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 The OT: World Cup Writing Volume 5

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The quarter and semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup are now in the books. The six games didn’t really produce the drama we saw in the round of 16 but the best game of the tournament so far did take place between Brazil and Belgium in the quarter-finals.

We are now left with two teams standing. Congratulations to France and Croatia – they have a fairly important game to look forward to in Moscow on Sunday (4pm BST, 11am EST).

This is the final edition of The OT for this World Cup and after quickly looking back at the games that have taken place over the last week I will present some feedback from Brazil as well as hearing from a friend who went to Russia as a fan.

QUARTER-FINALS

The stakes are always high when this stage of the World Cup is reached. The teams can almost reach out and touch the final so as a result we sometimes get served up a more nervous, defensive brand of football. Injuries and suspensions are also a reality when this stage of a tournament is reached and Uruguay and Brazil definitely missed players who may have made a difference.

The quarter-final stage got underway one week ago as Uruguay took on France in the afternoon fixture. Uruguay had to play without Edinson Cavani, which deprived them of so much. The strike partner for Luis Suarez was ruled out with a calf injury, effectively leaving Suarez as the only goal threat for the South Americans. Against an accomplished team like France this wouldn’t be enough. Uruguay fell behind when Verane headed in a free-kick in the 39th minute. It was a bit of a surprise to see the normally strong Uruguay defence caught out by a set piece but the delivery from Griezmann was high quality. Uruguay were hanging in but were undone by a horrible goalkeeping error in the 61st minute – Muslera, usually very reliable in goal, allowed Griezmann’s shot to slip through his grasp and France had a 2-0 lead. They were never going to surrender that.

On Saturday, England and Sweden took part in the early fixture. Sweden, similar to Uruguay are built on a solid defence but falling behind is a problem for them. That is exactly what happened when McGuire’s header gave England the lead after 30mins. It was England’s tenth goal of the tournament and their eighth one from a set-piece. In this case a fine corner delivered perfectly by Young. It was clear by now that England had spent lots of time working on set-pieces and in these tight, tactical international games this is a wise move. An early second half goal from Alli killed the game off although England’s goalkeeper Pickford was called into action on three occasions as Sweden tried desperately to get back into the contest.

Following that hosts Russia took to the field against Croatia. Both teams had played extra-time in their round of 16 fixtures so fatigue was expected to play a part. After a fairly uneventful 90 minutes (1-1, Cheryshev put Russia ahead with a beautiful shot on 31 mins, Kramaric headed Croatia level on 39 mins) we went to extra-time. Despite looking tired it was Croatia who grabbed the bull by the horns as Vida headed in a corner in the 101st minute. Russia weren’t going to go away though and looking surprisingly energetic they piled on the pressure. It was rewarded in the 115th minute when Fernandes headed in a free-kick to equalise. See what I mean about set-pieces being absolutely vital! We went to a penalty shootout and Croatia emerged victorious 4-3 after their goalkeeper, Subasic had saved the first Russia penalty and Fernandes hit his attempt wide of the post.

The best game of the tournament took place last Friday evening. Brazil and Belgium looked like a great matchup on paper and it certainly delivered. Brazil’s anchor-man in midfield, Casemiro was missing due to a suspension and they missed him badly in the first half. A quality corner kick (another one) from Chadli caused Fernandinho to inadvertently head into his own net to give Belgium a 13th minute lead. The Europeans were over-running Brazil in midfield and this was demonstrated perfectly when Lukaku rampaged past the Brazil midfielders and played a perfect ball to De Bruyne. De Bruyne advanced to the edge of the box and cracked a low shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Just over half and hour had elapsed and Brazil were in trouble. The second half saw Brazil come into the game as an attacking force but whatever they tried was either blocked by some last ditch defending or saved by Belgium’s goalkeeper, Courtois. Courtois was finally beaten in the 76th minute when substitute Augusto headed in Coutinho’s perfect cross. That setup a grandstand final 15 minutes but Brazil could not find the equaliser despite trying everything. It was a quarter-final exit for the pre-tournament favourites.

SOME WORDS FROM BRAZIL

Brazil are the most successful team in World Cup history, lifting the trophy on five occasions. The last time they won it was 2002 so I wondered how their latest exit was received back home. Via Twitter boxing writer Dan Attias put me in touch with Rio based writer Robbie Blakeley (@rio_robbie on Twitter). Robbie told me: “To be honest their exit was met with a slight apathy. Following the economic and political crises in the country over the last couple of years there wasn’t the same enthusiasm for the World Cup this time around, despite Brazil’s tag as favourites. While there was disappointment, elimination was met more with a shrug of inevitability rather than outrage and tears.”

I must say this surprised me as I had assumed the football mad country would have been obsessed with seeing their team go all the way in Russia. It just show that even in Brazil, sometimes football isn’t the most important thing.

Another surprise in a tournament full of them was the semi-final lineup. France vs. Belgium and England vs. Croatia meant that for the fourth tournament in a row the winners would come from Europe. It would also be the first time in World Cup history that one of Brazil, Germany or Argentina weren’t in the semi-finals.

