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PST’s World Cup roundtable: Pre-Final edition

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What an intoxicating tournament.

It’s hard to say anything else as France and Croatia prepare for the 2018 World Cup Final.

[ MORE: Premier League TV schedule released ]

From Russia’s blowout opener and the Spain-Portugal thriller right down to Wednesday’s semifinal tussle between Croatia and England, this tournament has been as close to unforgettable as we’ve seen in some time.

The ProSoccerTalk staff is answering questions ahead of Sunday’s final.

Forget their age, Who would you rather have in your midfield for a one-game winner-take-all final: N'Golo Kante or Luka Modric?

Joe Prince-Wright: Luka Modric on current form. But only just. Does all the simple things well and forces opponents to totally change their defensive shape.

Nicholas Mendola: Kante is amazing, but there are a few players of his ilk/style that can come close to replicating what he does so well. Modric types are more difficult to find, and given the insane year he’s had — much of it his doing — I’m amazed he’s been able to stay so laser-focused.

Kyle Bonn: Modric has had a wonderful World Cup and may win the Golden Ball, but in the modern game, N’Golo Kante is potentially the most valuable piece of any top European team, and any teambuilding starts with him.

Matt Reed: It’s such a tough decision because they offer such different aspects, but if you’re looking for a player that does what he’s asked every single match I’m going with N’Golo Kante. His positioning and tactical awareness are always flawless, and Kante’s ability to essentially serve as a fifth defender makes life very difficult for opposing sides to break them down.

Dan Karell: I think Modric. He’s just so good all-around, and playing at Real Madrid has taught him the defensive side of the game. He’s certainly not as good defensively as Kante but I think he’s so much better with the ball than Kante is that it outweighs the defensive skill Kante has.

Nikola Kalinic (L) and Modric (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

Scale of 1-10, 1 being “not a chance” and 10 being “it’s haaaapppening,” what odds does Croatia have of winning on Sunday?

JPW: 4 out of 10. Croatia’s exertion have to catch up with them soon but France will be very wary.

NM: 3. I don’t want to bet against a relentless Croatia, but France has gotten it done without hitting its top gear. That probably comes Sunday, and the tired Bleus will have a trouble matching that over 90.

KB: 5! I truly believe this is a wide open match. Croatia has earned the right to have an equal chance at winning this game. They have tactically been superior to every team they’ve played so far.

MR: It’s easy to argue that Croatia has benefited from being on the “easier” side of the draw, but they’ve done everything necessary to take care of business and reach this point. That said, the Croats have played an extra game… and then some… with three consecutive extra time efforts. I just don’t envision them being able to find complete fitness ahead of the final, so I’ll go with a 4.

DK: 7. Croatia has defied the odds up till this point in the knockout stages and has grown into every game they’ve played. Assuming they’re still drinking some of MJ’s Secret Stuff and have energy on Sunday, they will surely put France on the defensive. If France doesn’t score a couple of quick goals in the first 20 minutes of the game, Croatia has a great chance to lift the title.

Are Croatia’s three trips to extra time going to crush them?

JPW: Not crush but hamper. France also had an extra day of rest and Croatia have wracked up the miles in this tournament.

NM: That and one day’s less rest is going to make a difference. That’s 90 full minutes and two nervy, adrenaline rides through penalty kicks.

KB: I thought they would against England, yet they were the team with the legs at the end. Hard to have seen that and then bet against Croatia on the grounds of tired legs.

MR: They’ve proven us wrong up until this point, so let’s not rule them out completely. Let’s put it this way though. If France plays up to its potential, especially having had an extra day of rest, Les Bleus will be champions once more.

DK: We’d have assumed, but somehow they’ve survived and continue to get stronger. After the tournament, these guys are going to all need a month-long rest in one of those cryo-chambers, but for now their bodies are holding up.

How has this World Cup affected Paul Pogba‘s reputation, if at all?

JPW: Enhanced it slightly. He’s played well so far without setting the tournament alight but you could say that about everyone apart from Mbappe and Kante for France. Deschamps has everyone doing the dirty work and Pogba has been a lot more regimented at doing that than he was in the past with France and Man United.

