in 1998. The Vatreni, who looked so good in topping a group that included two-time champion Argentina, finally had to endure some suffering in the round of 16 as they were taken to penalties by Denmark.

After the teams traded goals in the opening four minutes, there was little in the way of offense as the match settled into a cagey affair and should have been settled in 120 minutes had Luka Modric converted a penalty four minutes before time that would have all but certainly seen his side through to the round of eight.

Modric, however, was stoned by Kasper Schmeichel. He did redeem himself by narrowly converting in the shootout, but it was Danjiel Subasic who would earn top plaudits as he became just the second keeper in World Cup history to stop three penalties in helping the Vatreni advance.

And they needed all three since Schmeichel stopped two of Croatia’s spot kicks in the before Ivan Rakitic ended a nerve-fraying clash by ripping his attempt into the lower left corner.

“Since 2008 we have never gone beyond this first knockout game and it was very important for us to get that monkey off our back,” Modric told the official website of FIFA, who missed the opening penalty in their shootout defeat to Turkey a decade ago.

“We have secured a great result after many years of trying and that means a lot to me. I’ve been in this team since 2008 and we have experienced several unlucky defeats in that time, particularly against Turkey and Portugal [at EURO 2016]. We needed some luck this time and I think we deserved it.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Russia
June 14 — Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0 (Gazinsky 12, Cheryshev 43, Dzyuba 71, Cheryshev 90+1, Golovin 90+4)
June 19 — Russia 3, Egypt 1 (Fathi 47′ (og), Cheryshev 59′, Dzyuba 62′, Salah 73′ (PK))
June 25Russia 0, Uruguay 3 (Suarez 10′, Cheryshev 23′ (og), Cavani 90′)
July 1 — Russia 1, Spain 1 (Ignashevich 12′ (og), Dzyuba 41′ (PK)) (Russia wins 4-3 on PKs)

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)

FORMATIONS

Thouch Cherchesov used a five-man back against Spain and opted to bring Denis Cheryshev off the bench, the hedge is that he will go to a more traditional four in the back. Fedor Kudryashov likely will get the start at left back with Yuri Zhirkov not expected to be available due to injury.

While attacking midfielder Adam Dzagoev is expected to be available, one wonders how risky it would be to reintroduce him straightaway after recovering from a hamstring injury and also when considering how well Aleksandar Golovin has played in a central distributing role.

Croatia could also be forced into a change at left back, where Josip Pivaric would slot in for the injured Ivan Strinic. Otherwise it will be the same 4-1-4-1 set-up for coach Zlatko Dalic, with Mario Mandzukic operating alone up top and supported by Rakitic, Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Russia is set to welcome back attacking midfielder Dzagoev, who pulled a hamstring 24 minutes into the opening-match victory over Saudi Arabia and has been practicing with the main squad this week. Zhirkov, however, is questionable at best for this match after being forced off at halftime versus Spain due to a calf injury.

Reserve defender Igor Smolnikov is also available for selection after serving his red card suspension in the round of 16. The Sbornaya have five players on a yellow card, most notably midfielders Golovin, Iury Gazinsky and Roman Zobnin and defender Ilya Kupetov.

Zobnin and Kupetov have logged all 390 minutes in Russia’s four matches.

Strinic is an injury concern at left back for Croatia, and reserve midfielder Mateo Kovacic could play despite suffering a shoulder injury shortly after entering against Denmark.

While no one on the Vatreni picked up a yellow card in the round of 16, there are still eight players who could miss a potential semifinal appearance with a second booking. They are starters Rakitic, Mandzukic, Rebic, Marcelo Brozovic and Sime Vrsaljko in addition to reserves Vedran Corluka, Tin Jedvaj and Marko Pjaca.

