World Cup Final: Croatia

In this summary – The Rivals compare the pre-tournament outlook on Croatia with how they look coming into the Final and who can have an impact.

A squad often underestimated by World Cup predictors, Croatia boasts a midfield full of dominant, Spanish league players, and an attack that has some top class Italian league players – both factors in their dark horse status. After not making it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa Croatia got back on track in Brazil in 2014 finishing 19th, their best finish outside of their 1998 3rd place finish in France. Can their elite and underrated talent carry them out of a competitive group into elimination games?

They have met expectations and far surpassed them, all at the same time. Coming from a 19th place finish in Brazil, Croatia has put it all together, melding a stout back line with what to me has been the best midfield tandem in the tournament with Rakitic and Modric, and topping it off with the clinical ability of Mandzukic. They’ve all shown up at the right time, and this World Cup may just be Croatia’s time.

Luka Modric – The main midfield man at Real Madrid, Luka Modric will be the heartbeat of everything that Croatia can muster up in Russia. One of the intangible players that every elite team seem to have amidst their midfield, Modric won’t necessarily be filling the score sheet, but his ability to dictate play and create link up passes that free the offence will be his contribution.

His WC: While we were dead on in predicting what Modric brings to this side (not that it’s hard to guess considering the player he is) where we missed out were his goals. Luka has gone on to score twice on his way to the Final and is the favourite to come out of it, win or lose, with the Golden Ball as the World Cup’s best player. He’s become a house-hold name for the fair-weather fan.

Ivan Perisic – Converting 11 goals in Serie A this season, Perisic evened that total with assists showing he can create as much as he can finish. A versatile attacking player who can take control of a game – with the striker options Croatia have, this could be a fun tournament for Perisic.

His WC: And what a fun tournament Perisic has had. He’s played the bulk of Croatia’s games, and contributed 2 goals. A sore spot for him would be missing a few golden chances, but it hasn’t mattered as they’ve made it to the Final anyway. Look for Perisic to atone for his past misses and pot a big one for his country today.

Andrej Kramaric – My dark horse player on a dark horse team, the 26-year-old striker from Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga could be the man to replace long servant and still potent target man and striker Mario Mandzukic.

His WC: Kramaric has definitely done his part for his country this World Cup, playing a total of 314 minutes coming into the final, and scoring 1 goal by his head. One of our dark horses coming into the tournament, he remains in that spot coming into the final where you can look to him to provide his team with a spark.

Do Big Club Struggles Mean a Better World Cup?

An end of game goal from defender Marcos Rojo saw Lionel Messi’s Argentina team through the group stages of the World Cup. A team that boasts Messi, Dybala, Aguero, and Higuain shouldn’t have struggled against Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia but they did. As much as it took a toll on Argentina fans hearts, for neutral viewers this World Cup may be the best in recent memory, and it’s all about the open doors elite teams are leaving the underdogs – or rather the doors the underdog teams for smashing open.

As fun as the round of 16 should be, few days will have as much tension and excitement as June 25th – the day Iran almost topped Portugal and Spain. Group B, the Group of Death was aptly titled but for all the wrong reasons. Spain and Portugal were in hot water on the final day of group play with Iran threatening to not only eliminate one of the two Iberian footballing giants, but win the Group! The football gods would not allow this to happen, however the thrill of a no call red card, or un-disallowed goal made tuning in and switching between the two simultaneous games a thrilling experience.

Like group B, groups E and F are full of potential world class upsets. Group E had bookie favourite to win the World Cup Brazil slotted in alongside Serbia, Switzerland, and Costa Rica. Despite Keylor Navas, Costa Rica was written off from the start, and it was believed that while Brazil would easily grab top spot, the group would have an interesting battle for second place between the Serbians and the Swiss. Fast forward to the final day of group play and we see the likes of Brazil facing a real threat of missing the group stages by losing to Serbia and Switzerland. Although this did not happen, Costa Rica who was out of contention to move on had a terrific final game and fought back to earn a 2-2 draw against Switzerland.

Group F was similarly destructive to “safe” sports bets all over the world and exciting to onlookers around the world. Germany have looked less than their elite selves leading up to this World Cup and started off poorly by dropping all three points against Mexico and needing a stoppage time free kick winner to defeat Sweden. Germany’s disappointment has translated to Mexican and Swedish joy as the unlikely happened. Germany needed to win against South Korea after Mexico put up a shockingly bad performance in a 3-0 loss to Sweden. To shock the work Germany fell 2-0 to South Korea in a result that saw Sweden and Mexico move on to the round of 16 while the defending champions go home.