NM: His rep has been burnished, as he’s played in both advanced and set-back roles. Honestly, his performances may have justified some of what Jose Mourinho has chosen to do with Pogba’s immense talent.

KB: This is hard to say. We’re so used to praising Pogba on his standout performances with Juventus, but the way he plays these days he doesn’t stand out anymore, even when he has a good match. I don’t think his reputation changes much, even if they win the World Cup.

MR: Pogba may be one of the biggest winners of the World Cup regardless of result on Sunday. He’s taken a lot of heat at Manchester United for not being able to adapt and at times being selfish, but this tournament has shown his willingness to put ego aside and take the squad’s needs to heart. The semifinal performance against Belgium really shed some light on his recent change in play by just breaking up balls and clogging the midfield for Les Bleus.

DK: It’s a tough call. I think part of Pogba’s problem is he is so skilled in so many areas – technique on the ball, speed, strength, aerial ability – that he wants to be 4 players in one instead of just being the best Pogba. In the game against Belgium, he completely wore down Fellaini, no small task against his Man United teammate, and showed excellent control on the ball and vision to keep the ball moving and keep it away from Belgium, or find Mbappe in space down the wings. If that’s Pogba at his best, it’s certainly worth the price of admission.

Who deserves the World Cup’s Golden Ball?

JPW: Probably Modric. He’s been sublime. Kante should be in the running too and if Mbappe scores a few in the final, he may well get it.

NM: Modric is the favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Antoine Griezmann pass Modric and Kylian Mbappe with a fine final.

KB: Whoever has a better match, Mbappe or Modric, will win the Golden Ball. They have both been stunning this tournament.

MR: It has to be Kylian Mbappe. He’s playing on the best team in the tournament right now, but more importantly he’s carrying their attack. Antoine Griezmann has been largely disappointing in this World Cup, while Olivier Giroud has been nearly nonexistent. Had it not been for Mbappe’s pace and skill, France wouldn’t be at this point.

DK: Two words. Luka Modric. Yes, Harry Kane has 6 goals and has been brilliant. But he’s failed to score in each of England’s last two games and he’s also failed to make a real impact on the game. Modric meanwhile has been absolutely stellar for the entire tournament. His consistency is unparalleled and he is a joy to watch. 2nd place would be for N’Golo Kante.

Barring a 4-goal night from Griezmann or Mbappe, Harry Kane will have at least a share of the Golden Boot. Where does he rank in the world right now, as an impact player? Top Five? Top Ten?

JPW: Top five. He delivered in most of England’s games and you would have put your mortgage on him scoring at least one of his two big chances vs. Croatia. Wasn’t meant to be.

NM: He’s on the edge of the Top Five, though admittedly he’s sitting there more for club play than the World Cup. That said, he was quite good even when not facing Panama.

KB: If you asked me 2 weeks ago, I would have told you he ranked in the top 5 strikers in the world, without a doubt. But he underwhelmed in the knockout stages, and I still have questions about his ability to carry a team and produce something out of nothing like a world class striker can. He hasn’t played in too many extra-high leverage matches in his career, and that needs to happen before we consider him world class.

MR: You’re talking about two very different Harry Kane-s. The Tottenham Kane is arguably the best striker in the world. He’s probably a top 5 impact player when with Spurs, but this showing with England was honestly a bit disappointing for me. Some of that has to do with the fact that many of the Three Lions’ attackers were less than impressive, but half of Kane’s goals came from the penalty spot and he only scored once after the group stage. This World Cup won’t hurt his overall stock, but it’s very easy to argue that he wasn’t the best striker in Russia.

DK: Against Sweden and Croatia, his stock dropped significantly. But I’d still say he’s one of the 10 best players in the world. Like Luis Suarez and other great poachers, he has a great knack for being in the right place at the right time, and he’s clinical in front of goal, whether from 12 yards out or 18.

England’s Harry Kane, right, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, centre, and Kieran Trippier (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

It is not coming home, Pt. 1: Where will time see this England side? Are they a nation returning to consistent contender status, or simply the recipients of good performances and a friendly bracket?

