World Cup Final: France

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.

In one of the more predictable groups, France’s star-studded roster brings along with it the highest expectations they’ve had in quite a few years.

It’s safe to say they’ve met expectations, but these players could become legends in their country and kick-off an amazing decade in French football if their young core can come together and pull out a win for the French. They’d become heavy favourites to take the next one in 2022.

Antoine Griezmann – Coming off a 19-goal campaign in La Liga where his club finished 2nd place, the striker looks to build on the success he’s had in previous international duties, scoring at a rate of a goal every 2 games. Much more is expected of him this time around as he’ll be looked at as the main man on France’s front line.

His WC: Antoine has kept this pace going on football’s highest stage, chipping in with 3 goals in 6 matches, and doing exactly what he needed to do to get his team to the Final. A world-class player, Greizmann will look to contribute at least one more in Russia to bring the gold back to France and maybe even have his face put on a stamp.

Paul Pogba – Paul Pogba is expected to be the main man in France’s quest to take back their place as giants.

His WC: While Pogba hasn’t been a firecracker on the scoresheet, (0 goals), he’s been the main point man in the middle of the pitch, which is most important. He’s doing his job exactly as he should be. The spine of the French team has been strong to this point, and while he’ll have his hands full with Modric and Rakitic, he’s more than capable of winning that battle.

Kylian Mbappe – At only 19 years old, he was also one of the highest priced transfers on record, falling behind only his PSG teammate, and perennial Ballon d’or challenger, Neymar. While it’s not known exactly how involved he’ll be when the tournament commences, it’s intriguing to think of how potent this offense could be with him included. My prediction is, he’s going to play a lot, and bring it.

His WC: Well, I have to say I was bang on with this one. Mbappe has taken the world by storm, and it looks as if there’s nobody that can stop him. He’s made blazing runs, scored 3 goals from open play, and dazzled audiences. The Croatian defence is going to get a steady dose of Mbappe today, and they’ll be hard-pressed to stop him.

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.

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.

Costa Rica: World Cup Preview

Perhaps the most surprising qualifier according to part-time fans. Not typically throw into the same breath as the Brazil’s, and Germany’s, but they have earned everything they’ve got. Since qualifying with 2 matches to spare, and finishing tops in last World Cup’s group of death above England, Italy and Uruguay, they shouldn’t be a shock. With no real ‘superstars’ to speak of, this team relies on a complete team effort, and it’s worked for them. It’s worked very well.

Group E
– Costa Rica
– Serbia
– Switzerland
– Brazil

Players to watch:

Bryan Ruiz: The former Fulham attacker, now representing Sporting CP of Portugal, will be captain of this year’s edition of the Ticos in Russia. He comes into this World Cup with boatloads of international experience, scoring 24 goals over his 110-match career. After scoring only 2 goals in Portugal’s top flight this past season, which matched his output from the 2014 tournament, he’ll be looking to get on the board quickly.

Keylor Navas: The highest profile player on this side, who’s freshly coming off of a Champions League title with Real Madrid, bring all the big-stage experience necessary to provide stability in the net. Looking ahead to a clash with offensive juggernauts Brazil, this is going to be his biggest test, and where he’ll need to hold his club in there, but he’s proven capable plenty of times before.

Joel Campbell: Now at 25 years old, the very capable striker has shown flashes of his ability, but now is the time he needs to do it on a consistent basis. He’s able to use his speed very well, and can beat players one-on-one, but Arsenal has loaned him out on several occasions because he isn’t able to sustain it. In a month-long grind, Costa Rica would be well-served if Campbell could find his legs and punch a few in the back of the net.

Thrust into another lesser group-of-death scenario, Costa Rica definitely has the ability to make it out to the next stage. With Brazil coming in as favourites to win, the Ticos will have to concentrate on taking their results from Serbia & Switzerland If they’ll have any hope of going on. But as they’ve shown in qualifying, and if they can carry their keepers winning mentality through, we should be seeing them some more.

