2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester United (August 5)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 19th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER UNITED RED DEVILS

Manager: Jose Mourinho (Hire Date: May 27, 2016)
Tenure Length: 9th/20 in Premier League and 27th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 25-6-7, 81 points, 2nd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 68
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-40
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 44 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1975
Last Relegation: 
1974 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Sevilla)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss (Bristol City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Runner-up (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester United hit the ground running last season, rolling past West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City by a combined 10-0 margin as Romelu Lukaku made an instant impact with three goals in his first two matches in a United shirt. The Red Devils held out for a 2-2 draw at Stoke City, but the sprint out of the blocks resumed with six wins on the bounce — two of them to open their Champions League account.

Some of the excitement from the start was tempered when Manchester United lost influential midfielder Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury that would sideline him two months. Despite 32 goals and only three against in this 9-1-0 run to open the term, the cries of anti-football against Jose Mourinho came immediately after a lifeless 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool on Oct. 14.

Mourinho set up his team pragmatically and defensively as United finished with one shot on target. Liverpool’s five shots on frame were one less than Mourinho’s side attempted all match.

The “Special One” had a flash of thunder after a 2-1 loss at promoted Huddersfield Town the following week, excoriating his team for a lack of “aggression, desire, motivation and sacrifice” despite having nearly 80 percent possession as Pogba’s absence continued to loom large. United regrouped with three wins, but another high-profile match came and went without a goal as they came up short in a 1-0 loss at his old Stamford Bridge stomping grounds.

While United never dropped below second in the table all season, it was becoming painfully clear their eternal rival Manchester City was pulling away with every match day United did not get all three points. Pogba finally returned in mid-November, making an instant impact in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, though it was also the first time Mourinho used Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together.

Mourinho’s renewal of antagonisms with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger for what would be their final head-to-head clash at the Emirates ended with Manchester United recording a 3-1 victory in what may have been the perfect way for Mourinho to get the better of “Le Professeur” once more. Despite allowing the Gunners to take 33 shots and have 75 percent possession, United were lethal on the counter as Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard scored in the first 11 minutes.

Lingard would complete his brace after the hour, and the only blemish on the victory was Pogba taking a needless red card right before the final quarter-hour. They did place atop their Champions League group with 15 points and 12 goals from their six matches, the lone blemish a 1-0 defeat at runner-up and Swiss side FC Basel.

Pogba’s absence would loom large as the first Manchester derby went blue with a 2-1 City victory that also ended United’s record-tying 40-match unbeaten run at Old Trafford. The result left United 11 points adrift of their eternal rivals after just 16 league matches, a daunting deficit.

Manchester United would regroup with back-to-back wins in league play before a stunning fifth-round Carabao Cup exit at Championship side Bristol City in which Korey Smith delivered a stoppage-time winner for the host club. That led into the congested holiday fixture list in which United ground out three draws before turning the calendar year over with a win at Everton.

The January transfer window brought in Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal while Henrikh Mkhitaryan went in the other direction, his strong start little more than a flash in the pain as his playing time was gradually cut as the season progressed. United won their first five matches in 2018 before a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur marked by the embarrassment of conceding a goal in the first 11 seconds.

By February, it was clear City would win the league, which meant United could turn their attention to the Champions League. Mourinho played a classic pragmatic first-leg tie at Sevilla and got what was needed with a scoreless draw in which his team had only one shot on target and six overall.

The Red Devils won their next three on the bounce in league play, beating Chelsea and Liverpool at home around a victory at Crystal Park. But any dreams of a deep Champions League run to offset not being able to catch Manchester City fell apart with a shocking 2-1 home loss to Sevilla.

Wissem Ben Yedder turned the match on its head, breaking a scoreless deadlock two minutes after being introduced and completing his brace four minutes later in the 78th. Lukaku would pull one back for United, but the shock was too much to overcome as it would be a 10th straight year without lifting the Champions League trophy.

It also marked a week in which Mourinho went white-hot in attacking his team through the media, a spleen-venting that was unprecedented even by his already-high standards of using the press to get his message across. After the loss to Sevilla, he decried the lack of winning culture at United while City has risen to the ascendancy in Manchester over the past decade.

That, however, was just a broadside before the fusillade of criticism he unveiled after United’s 2-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup quarterfinals. He said his team had a “lack of personality, a lack of class and a lack of desire” and was only happy with the result of the game as he called out nearly everyone save Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.