France has made it through the group stages, but has done so in unimpressive fashion. They narrowly defeated Australia in their opening match 2-1, a close 1-0 win over Peru, and a 0-0 draw with Denmark. No one would have predicted that such a young, talented squad would be challenged when it came to goal scoring. But, the struggles for France meant an underdog team like Denmark were able to shut them down with strong defensive play and escape through to the round of sixteen.

Denmark’s spot through group play is an example of what some might call a symptom of a better World Cup – underdog success. But, It is hard to say “better” since enjoyment is so subjective based off of national support of each viewer. If we look at this World Cup objectively up to to this point it is a more competitive tournament that has made matches that include teams like Iran, Morocco, Sweden, and Switzerland much watch viewing.

Realistically there have only been three big-dogs who have gotten to eat so far – Uruguay, Belgium, and England. Uruguay were tagged as the group A favourites and haven’t disappointed going unbeaten in group play and not yet conceding a goal. Belgium and England reside in group G together and have collectively put up 16 goals (8 a team) against Panama and Tunisia. Sure their competition hasn’t been great, but both teams looked comfortable so far, and just have each other yet to play to determine who takes first in the group. So, a massive accolade to the the less elite ranked teams; you are making this World Cup different and exciting, not the football superpowers.

What Russia 2018 is proving is that the gap between the world elite and the underdog countries is quickly closing. Does this mean it is a better tournament? Maybe not, but more exciting? Absolutely. What this World Cup should be remembered for (so far) is the smaller nations having success on the world stage, upsetting the heavy favourites along the way.

Mexico vs. Sweden is the Match of the Group Stages – 200takes

Mexico and Sweden are both poised for a gritty battle to see who will take top spot in Group F in a match with massive implications. Many underdog teams and outside threats are taking their chances to succeed in Russia 2018; Group F has provided two teams thriving on their underdog status and relishing the chance to make the round of 16.

For Mexico it is all about two guys – the veteran Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, and youngster Hirving Lozano. Chicharito boasts the been there, done that status of his 102 international caps, and the clinical-ness of his 50 goals for his country. Lozano scored the only goal in the first game upset win over Germany. Look for these two players to create an impressive strike force against the Swedes.

For Sweden its is about rock solid defense between Granqvist, Lindelof, midfield control in the hands of Emil Forsberg, and target-man finishing from Ola Toivonen. If the Swedish team can flow from defense through to their tall centre forward they could trouble the Mexican defense who have looked strong.

Nearly too close to call, a draw would incite the most chaos as it would force Germany to have to win their game against South Korea.

Are Russia The Real Deal? – 200takes

Russia have concluded their preliminary group stage play and are officially moving on to the round of 16 on home soil. Russia started their campaign with a bang, smashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 and taking it to Mo Salah’s Egypt 3-1. Despite their strong start Russia flopped against group leader Uruguay in a 3-0 defeat. The 35 minute red card was a massive factor but it was just not Russia’s day.

Sure, Russia drew the “easy” group but that consisted of one of (if not) the best players of last season in Salah, and the tied leader for most goals in World Cup qualifying in Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (albeit in an easier qualifying group). The competition was still on paper world class, so credit has to be given to Russia there.

The disheartening news is that they faced real adversity once in this tournament and crumbled. They conceded a bad free kick and were scored on, hammered in an own goal, and took a red card in the first half alone. When the pressure was on they failed – So my final verdict is that if they score first they are the Real Deal, if not it’ll be early curtains for the home nation against Spain.

Keeper Cho Hyun-woo let Down by Lazy Penalty

In a close match, it comes down to a lazy, mistimed tackle that sees South Korea lose out on a sharing of points against Sweden in their World Cup opener. The real disappointing aspect of this game is that it all fell on Keeper Cho Hyun-woo’s shoulders to keep his team afloat after making an unbelievable save to in the first half and many more throughout the match.

Andreas Granqvist would step up and make no mistake on the penalty, converting in the opposite corner to that of where Cho dove. The Swedish captain went on to celebrate as if the tournament was won, as if the goal wasn’t a penalty, and as if he had scored it in a way that required more talent than the dead-ball gift that it was. Granqvist’s lack of humility of composure if indicative of Sweden’s game in this match.