Senegal: World Cup Preview

Looking for a team that is hard not to like and support? Look no further than Senegal! Lead by their captain and West Ham midfielder (sometimes defender) Cheikhou Kouyate, and Liverpool left wing ace Sadio Mane, Senegal are exciting, fast, and worth a shout in what promises to be the best group in the early stages of the World Cup. So, can they represent Africa outside of the group stages? Only time will tell, but the talent and skill is certainly there.

Group H:
– Poland
– Senegal
– Colombia
– Japan

Key Players for Senegal:

Sadio Mane – The main man in Senegal’s attack, look for Liverpool’s brutish and pacey winger Mane to lead the way for his team offensively. Combined on the left side with Diao Keita Balde that duo’s pace will cause problems for opposition. Mane scored 10 goals and added 7 assists in Premier League play last season, and was even more impressive in Champions League matching his 10 goals in just 11 matches. He is a big game player, speed machine and will be the driving force for the Senegalese attack.

Cheikhou Kouyate – The captain of the squad, Kouyate is a versatile player who can fit a need for Senegal, increasing his team value. Should he play in the midfield where he does for West Ham he is a box-to-box midfielder who can hold up play and is an aerial threat. He can make a defensive clearance in one moment and then be winning a header for a goal on the other side of the pitch right after. If he kicks his laziness out of his game he could be a crucial piece for Senegal. BONUS: look for his ever present wrist cast to change colours with Senegal’s kits.

Kalidou Koulibaly – The centre piece of both Senegal and Napoli’s back line, Koulibaly is a boss on the pitch and at only 26 years of age, promises to be a fixture in the Senegalese squad for years to come. At 6’4″ tall and nearly 200lbs he is a beast to deal with and that physical play not only comes in handy defensively, but also offensively helping in securing 5 goals this season. Look for this mountain of a man to lead from the back for Senegal.

Their pool is competitive but does not have any real tournament favourites in it, opening the door for the likable team Senegal to make it the the round of 16. Their attack, while supported heavily by Mane, also features Balde Diao a pacy outside attacker, and a “scores when he wants” striker is Diafra Sakho. Should the midfield of Idrisa Gueye and the Ndaiyes be able to get the ball to their attackers, this is going to be one fun team to watch!

Belgium: World Cup Preview

Betting odds aside, Belgium are here and ready to take over top spot in world football. Lead by elite players from all over Europe, the Belgian attack is lethal and unrelenting. Strikers? Michy Batshuayi and Romelu Lukaku. Forwards? Dries Mertens, Yannick Carrasco, and Eden Hazard. Midfielders? Kevin De Bruyne, Moussa Dembele, and Thorgen Hazard. Oh, and Thibault Courtois in net. Yeah – they’re stacked to the gills and will be a heavy favourite to make it to the finals simply based on their skill alone. The players have been clicking in pre-tournament tune ups and hopefully for them the Belgian machine is fine tuned and ready to roll.

Group G: 
– Belgium
– Panama
– Tunisia
– England

A few (of many) players to watch for:

Romelu Lukaku – The big man up top for Manchester United, Lukaku has a bit of his chip on his shoulder, and something to prove for himself as he is often slated as only being able to score against lesser opponents. With the world watching Lukaku will work to shatter that myth. He managed 27 goals in 51 games (all competitions) this season, so he knows where to go for goals. But he is a superstar – striker at Manchester United, and even has his face plastered on bus stop ads here in Toronto! Look out for the big man, coming fresh off of a brace against Costa Rica.

Kevin De Bruyne – Pulling the strings in the midfield with Premier League winners Manchester City, KDB bossed it this season and has crept up the rankings of top players in the world. He is an assist king – whether it be over the top, a long pass down the wing, or a slick and slicing through ball to spring an attack forward, he always seems to find his targets. 16 Premier League assists, and 21 total in all competitions, De Bruyne makes his teammates better and is a good shout for tournament MVP.