Call it withering, call it scathing, call it anything you like, but the tirade was also one of Mourinho’s moments where he lays the groundwork for his vision going forward. The stinging rebuke was still echoing through his players’ ears three weeks later at the Etihad, where City had taken a 2-0 halftime lead and were 45 minutes away from setting a Premier League record for the earliest clinching of a title with the bonus of doing so at home against their most hated rivals.

Mourinho again reached into his bag of motivational rhetoric ploys at intermission, telling his team “you don’t want to be the clowns standing there, watching them get their title,” and this time they responded. Pogba had two scintillating goals four minutes apart before Chris Smalling latched onto a free kick by Sanchez to bag an unlikely winner. While the 3-2 United win merely delayed the inevitable of City’s third Premier League title in seven years, it was enough to calm the nerves for one weekend at least.

United reached the FA Cup final by beating Tottenham 2-1 at Wembley, then showed Wenger out the door with grace and another victory over their London foils with a 2-1 triumph as Marouane Fellaini grabbed a stoppage-time winner.

Despite losing just seven times in league play, the past season will also be remembered for the fact United somehow lost to all three promoted teams on the road, though it should also be noted Newcastle United is anything but a typical promoted side. Still, Mourinho’s side fell 1-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion, a famous victory for the Gulls that secured a second season in the top flight.

United wrapped up  league play with a draw at West Ham against former manager David Moyes and a 1-0 win over Watford. Their bid to end the season on a positive note with the FA Cup title fell by the wayside with a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Wembley as they could not overcome Eden Hazard’s penalty on 22 minutes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester United Lineup.png

Frankly, there is little confidence in this as a projected starting XI beyond De Gea between the sticks, Sanchez on the left and Lukaku eventually leading the line in a 4-3-3 set-up that fails to take into account a potential signing of Toby Alderweireld. Luke Shaw, who has been one of Mourinho’s favorite whipping boys, likely gets the initial run-out at left back while Ashley Young recovers from World Cup duty.

Victor Lindelof should be one of the players in central defense after a solid World Cup run to the quarterfinals with Sweden. Jones moves up into a defensive midfielder’s role until Matic recovers from surgery while flanked by Pogba and summer signing Fred.

Rashford will be given every chance to lock down the spot on the right opposite Sanchez, while Martial can provide depth at either position while preferring to play on the left. It is also likely there will be room for both of them early should Lukaku be unavailable for as Sanchez can lead the line if needed.

One player who needs to find his way onto the pitch is Jesse Lingard, who was another productive player for England at the World Cup and could provide a different look in attack. Juan Mata could serve in the playmaking role in limited bursts, and Fellaini — a Mourinho favorite — also is in the mix despite rumours he wanted to leave Old Trafford.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

While a missing figure for much of last season due to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was released in March to continue his goal-scoring exploits in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Among more immediate first-team players, Daley Blind departed for Ajax, and Matteo Darmian is reportedly trying to finalise a deal with Benfica.

While Anthony Martial wants to leave United, the current plight of missing players due to World Cup recovery means the French winger — who missed out playing for the World Cup-winning Les Bleus — likely will not get his wish. Mourinho has given his blessing for veteran defenders Marcus Rojo to move on from Old Trafford.

United have made three official signings entering the final days of the summer transfer window, the most notable one being Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. The £52 million midfielder and Brazil international, though, suffered an injury in the run-up to the World Cup and missed out on the tournament for the Selecao.

The other confirmed signings were teenage defender Diogo Dalot from FC Porto and veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant from Stoke City. United are reportedly close to a deal for disgruntled Spurs central defender Alderweireld after being rebuffed for both Leicester City’s Harry Maguire and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Paul Pogba (MF)

A lightning rod all season long for play that ranged from breathtakingly brilliant to boringly inspid with often no middle ground, Pogba returns to Old Trafford a World Cup winner, but it was the method that raised eyebrows, including Mourinho’s.

Pogba was used in tandem with N’Golo Kante in a reserved midfield role for France once manager Didier Deschamps realised the United star could not fully co-exist in an offence that featured Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe running in every direction underneath Olivier Giroud.