Constantly crying to referee, demanding penalties, throwing tantrums in the face of the ref for free kicks, and harassing him up and down the pitch, Sweden may have won the match but it was hardly convincing and certainly was not in a manner that they can be proud of. South Korea had been first to many 50/50 balls, yet were punished when someone in blue and yellow would go flailing to the pitch on incidental or secondary contact to the ball.

Sweden not playing a prideful match will hardly matter to them at this point, as anything is currently possible in Group F with Germany losing their opener to Mexico. For South Korea, however there will be an uphill battle ahead of them if they want to make it out of the pool.

Should they collect some points in this match there are two things they need to do: move Heung-min Son to striker, and get more attempts on net. Moving Son to striker will physically adjust his mentality of play, making him feel less inclined to come back down the pitch and bring the ball forward. As South Korea set up their formation was a 4-3-3 with Son as a distinct left forward on the pitch. However, even with a left midfielder and leftback behind him on the pitch Son was constantly tracking back to pick up the ball to try and outlet play away from his end.

If Son is played up top S. Korea will immediately have an upgrade on striker, and any chances that do fall to the centre forward position will be in world class hands (or boots!). The fact of the matter is that Sweden had 15 shots with 5 on target, while S. Korea had 5 without any making it to the keeper. This isn’t good enough, frankly, and with much more challenging matches in their group with Mexico and Germany awaiting their matchups, South Korea needs to change their attack plan.

The lone bright spot in this match was the incredible play of Cho Hyun-woo. He is young, athletic, and was prepared for Sweden’s best in this match. He was left down by his defender and that is truly a shame. The entire team may not have deserved a win in this match but Cho definitely did.

Keylor Navas – Not So Overrated?

It’s only one game but against a formidable opponent like Serbia, Navas was on his A Game for his nation. Costa Rica would eventually go on to lose this match 1-0, however it was hardly on the hands of keeper Navas. An unnecessary foul given on the edge of the box saw Aleksandar Kolarov hit a world class free kick goal only rivalled by Cristiano Ronaldo so far in this years World Cup so far.

Navas was needed on three shots, while ten in total were directed towards his net. Serbia are a more globally heralded team and have a few players who are considered elite. Aleksandar Mitrovic at striker, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in midfield, and Nemanja Matic in defensive midfield are all examples, plus the likes of goalscorer Kolarov fits the elite bill. But, Navas was equal to the task of shot stopper this match, never more so than on a touch he got on a labelled low cross that was primed for a Kostic tap in. Navas read the play well and managed to get just a finger tip to the ball, knocking it out of the sweet spot on Kotic’s boot who skied the ball against his will.

Navas was Costa Rica’s man of the match, and as for most of the tournament he will be needed to stay at that team MVP level for Costa Rica should they have any success this year. For Navas personally this tournament may be the perfect opportunity for him to lay to rest the argument that he is not “elite”.

With Real Madrid constantly connected to the likes of David de Gea, Thibault Courtois, and Alisson Becker as replacements for Navas, he needs a good showing to shut up his critics. Maybe it is more because Real Madrid’s rivals Athletico Madrid and Barcelona have elite keepers in Jan Oblak, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen who are young (25 and 26). Navas, at 31 is the elder statesmen of the three top LaLiga keepers and this, perhaps, is why Real Madrid fans want a new keeper – they are tired of their veteran one, despite back to back to back Champions League trophies won with him in net.

Navas had a good start to his World Cup campaign despite the loss and is poised to keep his form in upcoming matches. However Navas, the pride of Costa Rica, has an uphill battle ahead of him and his team. Serbia claimed three points off of Costa Rica, while giants Brazil drew against a surprisingly solid Swiss team, leaving Costa Rica the only Group E team without a point as they match up against some elite competition. Navas has all the motivation he needs – global glory and reclaiming his stake (although he shouldn’t have to) as an elite LaLiga keeper, worthy of his spot on Real Madrid.

Nothing For Peru To Be Ashamed Of In World Cup Opener

A close 1-0 loss for Peru to open their 2018 World Cup campaign was far from ideal but looking at the match, Peru has a lot to be proud of and a lot to build on for their next games. After this great team performance but eventual loss there is one truisms that come to the forefront: you can’t control the other teams goalkeeper.

