France vs. Croatia presents scrumptious tactical World Cup chess match

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The World Cup final is nearly here, and with that, a look at the tactical proficiencies of each side is at hand.

France has done just enough to sneak by every opponent thus far, earning all but one of their five wins to this point by one goal. However, they come into the final against Croatia as heavy favorites thanks to a star-studded lineup that has performed on multiple levels thus far in Russia.

Didier Deschamps has to this point stuck with a standard 4-5-1 formation that allows the team to stay compact defensively,  control the midfield and pick chances up front. Kylian Mbappe has been given the flexibility to take players on down the right and find teammates in the middle. Against Belgium, France was comfortable to concede 64% possession to the opponents and allow Mbappe to create chances for the other attackers.

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This presents a different challenge for Croatian boss Zlatko Dalic than he faced against England, when Croatia stretched Gareth Southgate‘s midfield with quality full-back play. That won’t work as well against the 4-3-3, meaning Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic will have to stay home. It will be interesting to see if Deschamps continues to deploy Blaise Matuidi on the right to defend Ante Rebic and look to pummel Vrsaljko, or if he will change things up and bring on Ousmane Dembele to pin Vrsaljko back with his pace and technical abilities. Matuidi appeared to suffer a significant head injury in the semifinal against Belgium, but reports say he is still in contention to play on Sunday.

France’s unbalanced setup with Matuidi on one side and Mbappe on the other has done the job so far, but it has presented some problems as well. For one, it has exposed right-back Benjamin Pavard at times, who has held his own for the most part but occasionally looked overwhelmed. In addition, on the other side of the back line, Lucas Hernandez has been sensational defending the left, but his attacking presence is minimal, and aside from a quality cross or two, his defensive mindset along with Matuidi’s lumbering style leaves France incredible lopsided. That means Vrsaljko and Rebic could potentially see a lot of the ball again, stretching France’s midfield the same way it did England’s.

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Another problem for France could be that Antoine Griezmann hasn’t looked entirely comfortable sitting behind Olivier Giroud, and has performed in spots this World Cup, with two of his three goals this tournament coming from the penalty spot.

However, all problems are minimized when a team has N'Golo Kante marauding through the middle of the pitch. Kante’s presence gives France a huge leg up on shutting down Croatia’s strongest midfield duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. The latter especially has starred under the bright Russian lights this summer, and has especially roared loudest in the second half of matches when given more freedom to push forward. Modric has shown a desire to get forward and make a difference, unless he’s tasked with marshalling the midfield with Rakitic. For the most part, the presence of defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic has had a notable impact on Modric’s proficiency pushing forward on the ball. In the 90 minutes or so Brozovic has been on the bench – the first hour of the group opener against Nigeria and the first half of their quarterfinal matchup against Russia – Modric was noticeably hesitant moving into attacking positions. Expect Brozovic to start so Croatia can hope to match the French midfield wall of Kante and Paul Pogba, leaving Modric and Rakitic to try and stretch Kante into double duty.

The final key tactical battle will be in the French penalty area. It pits poacher extraordinaire Mario Mandzukic against aerially sound defenders Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane. In the semifinal, Belgium pummeled the French penalty area with a whopping 26 crosses, only five of which met its mark – four of which came either at or outside the penalty spot. Croatia’s approach against England was similar, subjecting the Three Lions defense to the soccer equivalent of an artillery bombardment, attempting 40 crosses in their semifinal meeting. Only three of those were successful, but one assisted Ivan Perisic’s 60th minute equalizer.

All eyes will be on N’Golo Kante in his high-profile midfield battle against Modric and Perisic, but there is plenty more for Didier Deschamps to contend with. France will have its hands full with deserving finalists Croatia, and the chess match that will ensue in Moscow on Sunday will be nothing short of fascinating.

Man City atop group after blowout in Ukraine

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David Silva shone once again as Manchester City dominated Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 at Donbass Arena in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday.

Bernardo Silva and Aymeric Laporte joined David Silva on the score sheet.

Hoffenheim’s late equalizer versus Lyon means Man City summits Group F at the midpoint, a point ahead of the Ligue 1 side and four clear of Hoffenheim and Shakhtar.

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Andriy Pyatov stopped Gabriel Jesus on one of City’s numerous early chances.