SEMI-FINALS

On Tuesday France and Belgium played out a fairly uneventful 90 minutes. Belgium were on the front foot for much of the first half but France held firm, thanks to sold midfield play from Kante and Pogba who protected their back four brilliantly, and took the lead on 50 minutes when Umtiti headed in a corner kick. Young French forward Mbappe had another good game, troubling Belgium with his pace and skills as France looked to double their lead. Towards the end Belgium pressed but they didn’t ever look like they believed they had a goal in them. France, now with a real identity about their team, advanced to the final and look like they are primed to win the World Cup for a second time.

Standing in their way will be Croatia. Wednesday night saw Croatia take on England. England got off to a dream start when Trippier curled in a beautiful right footed free kick from 23 yards after five minutes. England then proceeded to dominate but couldn’t make their good play count when Kane uncharacteristically missed the type of chance he normally finishes with ease. Croatia were far better in the second half, pushing England further and further back and getting their reward when Perisic ran across England’s defence to flick in Rebic’s right wing cross. There only looked like being one winner now and Perisic hit the post as Croatia pressed but the goal didn’t arrive and extra-time would be required. Croatia for the third successive game would be going the full 120 minutes. Gruelling. Their winning goal arrived in the 109th minute as man of the match Perisic won a header and the England defence allowed Mandzukic to ghost in and place the ball into the bottom corner. England couldn’t find an equaliser and Croatia will contest their first ever World Cup final on Sunday.

THE RUSSIA EXPERIENCE

Up until now the World Cup has delivered. Overall it has been a superb tournament, full of drama and great play. From watching at home it has also seemed like a very well organised event which the host nation should be proud of. In order to be sure about this I re-connected with an old school friend of mine. Martin McFarlane, who is now based in Champaign, Illinois went to Russia to take in four matches in two different cities. Thanks to Chris Hynd for messaging Martin on Facebook therefore putting me back in touch with him I was able to hear about Martin’s time in Russia: “The atmosphere was amazing. Just really really friendly. All we saw were happy people dancing with each other and taking photos. There was a noticeable police presence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. I never saw one policeman actually have to interfere during the whole trip. Transportation was really easy. The two subway systems I used – Moscow and St. Petersburg – were really easy to navigate and had huge signs everywhere directing you to the stadiums. On the day of the match you just showed your fanID and rode it for free. I was in Brazil 2014 and it’s impossible to compare the two trips and countries but I will say the transportation and organisation in Russia was absolutely first class. The Russian people were so friendly. They genuinely seemed happy that all these tourists were coming to see Russia.

From that first hand account it seems like the fan experience in Russia was a very positive one and the host nation did a marvellous job welcoming the world for a month. After a festival of football we are down to the final two games. Belgium and England will contest the largely pointless third/forth place playoff on Saturday before the main event between France and Croatia on Sunday.

FINAL PREVIEW

Given that we have seen so many surprises during Russia 2018 would it really be a huge shock to anyone if Croatia overcame the odds to win the World Cup? Despite knowing better I am going to say yes. It would surprise me as this French team is now settled, the starting eleven pretty much pick themselves and based on a solid defence and disciplined midfield they allow their danger men Mbappe and Griezmann to create and cause problems for their opponents. France have negotiated all three of their knockout games in the 90 minutes so will also be the fresher team on Sunday.

Croatia can win the game, but after having played three consecutive extra-time matches I think they may well run out of steam against the French wall they are going to face. If they are to prevail they must keep their wide players high up the pitch while giving as much of the ball as possible to their magician Modric. It has been some run for Croatia to get to this stage but I can see them just falling short, losing out by 2 goals to 1 as France become the kings of world football.

I hope you have enjoyed reading these World Cup dispatches as much as I have enjoyed putting them together. The tournament has flown by, as it always does, and as soon as it is over the countdown to Qatar 2022 will be on. Here are the final trends and facts to finish off with.

PENALTY KICKS/RED CARDS – none of either in the six games looked at in this volume. VAR wasn’t really involved much during these games although Brazil had an appeal looked at for a penalty against Belgium but the panel watch on TV agreed with the referee’s on-field decision.

FREE KICKS – Trippier’s goal for England in the semi-final was the first direct free kick scored in the tournament since Suarez of Uruguay scored against Russia in the final round of group matches way back on June 25th. After a fast start the amount of goals scored via direct free kick settled down, which was a bit disappointing. I do love a good free kick finding its way into the net. Who knows perhaps we will see something special in the final!

TOP SCORERS – Kane, England, 6

Lukaku, Belgium, 4, Griezmann, France, 3; Mbappe, France, 3; Hazard, Belgium, 3. I only included players who still have some football left to play. It is looking good for Kane to win this particular award unless Lukaku does something special in the third place play-off or Griezmann or Mbappe have a huge game in the final.

GOAL OF THE TOURNAMENT – spoilt for choice and I can’t narrow it down to just one. My three favourites were all from the group stage. Nacho’s perfect strike for Spain against Portugal, Modric’s beautiful curler against Argentina and Kroos’ angled goal for Germany against Sweden are all worthy winners of this in my opinion. Which was your favourite?

TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT – I’m going to give the marathon men of Croatia this honour even before the final takes place. They may not win it but they have come together and worked hard to have a chance of reaching football’s pinnacle. Not bad for a country of only four million people.

Read more from Morrie here.

A boxing fan since his teenage years, Morrison began writing about the sport in July 2016. He appreciates all styles of boxing and has nothing but respect for those who get in the ring for our entertainment. Morrison is from Scotland and can be found on Twitter @Morrie1981.

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