AP Photo/David Vincent

PST’s World Cup roundtable: Pre-Final edition

1 Comment

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.

Arsenal 3-1 Leicester City: Ozil conjures magic in Gunners victory

Associated Press
Leave a comment

They say Mesut Ozil is one of the best players in the Premier League, when he wants to be. He wanted to be on Monday afternoon.

The Gunners captain scored the opener, and he truly shone while orchestrating two of the most brilliantly constructed goals of the Premier League season to help Arsenal shake off an early Hector Bellerin own-goal to earn a 3-1 victory at the Emirates.

Leicester City attacked well from the onset and would go ahead just seconds past the half-hour mark as they push down the left. Ben Chilwell burst down the flank past Alexandre Lacazette and behind Hector Bellerin just enough that as Bellerin hoped to recover, Chilwell’s cross clipped Bellerin’s foot and into the back of the net, with goalkeeper Bernd Leno already diving the wrong way to stop the cross.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Arsenal surged into the asencency after falling behind, and nearly found an equalizer shortly after. A long ball was just out of reach for a streaking Alex Iwobi behind the defensive line, Granit Xhaka came close on a long-range free-kick, Aaron Ramsey whiffed on a free header at the near post on a corner, and Iwobi’s effort from the right was saved by Kasper Schmeichel.

Eventually, the pressure would prove fruitful and the Gunners would equalize just before the break. As the Gunners looked to build out of the back, Mesut Ozil charged through the midfield on the ball, and after spraying it right to Bellerin, he got the ball right back in front of net and had plenty of space for a one-touch finish on the run.
[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

After the break, Arsenal had a big chance as Lacazette’s shot pinged around and fell to Henrikh Mkhitaryan whose scissor kick swerved across the face of goal and just wide of the left post. Still, Leicester proved pesky and nearly put themselves back in front in the 58th minute as Wilfred Ndidi headed a corner straight into the crossbar.

That would prove costly, as Arsenal took advantage minutes later. With the Gunners on the ball in the attacking third, Ozil threaded an absolutely delicious through-ball for Bellerin that completely unlocked the Leicester City back line, and the Spaniard simply tapped across to substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the goal.

The Gunners would do even better three minutes later on one of the prettiest goals we’ve seen this Premier League season. Bellerin sent the ball into the mixer with Ozil waiting at the top of the box. The German international let the ball go through his legs, dummying to Lacazette who touched right back to Ozil on the run past the Leicester City back line. With Arsenal now through, Ozil produced a delicious chip over a charging Schmeichel to Aubameyang waiting to finish a simple tap-in for his second goal of the evening.

Arsenal probably should have had a fourth, but Lacazette’s look on the doorstep was smothered well by Schmeichel. That was the last serious action of the game, as the Gunners cruised to victory.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The win pushed Arsenal up to fourth in the Premier League table, even on 21 points with Tottenham and Chelsea, and ahead of their West London rivals on goal differential. Leicester City, meanwhile, remained stuck in 11th on 12 points for the season.

Report: USSF CEO Dan Flynn to step down in 2019

Getty Images
Leave a comment

According to a report by Washington Post reporter Steven Goff, U.S. Soccer Federation CEO and General Secretary Dan Flynn will step down from his position in the aftermath of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Flynn has been atop USSF for the last 18 years, generally credited for turning around the finances of the federation from a position of instability and insecurity to generate a $150 million reserve fund.

The 63-year-old has been a source of stability for U.S. Soccer over the past two decades despite multiple changes around him. He began serving with U.S. Soccer back in 1994 when he left his position as president of Anheuser-Busch and worked on the United States’ production of the World Cup that summer. After that, he served as Chief Administrative Officer and as Chief Operating Officer until his hiring as CEO in 2000.

The report states that Flynn will assist in the transition to his successor after stepping down. While no timetable is given for his departure other than to suggest it will take place during the 2019 calendar year, the report states that it is unlikely that he will leave before the end of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Flynn was the genesis of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, TX and is the federation’s highest paid employee.

Watch Live: Arsenal v. Leicester City

Leave a comment

Arsenal host Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Gunners aim for a tenth-straight win in all competitions.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Leicester have never won at Arsenal in the Premier League with the Gunners winning each of their last 11 encounters at home against the Foxes.

Unai Emery‘s men have been flying in recent weeks with six wins on the spin in the PL and the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring goals galore in attack.

In team news Arsenal bring in Shkodran Mustafi for the injured Sokratis Papastathopoulos with Stephane Lichtsteiner in at left back.

Leicester make one change with Jonny Evans coming in for the suspended Wes Morgan in central defense.


LINEUPS

Cristiano Ronaldo discusses rape allegations against him

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Cristiano Ronaldo has been speaking publicly for the first time about accusations made by American Kathryn Mayorga, who says she was raped by the Portuguese superstar in Las Vegas back in 2009.

Ronaldo, 33, issued a statement via his lawyers about the allegations after he had originally called Mayorga’s claims “fake news” on his social media account.

Lawyers for Ronaldo claim they will sue Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine who first published the claims from Mayorga but the German publication stand by their reporting. Juventus were heavily criticized for the statement they released in support of Ronaldo, while his main sponsor Nike have revealed they are “deeply concerned” about the allegations.

Speaking ahead of his return to Old Trafford with Juventus on Tuesday in the UEFA Champions League, the former Manchester United star addressed the speculation, although the BBC are reporting that no English journalist was allowed to ask questions at the press conference.

“I know I am an example, 100%. In the pitch and outside the pitch. I am a happy man, I smile, I play in a fantastic club, I have four kids, I am healthy, the rest doesn’t interfere on me so I am very glad. I am a happy man. We have done a statement two weeks ago and I am glad,” Ronaldo said. “Of course I am not going to lie in this situation, my lawyers are confident and I am too. I enjoy the football, my life and the rest people take care of my life. The truth always comes in first position. I am good.”

Ronaldo was then asked about his return to United, the club he played for from 2003-2009 and where he won three Premier League titles and a UEFA Champions League trophy under Sir Alex Ferguson before leaving for Real Madrid.

“It is emotional for me. I can remember I won lots here. Cups and leagues,” Ronaldo said. “The support was fantastic and my best possible wishes to Sir Alex Ferguson. He gave me a huge lift in my career.”