Dries Mertens – The centre forward from Napoli has been a revelation this season for Italian side Napoli and their quest to topple Juventus atop Serie A. Although they finished second, Merten’s goal scoring ability helped in their ascension up the ranks of Italian football, as he scored 18 goals in 38 league games, adding 6 assists in the process. His application will be interesting to see; as a centre forward he can be an out and out striker or roam behind Lukaku and Batshuayi. Wherever he slots in for Belgium look for his name to frequent the score sheet.

Outside of the bookies favourites, Germany and Brazil, France and Belgium are both two insanely talented and young squads that can have coming out parties in Russia this year. The attacking power on Belgium is equally balances by their defenders : Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Kompany, Munier, Dendoncker. The squad is nicely assembled and has players like Fellaini, Dembele, and T. Hazard who can be used in specific roles to help close out wins. Do not be surprised if the Belgian team is lifting the trophy at the end of the tournament!

How I Would Line Up England, And Why It Will Never Happen

Yes, Skybet… a lot of changes necessary!

Lets hope numbers are just number for Gareth Southgate, as the lineup they incite is less than inspiring for England.

The Problem? The formation is defensive by nature. Call it three at the back if you’d like, but Rose and Walker will be responsible for a lot of defensive coverage especially with elite teams like their group stage likely winner Belgium, who can spread their offence out wide.

Furthermore, one of the biggest puppeteers in the Premier League, Dele Alli, is seemingly missing from this formation. Alli, who’s 14 goals and 17 assists in all competitions this season (50 games) is a talent Southgate really can’t do without in this tournament.

So how would I line up England? Thanks for asking!

England 2018

4-2-3-1 – That’s my formation, and here’s why:

Sitting two defensive midfielders like Henderson and Dier in front of your back four allows for explosive players like Walker and Rose to burst up the wings in attack. Dier, who has played extensive time at CB for Tottenham, could actually slip back into a centreback role should he need to depending on the situation. Defensively a 4-2-3-1 provides fluidity, and seeing as how half of the team is from Tottenham, the chemistry should be there already!

“Pope!? Why Pope?” Well statistically it makes sense:
Clean sheets – 12
Goals against – 35
Goals allowed per game – 1
Clean sheets – 6
Goals against – 61
Goal allowed per game – 1.7
Clean sheets: 10
Goals against: 58
Goals against per game: 1.5

Why not reward Pope with international playing time when he was the better keeper this season? He helped Burnley to an improbably 7th place finish in the Premier League, and took advantage of the goal keeper situation as he never let go of the reigns, making Tom Heaton the odd man out. He is also the most senior keeper on the squad at 26 (Butland 25, Pickford 24) and while there may not be much between them age and experience matter when the world’s eyes are upon you!

So, just one striker in that 4-2-3-1? Yup, but four attackers in total. England’s skill depth may be mostly in their attacking midfielders, so why not emphasize that? When you have pace mixed with skill, which Lingard, Alli, and Sterling all have, you can force the opposition to keep players back to deal with those attacking options. Plus, all three of those players have played in advanced attacking roles this season, so Kane would be FAR from isolated up top in this formation.

That leaves two pacey strikers on the bench – Jamie Vardy, and Marcus Rashford. Well, yes but life isn’t fair boys! Realistically, both could fit into this formation as either a striker option (Vardy, more likely) or one of the attacking midfielders (Rashford here). The presence of these players, and what the hell, i’ll include Danny Welbeck here too, is that they can all feature in this attacking four formation. Outside of Kane who should be a lock to start every game for England, the rest are interchangeable which is a good thing.

So why won’t it happen? Because Gareth Southgate is too scared to lose to play this type of attacking football. Instead, Southgate will rely on playing essentially seven defenders including wingbacks and defensive midfielders, while hoping that counter attacking with his three forwards will be enough to win matches. It’s a losers mentality in my mind, plus England has such good forward who are young and exciting. Why waste talent for the sake of fear of losing?

Brazil: World Cup Preview

Odds on favorite to win it all, Brazil are loaded with elite, world class talent and have a squad that will drag them deep in this tournament. Led by the enigmatic and skillfully tactical Neymar, Brazil are win or bust with this team and have some demons to exorcise too. Last World Cup, with a squad comparable to the insane one they will field this year, in front of their own home nation, Brazil CRUMBLED and fell apart against Germany to lose out 7-1 to the eventual World Cup champions. Out for revenge and to reassert themselves in this tournament, Brazil are not messing around.

