Key battles in World Cup semifinals

1 Comment

With the 2018 World Cup semifinals taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday, the focus is switching to where each of the games will be won and lost.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Below we focus on France vs. Belgium and Croatia vs. England, as some pivotal battles will take place across the pitch to decide who makes the final on Sunday in Moscow.

Take a look below as we break down the big battles to watch. My goodness, this will be epic.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


France vs. Belgium (Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET in Saint Petersburg)

N'Golo Kante vs. Kevin De Bruyne
With KDB deployed further forward against Brazil for Belgium, the battle between the Man City playmaker and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante will be intriguing in front of France’s back four. De Bruyne may play a little deeper against France but that still lines up a collision course with the most destructive holding midfielder on the planet in Kante. His main job will be to stop Belgium from launching their blistering counters and keeping De Bruyne locked down is key to halting those attacks. What a battle this will be.

Raphael Varane vs. Romelu Lukaku
The power of Lukaku against the finesse of Varane. Lukaku has scored four times for Belgium at this World Cup but you can argue that his hold-up play and the timing of his runs has been even more impressive. Varane scored in France’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay and the Real Madrid center back has looked as calm and composed as always at the heart of the Les Bleus defense. Lukaku will try and bully Varane who loves to step high and intercept balls into a targetman.

Kylian Mbappe vs. Vincent Kompany
In all honesty we could have picked any one of Belgium’s back three with Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld expected to start alongside Kompany, but there’s no doubting that Mbappe will try to target Belgium’s veteran leader in Kompany. Mbappe, just 19 years old, has searing pace and with Belgium eager to attack he may get plenty of chances to rip their defense open on the break, just like he did against Argentina. Kompany has proven his fitness but the Man City skipper has shown a few shaky moments so far. His nous and supreme reading of the game is undoubted and he will need all of it to shut down Mbappe.


Croatia vs. England (Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET in Moscow (Luzhniki)

Luka Modric vs. Jordan Henderson
This may be the biggest challenge of Henderson’s career. The Liverpool skipper has been a rock in front of England’s fluid three-man defense but he will have the unenviable task of stopping Modric from dictating the tempo of the game. Real Madrid’s magician has won the Man of the Match award in three of his five games at the World Cup and is a serious contender for the Golden Ball as the best player at the 2018 tournament. If Henderson can’t stop Modric linking up with his central midfield partner Ivan Rakitic then England is in big trouble. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard won’t offer Henderson much defensive help in midfield, so maybe Eric Dier will come in to help shore things up. Modric is the man of the moment.

Dejan Lovren vs. Harry Kane
This particular battle hasn’t gone well for Lovren in recent times with Kane bullying him at Wembley Stadium last season en-route to a 4-1 win for Tottenham against Liverpool. Kane leads the World Cup with six goals but what has been more impressive is the way he has lad the line, held up the ball and taken a battering for his team. Lovren played superbly for Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final and has played well for Croatia in this tournament, despite the occasional slip-up. Lovren will have to play a near perfect game to stop Kane given his current form. This battle will perhaps be the key to determining who reaches the final.

Ivan Perisic vs. Kieran Trippier
An intriguing battle this will be down England’s right flank. Trippier has been a revelation at right-wing back but Perisic will be a huge test for the Tottenham full back. The Inter Milan star not only has the ability to score and create goals at key moments but his work rate sees him buzz down the left channel tirelessly and Trippier will not be able to switch off for a minute. That channel between Trippier and Kyle Walker has been a slight problem for England at times as Walker pushes forward from center back and Croatia may look to thread balls to Perisic as soon as they can when launching counter attacks.

Wolves on VAR review of golazo: “I was hoping to stay happy”

Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nuno Espirito Santo issued the definitive quote of the VAR era after Wolves’ equalizer withstood video review in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Monday at the Molineux.

“I was hoping to stay happy.”

[ RECAP: Wolves 1-1 Man Utd ]

Espirito Santo saw VAR dramatically play a role in Wolves fortunes for the second-straight week, and the manager was not too happy with it on opening weekend when Willy Boly‘s handball was found to have assisted Leander Dendoncker‘s goal.

This time, VAR held up its end of the bargain in Wolves favor, as the cross that led to Ruben Neves’ incredible goal was found to be onside. From the BBC:

“I don’t know how they will solve it – it’s the emotion, you celebrate a goal so much and then you stay in silence. Don’t take that away from the people.”

The problem, of course, is money. So much is riding on qualifying for Europe, staying in the Premier League, etc. When sports became a big business, and managers aren’t complaining about their salaries, the science overtook the spirit.

Espirito Santo is correct that the wait to confirm a goal takes away from the joy of sport. It also will deny of us of the next “Hand of God” (and England would not have won its lone World Cup had goal line technology been around).

But ultimately, it will keep the correct score on the board. And that matters.

Pogba misses 2nd half penalty in Man Utd-Wolves draw

Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ruben Neves scored an amazing goal and Rui Patricio stopped a Paul Pogba penalty as Wolves took a point from Manchester United in a 1-1 match at the Molineux on Monday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ] 

United had two-thirds possession but could not find what would’ve been a deserved winner as Wolves flummoxed the Red Devils attack.

Anthony Martial scored for the second-straight match for United, who failed in a bid to go atop the Premier League.


Three things we learned

  1. Paul Pogba is to penalties as Shaquille O’Neal is to free throws – You just can’t understand how someone so good at his sport is so poor at what should be the easiest part of his game.
  2. Martial is a beauty, and is fully released from the shackles of Jose Mourinho. Whether he can take the next step is another story, but the Frenchman is a fitting winger for a Champions League club (even if United isn’t quite in the UCL).
  3. Patricio didn’t show the Premier League his very best last season, but has looked more like the Portugal national team goalkeeper so far in his sophomore PL campaign.

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men were content to let the visitors have the ball and work on the counter, and United quickly moved the ball in possession over the first stages of the game.

United took a deserved lead through Martial who ran onto a Marcus Rashford through ball and belted a rocket over a flailing Rui Patricio.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Neves brought Wolves level with a sublime bit of shooting, curling a majestic shot above and around the United back line to make it 1-1.

Watching the footage as it was being reviewed showed the margins so thin, but the goal held up and anyone hoping for some semblance of sanity was relieved.

United looked set to go back in front when Pogba drew a penalty off Conor Coady with a cutthroat move in the 18, but the Frenchman slammed his effort into the path of a diving Patricio.

WATCH: Ruben Neves spins an otherworldly ball over David De Gea

Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Let us introduce you to your latest Goal of the Season contender.

Ruben Neves, who seemingly only scores beauties, struck again on Monday at the Molineux.

[ MORE: Neymar to Barca ]

The 22-year-old Portuguese playmaker loves to shoot as much as anyone, and set himself up clinically for his latest amazing marker.

Once Neves collected the ball atop the 18, he spun this magnificent effort over the flying David De Gea and off the underside of the bar to restore the deadlock in Wolverhampton.

De Gea may well have responded to this goal by quoting Ron Burgundy when Baxter ate the entire wheel of cheese.

Sensational.

AT HALF: Martial, Rashford team up for impressive opener

Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester United has a stylish opening goal in its quest to go a perfect 2-for-2 in Premier League play.

After quality passing in traffic ended with Marcus Rashford slipping a through ball in to both Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial, the Frenchman bolted a ball into the upper reaches of the net.

[ STREAM: Wolves – Man Utd ]

To be honest, Rui Patricio had little recourse.

The goal is Martial’s second of the season, and United is 45 minutes away from moving atop the league.