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.

[ MORE: Pre-Final PST Roundtable ]

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.

Ramsdale confirms positive COVID-19 test

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Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale has announced he was one of two Premier League individuals who had a positive COVID-19 test last week.

Ramsdale, 22, believes he contracted the coronavirus while out on a shopping trip between the first two tests taken last week.

In the first round of Premier League testing six out of 748 tests were positive (including Watford defender Adrian Mariappa) and in the second patch of tests two from 996 tests came back positive.

Speaking to The Sun, here’s what Ramsdale had to say about his positive test as he is asymptomatic.

“I’ve been trying to figure it out for the past two days. My test last Monday before we started training was negative,” Ramsdale explained. “So this last week, I’ve done the usual things like going to the supermarket and going to the petrol station to fill my car. Once you’ve contracted the virus, it shows in your blood.

“That was obviously not the case [after the first test] and it’s been the three days between the two tests when I’ve contracted the virus. I’ve been just as careful as before on lockdown and it seems to be a shopping trip where I’ve caught it.”

“It’s definitely a shock — I’ve not been in contact with anybody and I’ve now got it. I’m showing no symptoms so the fact that a healthy young person could potentially have it is definitely scary and worrying. It’s obviously not great that I’ve got it but it’s good that I’m showing no symptoms. It’s one of those things that has unfortunately happened and happened to me.”

This shows just how easy it is to get COVID-19 and Ramsdale sounds shocked, as it may be necessary to put precautions in place for players to not visit public stores outside of training hours. The idea of quarantining a whole squad the week before the PL season restarts has had some push back but a situation like this may make the clubs and league rethink that stance.

Per Premier League protocol, Ramsdale will have to self-isolate for seven days before he can rejoin small-group training.

With the UK government sanctioning full-contact training for professional athletes, the Premier League’s 20 clubs are due to vote on a return to full training in groups of up to 12 initially on Wednesday. If they vote yes, as expected, then teams can train in larger groups from later this week.

However, with positive tests still possible among players, there’s obviously a bigger risk to contracting COVID-19 when players return to contact training.

Women’s Super League, Championship seasons canceled

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This England’s Women’s Super League season will not return from the coronavirus pause, opening a great debate over who will be champions.

The English Football Association made the announcement Monday, also announcing that the second-tier Championship has been canceled.

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The WSL was in a heated title fight, with Man City leading the table on points with 40 but Chelsea’s 39 coming in one fewer match. Arsenal was four points back of City with a match-in-hand.

The top two sides also qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

From The FA:

Following full and thorough consultation with the clubs, the FA Women’s Super League & Women’s Championship Board has discussed various recommendations which will be sent to the FA Board to determine the most appropriate sporting outcome for the 2019-20 season.

This will include identifying the entries for the 2020-21 UEFA Women’s Champions League, which would be based on sporting merit from the 2019-20 Barclays FA Women’s Super League season.

There’s also relegation to consider, with Liverpool’s women dead last but within a win of two clubs.

Promotion from the Championship would be a little more clearcut, as Aston Villa has a six-point edge on the field.

Could there be a playoff to decide a title winner? Might the FA opt not to name a winner?

Chelsea was unbeaten but there’s certainly no guarantee they’d win out nor would giving City the title make any sense. The Blues took four of six points from City.

Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal are the three previous title winners.

Report: Ighalo to leave Manchester United for China return this week

Odion Ighalo
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Manchester United have been dealt a blow to their strike force ahead of the Premier League’s hopeful return, according to The Manchester Evening News.

Loan striker Odion Ighalo is being called back to Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua this week, his loan only good until May 31.

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There was hope that the club would’ve had him for an extended spell or at least through June 30 when many contracts end, or that United could negotiate an extension for the Nigerian.

There was also talk of a permanent deal, but the transfer window will not open until at least July 1.

The player himself is a boyhood United supporter and had said he wanted to finish the season with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Red Devils, but he’s a massive investment for Shanghai and they don’t owe United anything.

Ighalo, who turns 31 in June, has fit the bill as a fill-in striker for the Red Devils, who had lost Marcus Rashford to injury. He has four goals in eight appearances for United after 46 goals in three seasons abroad.

The good news for United is that Rashford is back in full training, but it would’ve been a nice luxury to have Ighalo for what’s sure to be a congested fixture list. That said, United has plenty of attacking talent including young Mason Greenwood. The Red Devils should be fine.

Premier League social media wrap: Rashford honored, Mendy banters

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The Premier League world continues to move toward the return of soccer, while its social media eyes are trained in several directions.

In Monday’s edition of the PL social media wrap, we visit players from several clubs including both of Manchester’s top-flight sides in addition to a defender in the Northeast and a mournful note from Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger.

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It’s Independence Day in Argentina, and several players were Tweeting love back home from their homes in the Premier League.

Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendia, Man City’s Nicolas Otamendi, and West Ham’s Pablo Zabaleta shared their love for home.

Newcastle’s Federico Fernandez celebrated with Napoli’s clever photo of a makeshift Argentine XI, as the Serie A club has had a lot of strong players from the South American nation.

Didn’t see himself lining up with Diego Maradona any time soon, we imagine.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news | Current table ]

Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy came out of his shell to share some thoughts on social distancing.

The outgoing French left back is no stranger to quips, and used his Twitter to post a reminder to stay vigilant in keeping distance from others.

Mendy posed with Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Nicolas Otamendi, and Eric Garcia at City’s training ground Monday.

You may note that he also tagged Bernardo Silva. That’s banter, and see the second Tweet for detail.

On the other side of Manchester, forward Marcus Rashford shared an honor bestowed upon him for his vigilant work raising money this coronavirus pandemic.

Rashford has been working with a group called Fair Share UK to provide free meals for underprivileged people during the pandemic.

Last month, he doubled his personal donation and shared a story that he was once one of the children who’d need such contributions to get by.

Rashford was given a special recognition award by the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester and said, “To be recognized by my city is a special feeling.”

Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger is mourning the loss of a friend, as former Roma academy player Joseph Bouasse died of a heart attack at the age of 21.

Rudiger was with Roma from 2015-17 apart from a loan to Stuttgart in Germany, and Bouasse was a center mid in their academy.

The Chelsea centerback shared a photo of Bouasse on Monday. It’s always so stunning when a someone so young, let alone an elite athlete, succumbs to heart problems. Our hearts are Bouasse and the Roma family tonight.