Reserve striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home after the Nigeria match for refusing to enter as a substitute.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Russia — Denis Cheryshev (MF)

Cherchosev’s decision to bring Cheryshev in for the final 60 minute against Spain could prove vital in this match considering he could be in better condition to latch onto a few long passes and through balls against Croatia’s back four. Second on the team to Dzyuba with two goals, Cheryshev has shown good chemistry with Golovin and a fearlessness in attacking opposing defenses.

Croatia — Ante Rebic (F)

Rebic has become a hot name in transfer talk with some inspired play at the World Cup and is looking for a second goal in Russia after netting the match-winner versus Argentina. While he did not score against Denmark in the round of 16, he has proven to be a handful for opponents as he and Perisic sometimes interchange on the flanks outside of Modric and Rakitic.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

This will be the first World Cup meeting between the teams and just the fourth overall. They played to a pair of scoreless draws in qualifying for the 2000 Euros. Croatia recorded a 3-1 victory at Rostov-on-Don in 2015 as second-half goals by Kalinic, Brozovic and Mandzukic negated a first-half strike from Fedor Smolov.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Croatia is a solid favorite to win at 6/5 odds, while Russia is listed as a 27/10 underdog. The odds of the match going to penalty kicks after a draw are 2/1. For first goal-scorers, Dzyuba is a slight favorite at 9/2 odds, edging out his teammate Smolov and Mandzukic (5/1).

PREDICTION

No one ever wants a dream to end, which is why it has been a treat to see Russia get an extra week of World Cup celebrating in following its side. Shutting down streets in Moscow is an impressive achievement, so hats off to the Sbornaya supporters for living it up.

But reality was always going to set in at some point, and Croatia wants to extend its own dream of getting back to the semifinals. The Vatreni finally dipped in quality in the round of 16, which was expected at some point given the near-flawless contest they played in thrashing Argentina, but that also served as a wake-up call of how much they must work to realize their dream.

Given a second lease on World Cup life, Modric will likely shine in this contest. The Real Madrid midfielder is not in that all-time greats discussion a la Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but where he is among the handful of players who can single-handedly change the course of a match in a multitude of ways is not to be taken for granted.

Unlike Spain, in which the Sbornaya faced a patient build-up and a disciplined yet ultimately toothless offense, Croatia will not give them the luxury of relaxing defensively. Modric and company will be perfectly content to whip balls into the penalty area from every angle for Mandzukic, who can be an absolute menace of a target striker if in the right mood.

Russia’s offense has yet to find a groove against the better teams at this World Cup. For all intents and purposes, if Pique’s arm isn’t outstretched over his head, Spain likely move on with a meandering 1-0 victory given how much the Sbornaya did not see the ball. And that was on top of chasing the Uruguay match with 10 men for an hour.

Maybe Dzagoev changes things, but there are times when chemistry trumps talent, and the way Russia has played with Golovin in the middle of the park, it almost feels prudent to let him pull the strings for 45 minutes and then roll the dice with Dzagoev.

Getting out of Moscow will help Croatia, with Fisht Stadium having a capacity of only 40,000 compared to Luzhniki Stadium and the 81,000 crazed fans that cheered on Russia versus Spain. It will be a road match, sure, but it will be a slightly smaller feeding frenzy.

In the end, too much class in the midfield will be too much for Russia to overcome, which will exit this World Cup with plenty to be proud of after exceeding expectations by getting this far.

PREDICTION: Croatia 2, Russia 0

UP NEXT

The winner of this game will play the winner of the Sweden-England match in the semifinals in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday.

 

 

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview — Croatia vs. Denmark (Match 52)

After being one of the most impressive teams at the World Cup, unheralded Croatia look to take another step in repeating their 1998 run to the semifinals Sunday as they face Denmark in Nizhny Novogorod in the round of 16.

One of three teams to sweep their three matches in group play with Uruguay and Belgium, the Vatreni are in the knockout round for the first time since their maiden appearance in 1998, when they reached the semifinals behind Davor Suker. They had failed to get out of group play in three previous appearances, winning just two of those nine matches.