To his credit, Pogba played the role beautifully — highlighted by his stunning two-way play against Belgium in the semifinals — and he did net the match-winner in the final versus Croatia. What made the success so startling is that the role Deschamps defined for Pogba was the one Mourinho was unsuccessfully trying to slot Pogba into for United.

Mourinho even lamented Pogba’s international success while praising him, noting United’s success this season could hinge on “him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are the third-best choice to win the Premier League at 13/2 odds and for a top-four finish at 2/7. They are also joint-second with Liverpool for a top-six finish at 1/20. Manchester United is third at 7/1 odds to top the table on Christmas Day and receiving 9/2 odds for a top-two finish behind City for a second straight year.

Lukaku is joint-third with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 6/1 odds, while Sanchez is further down the list at sixth with 16/1 odds. Pogba and Lukaku are the top United players in terms of Player of the Year odds, listed joint-eighth with Aubameyang and Spurs’ Christian Eriksen at 20/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Leicester City (10th) H
Aug. 19 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
Aug. 27 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
Sept. 1 — Burnley (7th) A
—————
April 20 — Everton (8th) A
April 27 — Chelsea (5th) H
May 4 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
May 12 — Cardiff City (N/A) H

OUTLOOK

With a third season of Jose Mourinho on the touchline usually comes some sort of madness that results in club disaster and/or him leaving said touchline. The track record is plainly evident — third season unrest at Chelsea in 2007 after winning the Premier League title the season before. Third season exit at Real Madrid by mutual agreement in 2013. Third-season meltdown in his second go-round at Chelsea in 2016 in which he was out the door in December.

Now he enters his third season at United. He cut an angry, disappointed figure throughout the team’s tour of the United States this summer, largely because he missed out on seemingly all his major transfer targets, but also because the tour did little to sharpen the players he needs to have any chance of ending what could be a burgeoning dynasty on the other side of the city.

His critiques about his team, while harsh, had plenty of merit. It’s hard to feel anything but aggravation like he did after the 4-1 loss to Liverpool in which so few first-team roster players, let alone starting XI players, were on the pitch.

It is a team that does not lack for talent at every position, yet there has nothing about this preseason build-up that lends belief United will contend for a title. One of the underreported storylines of the early part of the season is how will keeper David De Gea recover from a sub-par World Cup in which he made exactly ONE save in Spain’s four matches while allowing six goals and failing to stop any penalties in the loss to Russia in the round of 16?

Matic’s absence in the early part of the season could loom very large. Mourinho’s demand for a central defender seemed to offer hints he wanted to go to a three-man back line, and he may be able to do that should Alderweireld come on board, but there is a certain irony in that his pragmatic ways may become necessary ways for United to navigate their opening stretch of schedule.

Still, when everyone does become available, it is a United team that has to improve. Pogba must retain his form from the World Cup. While Lukaku did not score after the knockout rounds for Belgium, he showed plenty of nous in creating opportunities for others, and his interplay with Sanchez will determine how far United really can go.

Mourinho may have to play Martial and Marcus Rashford together more often, something he was loathe to do last season. Also, the back-and-forth with Martial has to end quickly, and chairman Ed Woodward’s insistence on not selling the Frenchman could have lasting repercussions.

Unlike the United teams under predecessor Louis van Gaal, this is not a rudderless team. But it also feels like a side drifting without a direction while the teams around them — save Tottenham Hotspur — all began moving forward with a plan. After last season’s runner-up finish, one gets the sense Manchester United is going to have to graft hard to retain a Champions League spot in the top four, and if Mourinho gets mercurial, then all bets are off.

PREDICTED FINISH

6th place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

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 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 the ability to 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 — France vs. Belgium (Match 61)

A spot in the World Cup final is on the line Tuesday in St. Petersburg, where France looks to advance to its third championship match at the expense of Belgium, which is trying to get there for the first time.

Les Bleus are looking to reach the final for the third time in the last seven World Cups after winning it on home soil in 1998 and losing to Italy on penalties in Germany eight years later in a game infamous for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi that resulted in his ejection in extra time.

France manager Didier Deschamps was on the 1998 squad and is looking to become the third person to win the World Cup both as a player and a manger, hoping to join a short list comprised of German great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo.

Deschamps made a shrewd tactical move that helped France ease past Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinals, dropping Paul Pogba deeper in the midfield to have him work in tandem with N’Golo Kante without the suspended Blaise Matuidi and pushing Corentin Tolisso forward on the left.

