And then there four…
While the top half of the draw has panned out as many had expected, with the obvious exception of Brazil’s premature departure, the bottom half has been almost impossible to forecast (as is evidenced in the MFW writers’ World Cup prediction table!).
No-one, literally no-one, had pencilled in Croatia, Russia, Sweden and England as quarter-finalists in the bottom half and so we really are in the realms of the unknown. Anything really does seem possible.
The good folk of Croatia are sharing in our ‘is this really happening?’ and no doubt have their own “Three Lions” equivalent tripping off their nation’s collective tongue.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, they’re rather less wide-eyed. Both France and Belgium expected to do well and have, so far, achieved no more than they expected. And whoever progresses from the St Petersberg semi will fancy their chances of completing the job in Moscow on Sunday.
Our rankings reflect this (they’re ranked by us according to their perceived quality, and we’re aware that France can’t play Belgium in the final!) but we should add that England have been ranked at four for no other reason than not wanting to tempt fate. 😉
1 – France
France still looked quite disjointed in open play. Despite hitting four past an accommodating Argentina defence, France are the lowest scorers of the four remaining sides with just nine goals in five games.
Deschamps is yet to discover a system to extract the offensive talent of his squad out and, as France often are, have become reliant on Kylian Mbappe as their main source of goals.
Mbappe’s directness and athleticism have been France’s major threat, but scepticism surrounding the tactics of their manager remains.
France do not add up to the sum of their parts under Deschamps and there is no guarantee they will hit their stride. They are far from infallible, and despite being the favourites due to their stature and depth of quality, they must put in more assured performances.
Ultimately, Deschamps is winning.
If nothing else, reaching the final of the European Championships in 2016 only increased the amount of expectation placed upon his, on paper, highly talented squad.
Sophistication is synonymous with the French, and this team lacks it at present.
In Belguim, they are facing the most complete team who have performed with panache and equilibrium throughout the tournament.
Deschamps may again be reliant on individual quality to secure Les Bleus place in Moscow on Sunday, but with the quality of this golden generation, if France manage to turn it on, they will be a formidable opponent for any side. (CS)
2 – Belgium
Coach Roberto Martinez will be reminding his Belgian players that in their last five meetings, France have won just once – a record that will not be lost on Didier Deschamp’s men either.
The win over Brazil was regarded as a shock by many but for the soccer purists, this had been coming for some time. Belgium, with a squad regarded as man-for-man one of the best in the world, have for too long flattered to deceive and despite having players plying in their trade in the top leagues in Europe they have too often struggled to pull together as a unit.
The phrase ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ is used to describe teams with average individuals who come together as an efficient and cohesive unit and are able to punch above their weight, but for several years the opposite has been true of Belgium. Their wonderfully talented individuals have not regularly been able to function as a unit and successive managers have found it difficult to manage the egos in the dressing room and use them to their full potential.
Martinez has though found a way. He has also found a formation that allows his creative players the freedom to express themselves without compromising the shape and defensive structure of the team.
By sometimes adopting a back-three – Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen – Martinez has been able to provide a solid base; one that gives his team the ability to soak up pressure when it’s required and also the ability to launch devastating counter-attacks.
Equally, they are effective with the ball and are more than equipped to have plenty of possession and be the ones to probe and ask the questions. Against Brazil, Martinez opted to play an attacking three – that unusually used Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku as a two-pronged attack who operated either side of a slightly deeper Kevin De Bruyne.
As a result, they dominated the first half against Brazil and took a two-goal lead, but the second-half was a very different story. With Brazil pushing and pushing, the Belgium defence was forced to defend desperately and rely at times on the brilliance of Thibaut Courtois, but despite conceding they heroically held on to secure their place in the semis with France.
It was a test of character and the Belgians came through with flying colours – character being something they’ve been accused of lacking in the recent past. It was also in evidence in their thrilling comeback against Japan in the last 16. And they’ll need it again when faced with the talented French.
3 – Croatia
Croatia were paraded as this World Cup’s surprise packages as soon as Ivan Rakitic stroked home his side’s third and final goal against Argentina.
Since then, though, they have struggled past Iceland thanks to a last-minute winner, before needing penalties to see off both Denmark and Russia.
But they have made the semi-finals, living up to drastically-heightened expectations – much like England. However, just like England again, this game will be their sternest test so far.
This is now the time for both sides to properly show their worth. Neither have they beaten a team truly top class yet (Jorge Sampaoli’s shambolic Argentina side don’t count), so Croatia, much like England, will be absolutely desperate to prove they belong.
If they’re going to do that, Luka Modric needs to continue his fine form – and pass completion percentage of 86 – along with his midfield partner Rakitic. This is where the Croats will be able to control the game; Jordan Henderson may have had an excellent World Cup but few midfields in the world can cope with these two on a good day.
It’s at either end of the field that Croatia may become unstuck. Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic has scored just one goal in five games, leaving plenty of pressure on the midfield to provide goals (luckily they are doing just that), while the centre-back pairing of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, while solid enough so far, will have their hands full against Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. If Croatia win that battle, England will be in trouble. (JG)
4 – England
This was meant to be a tournament without stress; without expectation; without Skinner and Baddiel. But a team that was surely too young and inexperienced to be anything more than ‘also-rans’ find itself one-match away from the World Cup final.
Southgate’s men have ripped up the script, not only by cruising past Sweden in the quarter-finals but by being genuinely likeable along the way. There has been a sense of arrogance and entitlement surrounding previous England campaigns. It’s one of the reasons that so many of our nearest neighbours are willing this team to fail. But the feeling is different this time around.
The cries of “it’s coming home” are not born out of expectation or complacency but out of sheer delirium from a fanbase that has reconnected and fallen back in love with its national team. Players who were dismissed and disregarded prior to the tournament have become household names.
Are they the finished article? Far from it. Have they had an easy route? Probably. But this is a team that has grown into the tournament, who look increasingly assured and crucially, seem to be immune from the weight of expectation that has crippled previous England squads.
Detractors and doom-mongers will still find plenty of reason to cast doubt; whether that’s Henderson’s sideways passing or Sterling’s wasteful finishing (for what it’s worth, I think both have been exceptional). But the fact remains, England have a semi-final against a side ranked lower in FIFA’s rankings.
Croatia will undoubtedly provide a stern test and in Modric, Rakitic and Perisic, possess genuinely world-class players but as we all know, anything can happen over the course of 90 minutes (or more). Whatever the outcome, Southgate and his young guns have done us proud and will surely return home to a heroes’ welcome. Buckle up and enjoy the ride. (SC)