Kasper Schmeichel was channelling shades of his legendary father on the pitch today, shutting down the Peruvian attack at every opportunity. He did look shaky at times, and this was to be expected after his long injury lay off for Leicester City, but when it mattered he was exactly where he needed to be. The Peru attack did, at times, help him out by shooting the ball right at him, but on saves like his left hand stop on Cueva just after Denmark scored he was the Man of the Match for his nation.

This focus on offence leads us to two important points for Peru – their possession and shots – as they flipped the script on Denmark in the second half. The stat that shows this most effectively is the total possession percentage at the end of the game, with Peru taking the lions share with 53%. At 35 minutes into this game Denmark was holding on to the ball for a staggering 67% of possession. Peru were restricted to a heavily counterattacking style of football taking what Denmark gave them possession wise and using their immense team speed to stretch them out when they could. The second half, however saw them hold onto the ball and create plays rather than force them into existence.

The shots for Peru were also incredible this game. With 17 shots and 6 on target, the Peruvian attack forced Denmark back on their heels, and forced Schmeichel into his A game. Despite the most important shot being missed by Cuevo on his penalty kick, Farfan was a constant threat up top, Cueva brought the speed up the middle and Carrillo was stretching out the right side of the pitch all match.

For Peru the biggest turning point in the match was their knight in shining armour, Paulo Geurrero entering the game. The 62nd minute substitution for Edison Flores changed the complexion of the game for Peru. Cueva moved to the left and jumped to the top of the formation as a centre-forward. The polarizing forward was allowed to play in the World Cup as his suspension for doping was temporarily dropped, and the Peru supporters are thankful for this! He looked threatening immediately and just missed a couple key opportunities, most notably a sneaky back heel flick that curled just wide of the post.

For Peru this match was positive in outlook while disappointing in outcome. In group play France struggled with Australia who, despite playing well against France, capitalized on a really random and unnecessary hand ball by French defender Samuel Umtiti for a penalty goal. Although Peru are without a point they are only -1 on goal differential and made a statement in their opening match against Denmark. France and Australia will have a tall task against them in the form of Peru in Group C play.

Panama: World Cup Preview

Panama are new comers to the World Cup, with that comes a mixed bag of expectations all fuelled by the high emotions the team and supporters are riding on. Not to describe Panama’s success as unexpected, but the nation did celebrate their first ever World Cup qualification with a national holiday. But, hey it was a monumental occasion! Panama had been actively playing to qualify since the 1978 World Cup, it’s been a long time coming but Panama has qualified so why not celebrate?

Group G:
– Belgium
– Panama
– Tunisia
– England

Players to watch in Panama’s inaugural World Cup campaign:

Roman Torres – Captain of the Panama team, Torres will be crucial in keeping his team organized defensively, as based on the group draw, they will likely be defending often. The strong centreback captain will need to use his MLS experience and 108 international caps to keep his team motivated and ready to defend.

Blas Perez – Age is just a number, right? Well for 37 year old striker Blas Perez that seems to be the case. Continuing his trend of scoring for his nation, Perez has scored 10 goals in 35 matches for World Cup qualification. Honing his skills in the MLS Perez will get a nice swan song for his storied career, representing his home nation in their first ever World Cup.

Gabriel Torres – Another striker looking to make an impact, Gabriel Torres has a solid conversion rate and will be relied upon to make the most of the opportunities afforded to the Panama offence. In his 72 national appearances Torres has managed 15 goals. Now a member of Chilean League team Huachipato FC, Torres scored 9 goals in just 15 matches. He’ll need to keep that goals per game ratio high if Panama want to celebrate some offence this tournament.

It will be against all odds that Panama should move on or at they very least win a game in this group. Belgium and England are both studded with superstars, while Tunisia is no pushover either. For Panama their success has already been achieved by qualifying for their first ever World Cup. Now, it is about learning, playing, and making this a tradition the national team keeps up every four years from here on out.


Iran: World Cup Preview

A dark horse at the best of times, Iran drew the group of death in the 2018 World Cup with Spain and Portugal, meaning their success at this tournament will be metered. However, the bar is relatively low in World Cup history for Iran, so there is plenty of room for this team to have success and make their supporters proud in Russia. With only one win in World Cup history, coming in 1998 over the United States, Iran set their international pace that year as well with a 20th place finish (omitting their 1978 14th place finish with a record of 0-3-1). Can they succeed? Well, while their group is stacked against them their young star players could carry them to underdog success.