Antoine Griezmann provided the assist on Rapahel Varane’s goal in the first half and was gifted his third goal of the tournament on a howler by Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera in the second as Les Bleus were able to focus on shutting down Luis Suarez without his injured strike partner Edinson Cavani and had a mainly comfortable match.

Keeper Hugo Lloris posted his third clean sheet of the tournament, and his diving save to palm out Martin Caceres’ downward header to preserve France’s one-goal lead late in the first half was one of the best at this World Cup. The only three goals he has allowed in the run of play came against Argentina, and the Tottenham Hotspur No. 1 had little chance of stopping any of them.

Belgium is in the semifinals for the first time in 32 years after a legacy-defining win for its golden generation — a 2-1 victory over five-time champion Brazil. The challenge for the Red Devils now is to not be content with having just one such victory while in Russia.

An own goal by Brazil’s Fernandinho and a searing world-class strike from Kevin De Bruyne in the first 31 minutes were enough to see them through, but not without a standout effort from keeper Thibaut Courtois.

Courtois finished with eight saves, none more important than the last one when he tipped Neymar’s 20-yard effort over the bar in the third minute of second-half stoppage time. The Chelsea shot-stopper had made just 10 saves in Belgium’s first four matches before being tested repeatedly by the Selecao.

Like his French counterpart, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez also made some savvy tactical and personnel decisions, opting for a 3-4-3 set up while new starters Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli made noticeable impacts after their star turns off the bench helped Belgium overcome a 2-0 deficit in the round of 16 against Japan.

Belgium, which has scored a World Cup-high 14 goals, has had nine different players score at least one. Romelu Lukaku is joint-second with Cristiano Ronaldo with four goals, while Eden Hazard — with two markers — is the only other Belgium player with more than one.

The Red Devils’ only previous semifinal appearance was a 2-0 defeat to eventual champion Argentina in Mexico City in 1986.

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′)

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′)

FORMATIONS

Each team is expected to make one change, though Belgium’s is enforced since Thomas Meunier must serve a one-match ban for his two yellow cards accrued in the first five matches.

Matuidi is expected to be restored to France’s starting XI after serving a one-match ban for a pair of bookings. He will be flanked by Kante, and that pairing allows Pogba to move up to a more attacking role in the midfield to serve as a link with Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and target forward Olivier Giroud.

Martinez has a more challenging decision in replacing Meunier, with Dries Mertens likely the choice over Yannick Carrasco on that right flank because of his creativity and pace. If Carrasco is restored on the left side, Belgium could switch Chadli to the right and utilize a 4-4-2 formation.

Fellaini and Axel Witsel will try to be a shutdown pair in the midfield to take some of the defensive pressure off playmakers De Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

With Matuidi back in the fold, everyone is eligible, and Les Bleus have not reported any injuries. Belgium should have everyone available save the suspended Meunier.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France – N’Golo Kante (MF)

A maestro of midfield disruption, Kante is no stranger to Belgium’s trident of offense — Hazard is his teammate at Chelsea while both Lukaku and De Bruyne represent both sides of Manchester in the Premier League. If he is unable to disrupt the trio through the middle third, the Red Devils would able to flow through the middle on their lethal counterattack. If he can, Kante becomes the originator of a transition offense that could strike quickly through Mbappe, Pogba and Griezmann.

Kante’s play harkens back to his manager’s role on the 1998 Cup-winning squad, though he is more comfortable joining the fray offensively unlike Deschamps, who perfected the role of “water-carrier” as a defensive midfielder.

Belgium – Eden Hazard (SS)

Hazard did a ton of work against Brazil and took on the forward role in the final minutes after Lukaku was subbed off, getting possession and winning fouls in Brazil’s half to chew up precious seconds of second-half stoppage time. He did miss a chance to kill off the match when he fizzed a shot wide of the right post with Lukaku wide open there, but don’t count on Hazard missing a second such chance should the opportunity present itself.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1938 (France) R/16 — France 3, Belgium 1 (Veinante 1′, Nicolas 16′, Isemborghs 38′, Nicolas 69′)
1986 (Mexico) 3rd — France 4, Belgium 2 a.e.t. (Ceulemans 11′, Ferreri 27′, Papin 43′, Claesen 73′, Genghini 104′, Amoros 111′ (PK))

Veinante’s goal is still tied for the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history as he scored 35 seconds into France’s victory in 1938. The 1986 clash for third in Mexico was the last major tournament match between the sides.