JPW: They’ve given their fans hope but you can’t deny this was a golden chance to reach the final. They were on the easier side of the bracket but this is a young team and they’ll be together for EURO 2020. I expect them to do well in that tournament too with Gareth Southgate at the helm.

NM: The Three Lions were inspiring for the entire run, even in the face of a shaken extra time performance. England is probably set to remain a second-tier team, not too bothered in qualifying but not favored to get to a semi-final. Kane’s continued growth along with consistency for Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford can make a difference.

KB: This is a team on the rise. Gareth Southgate made tactical mistakes in the loss to Croatia, but he is the right man forward, and hopefully England sticks with him through thick and thin. Only Young, Vardy, Delph, and Rose are at an advanced age and will be unlikely to take part in 2022. There is more young talent coming through (think: Sessegnon and Alexander-Arnold). Southgate is a great talent evaluator (think: discovering Maguire as a true international). They will be contenders in Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.

MR: Nearly everything went right for England to reach the semifinals in Russia, but make no mistake, this team is young, hungry and only improving over the next several cycles. Of the squad’s current 23 players, only eight of them are older than 28. The likes of Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford are going to be with this Three Lions side for a very long time, while some of England’s elite youths including Phil Foden and Tammy Abraham will surely make a push into the team. The loss to Croatia is a difficult pill to swallow, but Gareth Southgate’s men instilled a belief in the national team once again, one that will surely grow their confidence heading into Qatar and beyond.

DK: I’m sure time will see this England side as the beginning of a great generation, with Kane, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, John Stones, Jordan Pickford and many more still very young, with more talent challenging the starters coming from the youth ranks. England were awarded plenty of luck from the draw but that’s part of the fun of a World Cup, sometimes you get that luck and sometimes you have to earn it in harder circumstances, like France has from its side of the bracket. Ultimately, this England team made fans believe again and that’s a feat no one would have expected heading into the tournament.

It is not coming home, Pt. 2: Where is it going, and what score line will it bring with it?

JPW: France will win. 3-1.

NM: France, 3-1. It’s 2-0 for a while before Croatia pulls one back and France quickly answers through a substitute.

KB: France takes it on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

MR: France, 2-1.

DK: I think it’s going to Croatia. 2-1 winners. After extra time. Because of course.

Bartomeu vows Messi will finish career at Barcelona

Messi staying with Barcelona
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Lionel Messi will finish his career at Barcelona, says embattled president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The exit clause in Messi’s latest Barcelona contract expired on June 1, putting a temporary end to worries that the world’s top player would leave a messy Barcelona season.

Messi, 33, is still near the top of his powers. He has 22 goals and 19 assists in 29 La Liga appearances this season, adding five goals and four assists in nine cup games.

[ MORE: Premier League standings ]

“(Messi) will end his working and footballing life at Barcelona”, said Bartomeu in a Monday radio interview. “We are negotiating with many players but Messi has explained to us he wants to stay. And so we’re going to enjoy him for much longer.”

Only four players in Europe’s top five leagues have scored more league goals than Messi and none of those players has more than eight assists. Messi’s 19 La Liga assists are two behind Thomas Muller in that same group.

It had been reported since November that Messi would not exercise his option to leave the club, but there were numerous reasons to think he might rethink things given problems at Barcelona.

There has been chaos in the board room and players including Messi were angry to be thrown under the proverbial bus when Ernesto Valverde was fired early this year.

Notably, he called Barcelona “home” but noted “weird things happening” at the Camp Nou. Fortunately, the club announced that an independent inspector cleared Barca’s hierarchy of wrongdoing after allegations that a third-party company contracted to the club tried to smear current and former club legends on social media.

Bartomeu needs Messi to stay as the club waits for Frenkie de Jong and Ansu Fati to come into the peaks of their powers. If the Argentine leaves Barca, who looks destined to finish second to Real Madrid despite leading the table for most of the year, the pressure on the president will reach an even higher level.