Croatia announced its intent with perhaps the most impressive win over a World Cup power, walloping two-time champion Argentina 3-0 as it completely neutralized Lionel Messi in its middle Group D contest and handed La Albiceleste their worst World Cup defeat in 60 years.

Zlatko Dalic’s side completed its sweep with a 2-1 victory over Iceland, getting a clinical strike from Ivan Perisic at the death for the match-winner. Milan Badelj had the other goal for the Vatreni, who still controlled large stretches of play despite introducing nine new starters for the match having already qualified.

Denmark is in the knockout round for the first time since 2002, finishing runner-up to France in Group C. Rather then play for the top spot, Danish Dynamite opted for a low-risk approach in the finale versus the 1998 champion, adding a fifth to the back line and playing out a dour 0-0 draw that stood as the only scoreless contest in group play in Russia.

Age Hareide’s team played well defensively, conceding just once in the three matches — a penalty kick in its draw versus Australia. The Danes, though, scored just twice as they continued to rely on the all-around skills of Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham Hotspur attacking midfielder assisted on Yussuf Poulsen’s winner versus Peru and scored in the draw against the Socceroos.

While Eriksen was doing yeoman’s work in attack, keeper Kasper Schmeichel was doing that and more in the back. The Leicester City No. 1 finished with 14 saves in the three matches, trailing only Memo Ochoa’s 17 for Mexico among all keepers. Denmark did not really live up to the Danish Dynamite moniker as they put only nine of their 25 shots on target.

Denmark has reached the World Cup quarterfinals just once in club history, losing to Brazil in 1998. The Danes’ last appearance in the knockout round was a 3-0 setback to England in 2002.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

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′)

Denmark
June 16 — Denmark 1, Peru 0 (Poulsen 59′)
June 21 — Denmark 1, Australia 1 (Eriksen 7′, Jedinak 38′ (PK))
June 26 — Denmark 0, France 0

FORMATIONS

Both teams are expected to set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but what becomes interesting is how Eriksen tries to find space getting beyond Modric and Ivan Rakitic and attacking Croatia’s back four since the Vatreni did not concede an open goal in the three matches.

None of Denmark’s strikers distinguished themselves in group play, so the hedge is Hareide restores Nicolai Jorgensen to lead the line. Andreas Cornelius is the other option up front, but since Jorgensen had the assist on Eriksen’s goal, he appears the better choice.

In contrast, an example of how clinical Croatia has been is that while it has the same amount of shots on goal as Denmark, it has scored five more goals. Mario Mandzukic has had his chances, entering this contest second on the Vatreni with six shots, but the fact the shots on goal have been spread — no one has more than two on target — shows the effectiveness Croatia has enjoyed.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Croatia has everyone available for this match but has an astounding eight players on a yellow card. Of those eight, Rakitic, Mandzukic, Sime Vrsaljko and Ante Rebic are expected to be in the starting XI.

Poulsen returns to Denmark’s starting lineup after he served a one-match ban for his yellow cards in the first two contests — both of which resulted in spot kicks for opponents. Midfielder Willie Kvist remains sidelined with a rib injury and punctured lung suffered in the opener versus Peru.

Midfielders Thomas Delaney and Pione Sisto are on yellow cards hoping to emerge without a second to have them wiped away.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Croatia — Luka Modric (MF)

Smoother than a James Bond villain, Modric effortlessly pulls the strings in Croatia’s midfield, and as he showed in rope-a-doping Nicolas Otamendi for his world-class strike versus Argentina, he can pop in the occasional goal. It says something to his talent that Dalic can overturn virtually his entire lineup around Modric, and the Vatreni still maintained nearly 60 percent possession against Iceland.

