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Three things we learned: France v Croatia

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France beat Croatia in the 2018 World Cup as a six-goal thriller yielded plenty of controversial and memorable moments.

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Les Bleus battled by Croatia as young stars Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba came up big in the second half to power past Croatia’s midfield veterans Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

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Below we take a look at the key storylines from what become a classic World Cup final.

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


FRANCE GET VAR CALLS

There’s no doubting that the close calls went France’s way in the final, especially two key decisions.

First up: the VAR review on France’s first goal, an own goal by Mario Mandzukic, didn’t see Paul Pogba in an offside position when the free kick came in. Pogba was in an offside position when the ball was kicked and nudged into Mandzukic who headed into his own net, but the rules state that Pogba wouldn’t have been active until he made an attempt to challenge for the ball and by that time he was back onside in the second phase. He also wasn’t interfering with the goalkeeper so it appears that the rules were interpreted correctly in that case.

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Then came the huge moment, the handball call on Perisic from a corner. This is probably a 60/40 decision, with 60 in favor of it being a handball. Perisic’s hands were up and he put it towards the ball and stopped the ball from going towards several French players crashing towards goal. It’s gut-wrenching to use this in a World Cup final, but it was certainly worth reviewing.

Croatia will point to key decisions going against them and had VAR not been available to use, it’s unlikely the penalty kick would have been given.


CROATIA GUTSY BUT FALL

This World Cup final summed up the 2018 tournament nicely. It didn’t make much sense at all.

From the get-go Croatia took the game to France and pinned them back, creating plenty of chances and only conceding after a own goal from a set piece and then a debatable penalty kick.

Croatia’s goal came from a moment of magic from Ivan Perisic and they went close on several occasions with crosses into the box causing France so many problems. Hugo Lloris made fine saves and interceptions in the second half to keep France ahead and although Croatia lost the World Cup final, they can leave Russia with their heads held high.

It’s tough to know how they could’ve done anymore to win the trophy as Rebic, Perisic and Mandzukic showed up but the extra 90 minutes they’d play compared to France meant they were jaded in the final stages.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic didn’t quite have the same time and space they’ve had on previous games and we expected that but a sign of Croatia’s dominance was N'Golo Kante being subbed off in the second half as France lost control of the central midfield area. Kante’s replacement, Steven Nzonzi, helped to steady the ship for France but Croatia still looked dangerous as they made France’s defense look shaky after two-straight clean sheets against Uruguay and Belgium.

Croatia’s incredible run to their first-ever final didn’t end in glory but their performance on the day deserved more.


POGBA, MBAPPE DELIVER

This was supposed to be the final where Kylian Mbappe, just the fourth teenager in history to play in a World Cup final, announced himself.

And he became just the second teenager in history to score in a World Cup final. The other? Pele.

Mbappe, 19, spent most of the first half trying to help out Benjamin Pavard lock down Ivan Perisic on France’s right flank but in the second half he came to life, bursting forward on the break, then drilling home a fine strike from distance to etch his name into World Cup folklore.

Yet apart from Mbappe’s moment of brilliance the only other French player to truly stand tall in the final was Paul Pogba who scored a crucial third and battled valiantly in midfield as Modric and Rakitic tried to drag Croatia level and got the better of N’Golo Kante. After all of the criticism of him at Manchester United over the past two seasons, Pogba delivered several disciplined displays to drive his team to glory.

It is fair to say that France will be remembered as being pragmatic rather than electric when it comes to this World Cup but Deschamps’ defensive unit, although rattled for large spells in this game, held firm.

Rapahel Varane and Samuel Umtiti dug deep and even a mistake from Hugo Lloris couldn’t stop them. France trailed for just nine minutes and 12 seconds during the entire 2018 World Cup and they relied on their stars to deliver in key moments.

Mbappe and Pogba did that on Sunday on the biggest possible stage and both of those superstars will be entering, or about to enter, their prime for the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

Leicester City’s Rodgers: ‘Good news’ on Vardy injury

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Brendan Rodgers says there’s good news when it comes to the injury suffered by Jamie Vardy in Leicester City’s 4-1 blowout of West Ham United on Wednesday.

Vardy hurt his glute in the win, temporarily returning to the match after treatment from the trainer but ultimately subbing off before halftime.

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“It wasn’t his hamstring, so that’s good news for us,” Rodgers said, via The Leicester Mercury.

“He just felt a twinge in his glute, so we just have to wait and see on that in the next day or so. Thankfully his hamstring is okay and he just felt some pain in his glute, so we will have to assess that over the next few days.”

Vardy has a Premier League-best 17 goals, one more than Man City’s Sergio Aguero.

He was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho, who assisted one of Ayoze Perez’s two goals on the day. Perez’s seven goals are second on Leicester, while James Maddison‘s six are third.