The president has overseen a mostly successful time at Barca during his tenure, winning four domestic titles and the 2014-15 Champions League.

FC Dallas withdrawn from MLS is Back tourney; Vela to sit out

FC Dallas withdraws from MLS is Back
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Carlos Vela’s decision to sit out the MLS is Back tournament has been one-upped by reports that MLS has pulled an entire team out of the fray in Florida.

Vela, considered by many to be the league’s top player, is opting out of representing LAFC and choosing to spend time with his pregnant wife and children.

The Mexican star, 31, said he would love to play but the coronavirus pandemic means missing out is in “the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy.”

[ MORE: Mourinho, Lloris react to Son spat ]

LAFC released a statement supporting Vela’s “difficult decision,” which will not help the West’s top side in its bid to outlast the Galaxy, Houston, and Portland in Group F, should the tournament go forward as planned.

Meanwhile, FC Dallas’ bad month has gotten much worse. Six players reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 last week and reports grew to include 10 players and one coach.

The side’s opening match against Vancouver was postponed on Saturday. Now FC Dallas says it is supporting an MLS decision to take the team out of the tournament. FC Dallas says it will take every precaution to make sure its return to Texas “minimizes risk of exposure to all parties involved.”

Dallas was drawn into Group B with Seattle, Vancouver, and San Jose. Two of the teams were set to advance to the knockout rounds.

Here is MLS’ statement on FC Dallas’ withdrawal:

“Major League Soccer announced today that FC Dallas have been withdrawn from the MLS is Back Tournament due to 10 players and one member of the technical staff confirmed positive for COVID-19. Each of these positive tests either occurred upon the club’s arrival or within a few days of arrival. The decision was made in the best interest of the health of all players and staff participating in the tournament, and in line with protocols created in conjunction with local and national health authorities and infectious disease experts.
“’Given the impact of the number of positive tests on the club’s ability to train and play competitive matches, we have made the decision to withdraw FC Dallas from the MLS is Back Tournament,’ said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. ‘The health of everyone involved in our return to play has always been our top priority, and we will continue to make decisions consistent with that priority.’
Of the 557 players currently in Orlando, Fla. 13 total players have been confirmed positive for COVID-19, 10 of those being FC Dallas players and the remaining three from two other clubs.”

Mourinho: ‘Nice boys only win the fair play cup’

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The reaction to two Tottenham players having a scrap was very on brand for Jose Mourinho.

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Mourinho called a half time coming-together between captain Hugo Lloris and star forward Heung-min Son ‘beautiful’ and praised the fighting spirit of his players as they beat Everton 1-0.

Speaking to reporters via Zoom after the win, Mourinho made a point that he wants his Tottenham side to be nastier as he was asked about saying they needed to grow up.

“A team of good boys, nice boys, the only thing that they win at the end of the season is the fair play cup. Which is something I’ve never won and I’m not interested in winning that,” Mourinho said. “You need to have a certain character. You need to grow up in terms of your mentality, in your responsibility because it is very, very important to be consistent. To have a good game, win a match, then lose the other one, then win another one, then draw another one. That is the kind of mentality that doesn’t take you further in your ambitions. It is not a specific concept but it is a concept that covers many, many areas. I think it is very, very important. I don’t like a team without communication, without demanding from each other. I don’t like a team without a critical sense. Probably what happened today at half time shouldn’t happen there, should happen just inside the dressing room, but I can promise you my teams, my winning teams, we had big fights in the team.”

That Jose Mourinho reaction said it all as to what he expects from Tottenham. He certainly knows all about winning and that is why Tottenham hired him.

A narrow win to beat Everton at home to move in to eighth place, nine points off the top four, probably isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but Mourinho loved what he saw.

“I think they are the same thing, the same spirit,” Mourinho said when ProSoccerTalk asked him about the fight of his players on and off the pitch. “We spoke a lot after the game at Sheffield United and one of the things we spoke about was to have a critical sense, to be open with each other and be demanding with each other. Don’t accept the attitude. Don’t be passive in relation to the others. I think that was a consequence of that. The performance was very solid. My feeling was that the game was under control and I never felt the game wasn’t under control.