Denmark – Christian Eriksen (MF)

Eriksen showed his 11 goals in qualifying were no fluke as he has factored on both goals for Denmark in Russia. The Spurs No. 10 is going to need a lot of support from his fellow attackers, especially Sisto and Poulsen on the flanks to force Croatia’s wide midfielders to retreat out of the final third and be available for passes to help force Modric into defending.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

This will be the first meeting between the teams in the World Cup, but they were placed in the same UEFA qualifying group to reach France in 1998. Denmark topped the group by two points over Croatia, playing the Vatreni to a 1-1 draw on the road and winning 3-1 in Copenhagen as the Laudrup brothers accounted for three of the four goals.

Kasper Schmeichel’s father Peter was between the sticks for Denmark in those matches, with both Croatian goals scored by Suker. Overall, each side has two wins and split the points in a fifth contest.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Croatia is a strong favorite at 5/6 odds, with Denmark checking in at 15/4. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalties are 21/10. Despite failing to find the back of the net in group play, Mandzukic is still the favorite to score the first goal of the match at 9/2 odds, with Croatia reserve Andrej Kramaric a second choice at 5-1 and Perisic and Rebic joint-third at 7/1.

Jorgensen is Denmark’s top option, also at 7/1, while Eriksen is a slightly longer pick at 9/1.

PREDICTION

While many expected Croatia to come out of what turned out to be a fairly well-balanced Group D, no one expected Argentina to be so dysfunctional they would be four minutes from going home early from Russia. The Vatreni have been cool, calm and collected in all three matches thus far, deserving winners in each contest, and turning ruthless when necessary while scoring four of their seven goals in the 70th minute or later.

Denmark will have a lot of work to do in this match, starting with keeping Modric off the ball. Its central defense pairing of Andreas Christensen and Simon Kjaer will have to keep Mandzukic under wraps, and the wide backs must get forward whenever possible.

Hareide’s other option would to use a five-man back like he did against France, but that also concedes possession to Modric outside Denmark’s final third. That, however, is a strategy simply courting disaster considering his quality.

Jorgensen likely will have to drop deep and help out in possession, with Denmark’s best option in the run of play is getting it ahead to him at midfield and giving Eriksen a chance to get a sprint going before getting a return pass to hit on the counter.

The only worry about the Vatreni is that they have yet to deal with adversity at this World Cup. They have yet to trail in Russia and yet to concede in open play. How they would respond to a shock goal from Denmark would be an interesting scenario that could prove difficult.

Denmark has also not conceded in the run of play, but it did suffer at points against both Peru and Australia. When Danish Dynamite get stretched is when they get themselves in trouble, and Modric has the vision to unleash a killer pass to do just that.

This will be a cagey game. If Croatia does not score in the first hour, there is a real chance this match will go to extra time and then the dreaded penalties. But the Vatreni have too much attacking quality to break down a determined Danish defense and will move on with a 1-0 victory that will be more comfortable on the field than the scoreline will show.

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will face the winner of the Spain-Russia match in the quarterfinals July 7 in Sochi.

 

World Cup Match 23 Recap — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (June 21)

Willy Caballero’s monumental gaffe gifted Ante Rebic a goal in the 53rd minute as Croatia advanced to the knockout round of the World Cup and put two-time champion Argentina in a precarious position in Group D with a deserved 3-0 victory Thursday at Nizhny Novogorod.

Caballero, Argentina’s No. 1 because Sergio Romero is injured, made an absolute mess of a clearance following a back pass and tried an unconvincing chip to Gabriel Mercado.  The Chelsea backup popped the ball into the air, and Rebic had an uncontested right-footed volley over the helpless keeper from 12 yards.

Luka Modric added his second goal in as many matches in the 80th minute with a world-class individual effotrt and Ivan Rakitic poured salt into La Albiceleste’s wounds with a third in second-half stoppage time.

Even with Jorge Sampaoli unveiling a revamped lineup and new formation after being held to a 1-1 draw against Iceland, Argentina was again listless and had the starch knocked out of it by Caballero’s colossal mistake and turned the final 10-plus minutes into a parade of cynical play with reckless challenges and a pair of yellow cards accrued.