They last met in a 2015 friendly in Paris, with Belgium pulling out a 4-3 victory. Fellaini had a first-half brace and Hazard added a goal in the 54th minute to give Belgium a 4-1 lead before France got late goals from Nabil Fekir and Dimitri Payet.

This is the 74th all-time meeting between the teams, with Belgium recording 30 wins to France’s 24. The teams have played to draws on 19 occasions.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, France is a slight favorite at 7/5 odds, while Belgium is a 2/1 underdog. The odds of the match going to penalty kicks after a draw are 11/5. The odds of two total goals being scored are the front runners at 5/2, followed by three (16/5) and one (10/3).

For first goal-scorers, Lukaku and Griezmann are joint-favorites at 9/2 odds, with Mbappe right behind the pair at 5/1. Belgium reserve Michy Batshuayi is fourth at 11/2 while Giroud is 6/1 to give France a 1-0 lead with his first goal of the World Cup.

Griezmann has 6/5 odds as an any-time goal-scorer, slightly lower than Lukaku (9/5) and Mbappe (2/1).

PREDICTION

In a clash of contrasting styles, it is the side that who does not change their identity that usually emerges with the better chance of winning. While France has won its knockout-round matches in differing styles — a wide-open firewagon of a win over Argentina followed by a more composed defensive suffocation of Uruguay in the quarterfinals, it has not strayed in its overall approach.

And Les Bleus can take away lessons learned from their victory over Argentina, which shares some similarities with Belgium in terms of attacking talent and volume, though Martinez’s playmakers are better than La Albiceleste’s creative types — save Messi, of course.

The Red Devils, though, not only have talented offensive options, they have intelligent ones. De Bruyne and Hazard are masters of off-the-ball movement and able to deliver killer passes from anywhere on the pitch. While Lukaku has not scored a goal in the last two contests, he has made key contributions to two of the four goals scored through a dummy against Japan and his rumble through the midfield to set up De Bruyne’s heat-seeker versus Brazil.

France, though, also has offensive skill and nous to burn in Griezmann, Pogba, Giroud and Mbappe. With Belgium, utilizing a three-man backline, Deschamps has offensive options at his disposal in which he can deploy Giroud high in the penalty area to flick on passes that Mbappe and Griezmann can race onto, or the Chelsea striker can knock them down nearby to let the pair try and shoot the gaps on either side of Vincent Kompany.

The four defensive midfielders — Matuidi and Kante for France vs Witsel and Fellaini for Belgium — will likely decide this match. If each pair is successful in neutralizing the opposition, the contest will then come down to the proverbial moment of individual magic. If neither duo play to their capabilities, this can turn into another five or seven-goal thriller the two sides have already survived in the knockout round.

Whoever Martinez uses to take Meunier’s spot will be an early clue to how Belgium will go forward. If it is Mertens, that strikes of the same attacking philosophy that went into his side’s shape against Brazil. France’s wide backs — Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard — will not pour forward freely like Brazil’s did, but given how that allows Griezmann and Mbappe space to flitter around the final third, it also makes pulling Chadli to right back in a 4-4-2 set-up and introducing Carrasco on the left flank a logical fallback.

This should be an entertaining game, especially with that cagey duel in the midfield. There are going to be enough moments in this match where quality dictates both teams will get at least one goal. The hedge here is that France finds the space for a second and potentially a third late while Belgium doesn’t get past a second.

PREDICTION: France 3, Belgium 1

UP Next

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Croatia-England match for the World Cup trophy Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The losers of the two semifinals will play Saturday in St. Petersburg for third place.

 

 

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview — France vs. Argentina (Match 49)

A matchup many could have pegged as a potential World Cup final next month will instead be a scrap to merely make the quarterfinals as France faces Argentina on Saturday in Kazan.

Both teams underachieved to a degree in group play, though Les Bleus had little drama in claiming Group C honors with two wins and a draw. Argentina, however, compensated for France’s straightforward approach with a high-wire act in Group D that did not determine its fate until Marcus Rojo’s goal in the 86th minute saw the two-time champion advance with a 2-1 win over Nigeria as runner-up behind Croatia.