Group E:
– Brazil
– Costa Rica
– Serbia
– Switzerland

While the whole roster could be highlighted here are just 3 players to watch for:

Neymar – The Barcelona star, turned PSG French league champion, Neymar is the only name in recent memory to enter in to the name tier of Messi and Ronaldo. In 20 league games this season, cut short with injury, Neymar scored 19 goals and 15 assists. That is incredible, and the fact that PSG didn’t go deeper in Champions League will fuel his fire even more to cement his place outside of Messi’s shadow. 26 years old now, Neymar has the experience mixed with talent to drive a team… but he doesn’t have to because this team is deep!

Fred – Another one name wonder, Fred gets the spotlight after impressing in Champions League play this season for Shakhtar Donetsk. While not a goal scorer or play maker on the box score, Fred will patrol Brazil’s midfield, breaking up the oppositions transition game, and finding the many outlets up top Brazil has at their disposal to create the teams offence. Rumored to be moving to Manchester United, Fred has a lot to prove in this tournament.

Marcelo – The seemingly ageless, shaggy headed, leftback attacker(?) from Real Madrid will pilot the exciting Brazilian squad this World Cup. Whether he has the armband or not, Marcelo has an overwhelmingly positive mentality and will be embraced as a leader on the team and his gamesmanship will hopefully rub off on the entire team. Although a defender by position, Marcelo is so dynamic in attack that he seems to overlap often and wind up in the oppositions box either lacing through balls or hammering home shots.

Brazil almost doesn’t need a preview – their squad speaks for itself. But, the depth of attack is so crazy that the likes of Firmino from Liverpool and Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City will combine up top for this team. Their back line consists of Danilo, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Miranda, Marcelo and Filipe Luis, keepers Alisson and Ederson are both elite, and their midfield led by Casemiro, Paulinho, and Fernandinho prove this team is so deadly.


Nigeria: World Cup Preview

Nigeria are already winners of the most important part of the World Cup, the honor of best kit in the World Cup. Even with the green and black chevrons grabbing your eye, don’t let that distract you from the attractive football that the Nigerian team will play with. Littered with top European club talent, Nigeria will capitalize on their immense pace and star power to hopefully escape what will be a super competitive group.

Group D:
– Argentina
– Croatia
– Iceland
– Nigeria

Some of the top class Nigerian players to watch for:

Ahmed Musa – The pace merchant up top got the majority of his playing time after a timely loan move to Russia from Leicester City in January this season. Joining CSKA Moscow, Musa netted a miraculous 6 goals and three assists in ten matches for the second place Russian League team. Musa will have defenders on their heels with his piercing runs and incredible speed. If Nigeria opt for a counter attack, count on Musa to be their man up top. Musa may not be a started but he can destroy a tired team as an impact sub.

Kelechi Iheanacho Another Leicester City man, Iheanacho joined West Ham from Manchester City last summer and slowly waded into Premier League starting life but got comfortable quick. Three goals and three assists in 21 league matches isn’t all that impressive, but the 21 year old versatile attacker also added four goals in 5 FA Cup matches. Nigeria will rely on him as a big game player, as his FA Cup form suggests, and be that offensive monster he can be.

John Mikel Obi – The long serving captain of the Nigerian international team, John Mikel Obi has played in an impressive 83 games for his home nation. The 31 year old midfielder is the heartbeat of his team, and with the likes of Wilfred Ndidi (yet another Leicester player) the central midfield will be solid. If experience counts for anything, Obi can use his immense CV to support his team on and off the pitch.

Nigeria have a pretty solid chance of duking it out with the rather equal level of competition within their group. Their game will definitely rely on their speed, but play makers like Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) and Victor Moses (Chelsea) add a lot of skill to the Nigerian attack on top of their pace. They may register as a dark horse, but don’t fall asleep on this team full of burners.