The loss left La Albiceleste in third place on one point with a minus-3 goal differential through two matches and hoping either Nigeria beat Iceland or the sides play to a draw Friday to give them any chance of still scraping through to the knockout round with a win over the Super Eagles.

Lionel Messi, often caught in no man’s land in the final third without possession, suffered through one of his worst World Cup matches and with Argentina overall. He hastily retreated to the locker room after the final whistle, not shaking hands with any players.

Argentina last failed to advance out of group play in 2002 and absorbed its heaviest defeat in group play since a 6-1 loss to Czechoslovakia in 1958.

But Croatia was also a worthy winner as Modric and Rakitic bossed the midfield and helped neutralize Messi, limiting his touches and surrounding the Barcelona star with two and three players when he did have the ball.

The Vatreni have the maximum six points through their first two matches and will clinch the top spot in Group D with a draw versus Iceland, which pipped them in European World Cup qualifying.

Sampaoli made three changes to the starting XI as Gabriel Mercado, Enzo Perez and Marcos Acuna replaced Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Lucas Biglia in a 3-4-3 formation. Sampaoli, who crackled with energy stalking back and forth in front of his team’s bench, opted for the three-man backline to give Messi more support.

Yet it was Croatia which fashioned the first scoring chance of the contest as Caballero did well to push Ivan Perisic’s sharp-angled shot from 10 yards on the left around the right post. Messi nearly got his boot to a looping pass by Perez in the 12th minute that Danijel Subasic caught.

Both teams, though, spurned gilt-edged chances in the opening 45 minutes.

Argentina should have gone ahead on the half-hour as Croatia got pulled apart and keeper Danijel Subasic came off his line to try and neutralize the danger. Eduardo Salvio’s pass was deflected by Domagoj Vida straight to Perez, and with the net at his mercy and Subasic out of position, he slotted wide of the left post from 15 yards.

Mario Mandzukic, though, also wasted a half-chance minutes later as he failed to meet Vrsaljko’s cross from the right cleanly and headed wide of the left post from six yards. Rebic should have done so much better in first-half stoppage time as Modric found him with a sharp cross-pitch pass on the counter, but he was unable to keep the ball in front of his feet and then miscued his shot well wide.

Moments before Rebic’s goal, Argentina put its first shot on target as Aguero tested Subasic with a sharp-angled shot from 10 yards. After Caballero’s colossal error, Argentina’s best chance to equalize came in the 64th minute.

Gonzalo Higuain picked out a cutting Maximiliano Meza with a back pass in the left, but Subasic got down quickly to make a save with his feet. The rebound squirted near the left post, but a sliding effort from Rakitic prevented Messi from getting a touch near it.

Croatia did well balancing between defense and probing Argentina for a second, and it finally came 10 minutes from time when Modric gained possession 25 yards out and deked from right to left to right to open a half-step of space against Nicolas Otamendi before letting fly with a right-footed shot from 20 yards that a diving Caballero had no chance of stopping as it curled inside the right post.

Tensions in this physical match that totaled 36 fouls finally boiled over in the 85th minute when Javier Mascherano scythed Rakitic from behind and Otamendi booted the ball into Rakitic’s face while he was prone on the pitch, earning the Argentine central defender a yellow card that may be further reviewed by FIFA’s disciplinary committee.

Rakitic nearly got the last laugh on the ensuing free kick from 25 yards as he thumped the crossbar near the upper left corner. He then got that laugh in the 91st minute, getting a second crack at Caballero courtesy of Mateo Kovacic, who freely tracked down the rebound of Rakitic’s first miss and passed it back to Messi’s club teammate for an easy goal from six yards.

Rebic, Mandzukic, Sime Vrsajlko and Vedran Corluka all picked up yellow cards. Rakitic picked up one in the win over Nigeria, and it is possible Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic will rest some of them to make sure they are available for the round of 16.