As is always the case, all the breathless talk around the Albiceleste surrounds Lionel Messi. His exquisite goal on three touches that opened the scoring versus Nigeria on Tuesday made him the second player in World Cup history alongside Mia Hamm to score a goal in his teens, his 20s and his 30s, and it also lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders.

At some point after this tournament, it will be revealed just how much pressure was on the Argentine superstar at this tournament in which he all but dragged the South American side into the knockout round.

How he needed to atone for his missed penalty against Iceland in the opener and his indifferent play in an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Croatia that had Argentina on a knife’s edge of crashing out for group play for the first time since 2002. Whether there was a locker room revolt against coach Jorge Sampaoli that left Messi in charge of dictating both formation and personnel.

Right now, however, he and his team have been given a second chance, and they look to make the most of it.

France was a team struggling to get out of its own way offensively as coach Didier Deschamps was his own worst enemy personnel-wise as it scraped past Australia in its opener. He made changes against Peru, most notably the introduction of Olivier Giroud as a target forward, for the second match, and while the play was better, the scoreline failed to reflect such improvement in a 1-0 win.

There’s not much to be said for Les Bleus’ third match as both they and Denmark played to a turgid draw that saw both teams advance and remains the only scoreless match at this World Cup. The Danes played five at the back, and a revamped French side resting six regulars, including keeper Hugo Lloris and midfielder Paul Pogba, failed to find any creases while effectively shutting down Denmark playmaker Christian Eriksen.

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

Argentina
June 16 — Argentina 1, Iceland 1 (Aguero 19′, Finnbogason 23′, Messi PK miss 64′)
June 21 — Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Argentina 2, Nigeria 1 (Messi 14′, Moses 51′ (PK), Rojo 86′)

FORMATIONS

This was France’s most effective lineup, the 4-2-3-1 Deschamps used in the win over Peru. The introduction of Blaise Matuidi to work in tandem with N’Golo Kante behind the attacking four serve as an effective buffer in the midfield, and Giroud’s ability to hold up play and set up Griezmann and Kylie Mbappe for knock-down passes gave both structure and dynamism to the offense.

While Argentina list its formation as a 4-3-3, it’s more like a 4-1-2-3 with Mascherano serving as a defensive midfielder that allows Banega to be creative further up. Messi is on his favored right side up front, with Higuain serving as a traditional striker and Di Maria playmaking on the left.

Armani did enough in his first international appearance, conceding only a penalty, to warrant staying between the sticks over Willy Caballero.

Despite all that talent, both teams faced opponents who were content to try and hit them on the counter. France and Argentina combined for just 27 shots on goal in their three matches. The Albiceleste, though, allowed 11 shots on frame while Les Bleus conceded just four, with one of them Jedinak’s penalty.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

France has no injuries and lost no players to yellow card suspensions for this match. Matuidi, Pogba and Corentin Tolisso will have their cautions expunged if they get through this contest without adding a second.

Argentina also appear to have no injury concerns, though six players (Banega, Mascherano, Messi, Marcos Acuna, Gabriel Mercado and Nicolas Otamendi) carry a booking into this contest.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France – Hugo Lloris (GK)

Lloris was a spectator for France’s last game, though one could argue he could have had a similar role had he been between the sticks against Denmark. The Tottenham Hotspur No. 1 already reached a personal milestone in group play with his 100th international appearance for Les Bleus, but there is a lingering feeling of dread Lloris is the one who will make the mistake that put France out of a major tournament.

He really has not been tested since France arrived in Russia, and with one of the world’s best players in Messi bearing down on him in this contest, Lloris can ill-afford another high-profile blunder.

Argentina – Ever Banega (MF)

For such a wonderful goal that Messi scored, it would have not been possible without Banega’s raking pass over the top of Nigeria’s defense. The Sevilla midfielder did not play in the disastrous loss to Croatia after a lively 36-minute stint off the bench against Iceland. He is arguably Argentina’s most creative midfielder and may need to stay wide to stretch France’s midfield pairing of Kante and Matuidi to open up gaps in front of France’s defense.