“Could we play better? Could we score more? Yes, of course. I always fear matches after bad defeats because sometimes you stay in the bad defeats. Sometimes you carry to the match the weight of the bad performances, the weight of the critics and the boys were great in their attitude. They really fought hard for the three points and in this moment of the season the most important thing is the points, to try to finish in the best possible position.”

Tottenham are becoming a Mourinho team and that means the play on the pitch won’t be as good to watch as it could be, but he will grind out results like this.

Mourinho was asked about becoming just the fifth manager in Premier League history to win 200 games, with only Sir Alex Ferguson reaching that milestone in fewer matches than him, and this was his response.

“Of course, as you know, I am not a very humble guy, but when you coach three of the best clubs in England you have more chances to get to that,” Mourinho smiled. “Sir Alex did it because all of his career in England was at Manchester United. I did it because I was with Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham. I think nobody asks the coaches without titles that their teams put in 200 amazing performances. You are telling me your teams won 200 Premier League matches. You don’t tell anyone who won nothing, ‘your team had 100 or 200 amazing performances.’ But I want to admit that today I would be even more happy if it was not just a victory, but it was a beautiful victory, I would be more happy and I want my team to do that.”

Mourinho will be playing ‘all I do is win, win, win’ over the radio on his car ride home on Monday. Then he will probably officiate a punch up between Harry Kane and Eric Dier just because.

Lloris explains Son scuffle, which Mourinho deems “beautiful”

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Tottenham Hotspur captain Hugo Lloris explained his halftime dust-up with teammate Heung-min Son, with all in better spirits after a 1-0 home win over Everton on Monday.

Lloris needed to be separated from Son as the two walked off the pitch, though cameras caught them making up at halftime and hugging after the final whistle.

Lilywhite reconciliation.

TOTTENHAM – EVERTON FULL MATCH REPLAY

As our broadcast crew surmised, Lloris was unhappy that Son quit on his press after a giveaway. That led to a Richarlison scoring chance before halftime.

Lloris faced the cameras after completing the clean sheet in North London.

“What happened between me and Sonny is something that’s part of football some times but there’s no problem at all,” Lloris said. “You can see after the game that we are more than happy to be part of the team. … To concede a chance a few seconds before halftime because we don’t have the proper press is annoying but that’s football.”

Spurs manager Jose Mourinho loved it.

“It’s beautiful,” Mourinho said to Sky Sports after the game. “Probably it’s consequence of our meetings. If you want to blame somebody for that, it’s me because I was critical of my boys because they are not critical themselves of each other. I asked them to be more demanding, to put their colleagues under that pressure, that team spirit where you have to do everything for everything.

“An amazing kid that everybody loves like Son, a team boy, but in that situation the captain said you have to do more and give more to the team. A couple of bad words, I don’t know if there was a push, but that’s important for a team to grow up. I was really pleased. At halftime I told them, when you have those reactions I have no doubt you will stick together til the end.”

Mourinho went on, calling back to Spurs’ Thursday loss at Sheffield United which featured a bizarre and controversial decision from VAR chief Michael Oliver to take a goal off the board after a fouled, falling, and looking the other way Lucas Moura had the ball hit his arm prior to a Harry Kane goal.

“It tells me that they care. They were upset, frustrated and probably blaming each other for the last result. I could be very protective of my team and my players and put all the blame on Michael Oliver. A lot of people did it and rightly so but inside I was in the direction of forget Michael Oliver and focus on our performance so today we knew, right?”

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The North Londoners are one point behind local rivals Arsenal ahead of this weekend’s big derby (though there’s still a Thursday visit to Bournemouth for Spurs).

“We are in a situation we need to fight against,” Lloris said. “We are not happy to be in that position but what’s important today is to say focused on the team and do everything to finish as high as we can. When you play a system like this one, it’s very easy to fall apart as a team. To think about the interest. But today we showed we are ready to fight until the end.”

Spurs will like their chances to win at desperate Bournemouth if they can stay focused on the task at hand and not focus on the North London Derby.