Group B:
– Portugal
– Spain
– Morocco
– Iran

Key players for Iran:

Sardar Azmoun – Iran could have a real impressive star on their hands her with 23 year old striker Sardar Azmoun. He is a continentally recognized player who is just coming into his prime as a centre forward. He has been honing his skills in Russia last season, managing 5 goals and an impressive 5 assists in 26 league games. His team, Rubin Kazan were a mid table 10th finish last season, partly in thanks to his offensive skills. As a player to watch now and for the future Azmoun is an impressive youngster with a lot to prove.

Saeid Ezatolahi – Another youngster, another Russian League player, and another impressive talent for Iran. Midfielder Saed Ezatolahi is a rather unknown player globally, but has been bestowed the title of “Persian Pogba” by onlookers. He played for Amkar Perm in the Russian League on loan last season from Rotov, who managed a 13th place finish. Last season he only scored one goal, but that isn’t his area of expertise. Look for Ezatolahi to be moving the ball in transition from defence to offence. He is a physical player who can ping a striking long ball pass, outletting team offence. Making his international senior team debut in Russia, keep an eye on this emerging 21 year old talent.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh – The pound for pound best player skill wise on the Iranian football team is Jahanbakhsh from the Dutch league’s AZ Alkmaar. The 24 year old attacking winger was slicing and dicing through opposition in the Netherlands, racking up 21 goals and 12 assists in 33 league games last season. A crucial member to this young, inexperienced national team for Iran, Jahanbakhsh can bring that top European pedigree to the team and lead by example in the department of goal scoring.

Okay, I think I have just turned myself into a supporter of team Iran. Throw the dark horse tag on the team and send them off to battle against world football giants, im betting on the underdog team from Iran! They have an exciting, young core of star players who are all taking strides in European leagues and gaining the international legitimacy for team Iran. Alright, i’m ordering my kit and all in – lets see some World Cup upsets from the unlikely hands of team Iran.



Russia: World Cup Preview

Team Russia are not only the hosts and the team to kick off the tournament, but also have the most pressure on them to give the home fans something to cheer about, hopefully going deep in the tournament. They have an extremely competative group, including Mohammad Salah’s Egypt, the unexpected Saudi Arabian side, and Luis Suarez’s Uruguay. Not making it through the group stages since 1986, Russia is poised to pick up their international performances in front of the hungry National team fans!

Group A: 
– Russia
– Saudi Arabia
– Egypt
– Uruguay

Russia players to lead their team and performers to highlight:

Fedor Smolov – Top striker in the Russian league at Krasnodar, Smolov is a domestically grown talent and is coming off of a strong offensive season for the 4th place team. Smolov thumped in 14 goals in 22 league games last season, an amazing pace for a striker. As well, he managed to score in an international friendly against a tough and exciting France side in March this season. When Russia scores look for Smolov to be the man.

Alan Dzagoev – Dzagoev is marketed as a box-to-box midfielder for Russia who will act as their heartbeat and pace maker (no pun intended) for the tournament. Playing at one of the Russian League’s iconic teams, CSKA Moscow, Dzagoev and his team finished second in the table after a terrific season of play. The midfielder scored 7 goals and added 8 assists in 36 games (all competitions), a great rate for a player who has both defensive and offensive responsibilities.

Igor Akinfeev – It is rare for a keeper to rank on a national team’s most important and must watch players list, but for captain Igor Akinfeev he is crucial to his team’s success. Alongside Dzagoev, Akinfeev plays are CSKA Moscow, and managed 15 clean sheets in 28 games of league play. He brings with him 106 international caps into the World Cup, and that experience in the most important position on the pitch should allow for Russia to be settled and organized defensively.

Russia will be hard-pressed to leave the group stages with the teams they find themselves against. Uruguay boasts the striker duo of Cavani and Suarez, while relying on a strong, elite backline of defenders, while Egypt are riding high on the wings of their 2017/18 breakout star Mohammed Salah. And, the proposed weak link in the group Saudi Arabia have done nothing but exceed expectations in qualification, and also have team star Mohammad Al-Sahlawi who scored 16 qualifying goals. It is an uphill climb for Russia in their home World Cup, but tough competition inspires world class performances.