WORLD CUP HEAD-TO-HEAD HISTORY

1930 (Uruguay) Argentina 1, France 0 (Monti 81′)
1978 (Argentina) Argentina 2, France 1 (Passarella 45′ (PK), Platini 60′, Luque 73′)

Both of Argentina’s World Cup wins over France came in group play, with the 1978 victory one of five La Albiceleste recorded en route to their first World Cup title.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, France is a slight favorite with 5/4 odds, while Argentina is listed at 9/4. The odds of the match going to penalties and being listed as a draw are 19/10. Unsurprisingly, Messi is the odds-on favorite for first goal-scorer at 4/1, followed closely by Griezmann at 9/2. Giroud and Sergio Aguero are listed at 5/1, while both Higuain and Mbappe are slightly longer at 11/2.

PREDICTION

Now what?

That is the question Argentina must ask itself heading into this match, whether it has anything left to give after an emotionally draining win with so much at stake. La Albiceleste’s starting XI versus Nigeria averaged 30 years and 189 days, and goals by Messi and Rojo aside, it was still a very mediocre side who simply punished the Super Eagles for their wastefulness considering the African squad appeared more likely to grab a match-winner before Rojo struck.

Mascherano is going to have his hands full in front of Argentina’s back four, and the fact he gave away a penalty against Nigeria is not a good sign considering the pace of Griezmann and Mbappe as they play off Pogba. Otamendi and Rojo will have plenty of familiarity with Giroud from their Premier League clashes and know the France No. 9 will be a challenge.

France’s biggest need in this match is to exert control early. The more Les Bleus starve Messi of the ball through possession, the more he is likely to backtrack out of dangerous areas to collect the ball in the midfield. That allows Kante and Matuidi to be effective when Argentina do try to start offensive moments and potentially hit on the counter.

Then there is Sampaoli. It is next to impossible to determine what his role, if there still is one, is on this team. It appeared Messi was dictating who and when to make switches, though leaving Aguero and his work rate on the bench for 80 minutes bordered on criminal regardless of who is in charge of personnel.

It would not be surprising to see the Manchester City striker leading the line again over Higuain, but La Albiceleste are so dysfunctional, leaving the Juventus striker in the lineup because they won the previous match probably is good strategy in their eyes.

Everyone hopes Argentina will wake up and be the sum of its parts now that group play is over, but nearly every power at this World Cup has shown there is no vast jump in quality play to be had from match to match, there is no flipping of a switch. One need look no further than Germany.

Look for a well-rested France side to put Argentina out of its misery and trigger a seminal moment for the South American side in which Messi will once more contemplate his international fate with La Albiceleste as well as an expected housecleaning of their coaching staff.

PREDICTION: FRANCE 2, ARGENTINA 0

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Uruguay-Portugal match in the quarterfinals July 6 at Nizhny Novogorod.

 

 

 

 

 

World Cup Recap 22 — France 1, Peru 0 (June 21)

A much-improved France side punched its ticket to the knockout round of the World Cup as Kylian Mbappe’s goal in the 34th minute provided the margin in a 1-0 victory over hard-luck Peru in Group D on Thursday at Ekaterinburg.

Manager Didier Deschamps’ decision to introduce both striker Olivier Giroud and midfielder Blaise Matuidi while switching to a 4-2-3-1 set-up paid handsome dividends for Les Bleus, even though it did not show in the scoreline. Giroud was able to create plays with knockdown passes, while Matuidi paired with N’Golo Kante to keep Peru’s offense at arm’s length for most of the contest.

The 19-year-old Mbappe tapped in a shot by Giroud that was deflected over Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese by sliding defender Alberto Rodriguez. Paul Pogba, looking for more effective with more space to operate in a reserved midfield spot underneath Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, started the play by winning a challenge and sliding a pass to Giroud on the left.

France, though, suffered in the second half as Peru threatened at times, with Pedro Aquino clipping the left post from 25 yards with a rasping drive after a pass from Jefferson Farfan. The Incas’ first World Cup appearance in 36 years will be a short-lived one as the loss eliminated them, but they have won plaudits for their positive and fearless play while bringing a vibrant fan base from South America.

Les Bleus moved atop Group C and will finish first with a draw or better against Denmark in its final match. Peru will look to play spoiler against Australia since the Socceroos can still reach the round of 16 with a victory and a loss by the Danes depending on the margin of victory.

France keeper Hugo Lloris nearly started his 100th appearance in disastrous fashion as Yoshimar Yotun tried to catch him off his line from 50 yards, but the shot nestled on top of the net instead of in it, much to the Tottenham No. 1’s relief.