Iheanacho has six goals and three assists in 485 minutes and there’s reason to believe he can feast off Leicester’s playmaking if Vardy needs a match or two to heal.

Whether he can fill Vardy’s shoes in the long-term is a big question, especially as Leicester aims to return for the Champions League.

Transfer rumor roundup: Willian Jose to Spurs, Bournemouth after Croatian CB

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London could get itself another Willian.

Willian Jose, 28, was left out of Real Sociedad’s squad at his request on Wednesday, with the club Tweeting that he’d prefer not to play until his situation is resolved.

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Jose Mourinho said he would not comment on another team’s players, but Willian Jose could help Spurs bridge the gap to Harry Kane‘s return.

Willian Jose has been a double-digit scorer for Real Sociedad in La Liga for the previous three seasons, and is well on his way to another 10-goal campaign. He’s got eight goals in 20 matches this season.

Bournemouth needs defensive help, and is reportedly rivaling Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers for Portuguese giant Toni Borevkovic.

The 22-year-old Croatian has one goal in just over 3000 minutes with the side since arriving from domestic side NK Rudes.

He’s averaging 1.3 interceptions, .9 tackles, and 3.3 clearances per game in league play.

Rio Ave sits seventh in Portugal’s top flight and is managed by former Premier League boss Carlos Carvalhal.

Dropped points in Top Four race point to wild February

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Regardless of whether Wolves end Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League season on Thursday, there will be five teams within seven points of fourth place heading into Matchweek 25.

Chelsea has 40, a comfortable-enough six-point lead on Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves (who meet Liverpool at 3 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Sheffield United has 33 points.

February, specifically the next three matchweeks, will see the teams inside that group learn a lot more about their fates, and give Chelsea and Sheffield United big opportunities to cement their places in the Top Four and Seven, respectively.

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In the case of the latter, it’s because the Blades are the only team in the bunch who don’t face a Top Four six-pointer; Chris Wilder‘s men will meet Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Brighton, while the others will be beating up each other.

Chelsea’s path is fraught, but a big opportunity. The Blues travel to Leicester City before hosting both Manchester United and Spurs. Nine points there would effectively Top Four-proof Frank Lampard‘s side.

By the way, how’s this for a hot take? If any of Chelsea, Man Utd, or Spurs find their center forward or playmaker help in the window, they’ll have a leg up on their Top Four rivals. And, really, is that extra few million pounds worth the spoils of the Champions League? Yup.

Bruno Fernandes is not (yet) with United, and the Red Devils face Wolves and Chelsea in their next two matches. Spurs have City and Chelsea. Tumult is probable!

A draw with Newcastle and loss at Watford dampened Wolves’ hopes of riding into fourth. Beginning with Thursday’s visit from Liverpool, however, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men face three of the Top Seven and then a visit from Norwich City. It’s not over.

And don’t entirely rule out Leicester City from dropping into the fray; The Foxes host Chelsea and Man City, and visit Wolves.

One more nod, however improbable: Arsenal sits 10 points back of fourth but meets Burnley, Newcastle, and Everton over those three match weeks. A perfect run could have the Gunners thinking big (Man City is after that, alas).

Matchday 25
Leicester City v. Chelsea
Crystal Palace v. Sheffield United
Manchester United v. Wolves
Spurs v. Man City

Matchday 25
Sheffield United v. Bournemouth
Wolves v. Leicester City
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Aston Villa v. Tottenham Hotspur

Matchday 27
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City v. Man City
Wolves v. Norwich City
Sheffield United v. Brighton
Manchester United v. Watford

Spurs play Wolves the next week, too!

Mourinho: Spurs don’t have attacking depth, but do have ‘family’

Mourinho on Spurs win
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In this “whole new Jose Mourinho” world, the key word is family.

Mourinho said it six times in his post-match presser after Tottenham Hotspur scrapped to a 2-1 defeat of Norwich City on Wednesday in London.

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Spurs had an early lead disappear when Ryan Sessegnon gave away a penalty to Max Aarons, and Teemu Pukki converted it for a 70th-minute deadlock.

Heung-Min Son scored nine minutes later. It was a win that is good for the whole family.

From Football.London:

“It was fantastic what happened after the 1-1, which happens in a difficult moment for us where I look to the bench and I don’t have attacking players to change the game the team is a little bit fatigued, especially Lucas, Son and of course Lamela. I took him off because he was in trouble and he is a player who is coming from very important and long injury, so very difficult.

“How can we change the game? With the family spirit, the family character and desire.”

Mourinho also praised Giovani Lo Celso‘s work on the wing for attack-short Spurs as “a good experience for the family,” and Paulo Gazzaniga‘s support for returned goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as “a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo.”

I mean, I’m getting the warm and fuzzies.

Clearly, Mourinho is stressing unity and there’s a bit of bunker mentality involved, as the manager mentioned some dicey calls not going their way against Watford, Liverpool, and now Norwich.