It was all City, but the finish wasn’t quite there. Riyad Mahrez was perhaps the biggest culprit, as playmaker David Silva provided ammunition for several goals.

So Silva just went and did the thing himself, making it 1-0 in the 30th minute with a volleyed finish of a blocked shot.

Floodgates opened? It seemed so, as Laporte notched a 34th minute marker, but Shakhtar held into halftime.

Bernardo scored a 70th minute goal soon after subbing into the match.

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Man Utd can’t find equalizer against Dybala, Juve (video)

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  • De Gea shines, as Juve dominates first half
  • Pogba strikes post
  • Dybala scores lone goal

Paulo Dybala’s 17th minute goal was enough to give Juventus a 1-0 win over Manchester United in UEFA Champions League play at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

Valencia’s draw at Young Boys leaves United second in Group H, five points behind Juventus.

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Both sides had inviting free kicks during the first dozen minutes, neither delivering on its promise.

Paulo Dybala headed a Juan Cuadrado cross wide of the frame moments later, but made it solid foreshadowing for the 17th minute.

Losing a collecting a languid Nemanja Matic, Dybala deposited a loose ball after Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross didn’t meet its mark.

David De Gea was busy, making a fine stop on Joao Cancelo moments later. He’d make a double stop, the second shot from Blaise Matuidi especially venomous, in the 38th.

United had a better hold of the match for long periods in the second half, and De Gea was needed more to deal with Juve’s counterattacks.

Paul Pogba just missed with a sensational attempt that beat Wojciech Szczesny and hit the post before bounding off the keeper’s face but avoiding the goal.

Anthony Martial coaxed a save out of Szczesny in the 90th.

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Ramos announces U.S. U-20 World Cup qualifying roster

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Tab Ramos announced the 20 men tasked with leading the United States to another U-20 World Cup through qualifying next month in Florida.

[ USWNT: Surgery for O’Hara ]

Goalkeeper Brady Scott is the lone returning member of the team which won the 2017 CONCACAF Championship and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2017 World Cup in South Korea.

The U-20 World Cup is this summer in Poland.

Several players have MLS minutes under their belts, including promising Jaylin Lindsey of Sporting KC and Mark McKenzie of Philadelphia. McKenzie, 19, could miss some of the Union’s playoff run, having started the side’s last four matches at center back, but reportedly will not join the U-20s yet.

Ayo Akinola, 18, is also one of the headliners, having scored five goals in the USL and nabbing a goal and an assist in six matches for Toronto FC.

There are four college players and six youngsters based overseas.

U.S. U-20 roster for CONCACAF Championship

Goalkeepers: 1-Brady Scott (FC Koln), 12-CJ Dos Santos (S.L Benfica).

Defenders: 2-Jaylin Lindsey (Sporting KC), 3-Chris Gloster (Hannover 96), 4-Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), 5-Matthew Real (Philadelphia Union), 14-Manny Perez (NC State), 16-Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), 19-Sam Rogers (Seattle Sounders).

Midfielders: 6-Brandon Servania (FC Dallas), 7-Juan Pablo Torres (K.S.C. Lokeren Oost-Vlaanderen), 8-Alex Mendez (SC Freiburg), 10-Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), 15-Anthony Fontana (Philadelphia Union), 18-Isaac Angking (New England Revolution).

Forwards: 9-Justin Rennicks (Indiana University), 11-Ulysses Llanez (Unattached), 13-Griffin Dorsey (Indiana University), 17-Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), 20-Frankie Amaya (UCLA)

USWNT’s O’Hara begins World Cup prep with surgery, 8-12 weeks out

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Kelley O’Hara is set for some time on the mend as the United States women’s national team begins its preparation for this summer’s World Cup.

O’Hara, 30, will miss 8-12 weeks after undergoing surgery to remove “loose bodies” in her ankle, according to a U.S. Soccer press release.

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That means the 112-times capped defender will not play in next month’s newly-announced European friendlies against Portugal and Scotland.

“It’s all good. These kinds of things come with the territory,” O’Hara said. “This is just the best time to get the procedure done so I’m one hundred percent heading into 2019 and physically ready to perform at the level I want to and need to. It’s a bummer that I won’t get to Europe, but the most important thing is to be healthy for next year.”

O’Hara scored in the 2015 World Cup semifinal, and has an Olympic gold to go with that tournament title. She’s won two SheBelieves Cups and three Algarve Cups.