From there, les Bleus laid their attacking intentions in clear sight. Pogba let fly with a 25-yard curling effort that bounced just wide of the left post, and Raphael Varane narrowly went wide of the right one on a header across goal from a corner kick.

Gallese was called into action in the 16th minute, making a sliding save on Griezmann, who ran onto a knockdown pass from Giroud and fizzed a right-footed shot from 12 yards. Peru was still finding its bearings in the second quarter-hour, with Edison Flores dragging a 25-yard effort well wide of the right post.

Paolo Guerrero, getting the start over Farfan after a stellar 30-minute stint off the bench against Denmark, tested Lloris with a sharp-angled shot from 10 yards after a smart lateral pass from the left by Christian Cueva.

Then it was France’s turn to counter, with Mbappe nearly scoring an outrageous goal on a backheel after Pogba sent a perfectly weighted pass into the penalty area over Peru’s back line. Mbappe started a play on the right flank that nearly provided an opportunity for a second goal in the 39th minute, but Giroud could not latch onto a through ball by Griezmann as Gallese ran out to collect it.

Later in the first half, Lucas Fernandez stung Gallese’s gloves with a 10-yard rip from an acute angle, but he put the knockover rebound attempt wide of the right post.

Aquino’s shot off the woodwork set the crowd abuzz, and Peru tested its luck from distance throughout the second half. Andre Carillo went over the bar from 25 yards straight on in the 61st minute, and Luis Advincula did likewise with a left-footed effort seven minutes later.

Carillo caused a nervous moment with a cross in the 74th minute, but Farfan was too deep as his flying volley rippled the side netting. Ousmane Dembele, who entered the game for Mbappe in the 75th minute, narrowly missed sealing the victory eight minutes from time as he hit a low shot just wide of the left post after another knockdown pass from Giroud.

Peru’s last scoring chance came in the 87th minute with a free kick after a foul by Pogba, but while Farfan cleared the wall from 35 yards, he failed to pick out the right corner well enough as Lloris comfortably saved.

World Cup Recap — Match 5: France 2, Australia 1 (June 16)

VAR made its first game-changing impact at the World Cup in Kazan, where a penalty was awarded before Paul Pogba’s looping shot in the 80th minute allowed a sluggish France side to escape with a 2-1 victory over Australia in the opening match in Group C.

In the 55th minute, Antoine Griezmann broke into the penalty area, where Joshua Risdon appeared to have made a proper tackle to knock the ball away from Griezmann and to Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan. After play continued, video assistant referee Mauro Vigliano signaled to Andres Cunha to review the play just off the pitch.

After examining the replay, Cunha awarded a penalty to France, which Griezmann calmly slammed into the net in the 57th minute to open the scoring. Risdon was also given a yellow card for denying an obvious goal-scoring chance.

It was a short-lived lead for Les Bleus, however, as Australia equalized via a clear-cut penalty four minutes later. France defender Samuel Umtiti inexplicably made contact with the ball with his hand in the penalty area trying to clear a free kick taken by Aaron Mooy.

Mile Jedinak pulled the Socceroos level by putting the ball into the right side of the net as France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris dove in the opposite direction.

The introduction of substitute Olivier Giroud gave some shape to Les Bleus, who were able to pin Australia in its final third though not creating many threatening chances. The decisive goal by Pogba came after a pass from Giroud, and the Manchester United midfielder took a toe poke from the top of the penalty area that may have taken a slight deflection off an Australian defender as it looped over Ryan and hit the crossbar before dropping completely over the line to make it 2-1.

The three points gained hides plenty of issues for France, considered one of the pre-World Cup favorites with a very talented but also very young side under Didier Deschamps. Les Bleus failed to establish a rhythm for much of the match against a well-drilled Australia side that was not afraid to venture forward when it gained possession.

After an early flurry by France in the first 10 minutes of the match in which Ryan had to be alert on multiple occasions, Australia wound up with the best scoring opportunity of the opening 45 minutes. Mooy curled a free kick into no man’s land, where France midfielder Corentin Tolisso touched the ball and forced Lloris into a diving save by his left post.

France moves onto its second match in Group C against Peru on Thursday at Ekaterinburg, while Australia will try to regroup versus Denmark the same day in Samara.