Key takeaways from 2018 World Cup

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The 2018 World Cup will go down as one of the most entertaining in history, as a month-long soccer celebration in Russia didn’t disappoint.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

From stars shinning, big teams falling early, the hosts surprising and stunning moments galore, we were treated to a wondrous spectacle from June 14 to July 15.

When it comes to it being the best World Cup, all-time, many will point to France 1998 and Mexico 1986 as being the best-ever World Cups, but Russia 2018 is right up there in terms of pure drama and memorable moments.

Let’s focus on the key takeaways from a special World Cup.


SUMMER OF FUN

With concerns aplenty about Russia hosting the World Cup, all of that was put to one side for the majority of the tournament as all eyes were on the pitch. With more late goals (90th minute or later) at this World Cup than the last three combined, we were treated to incredible drama. Plus, 164 goals at an average of 2.64 goals per game was pretty decent too as that was just under the 2.67 goals per game haul in 1998 and 2014.

Overall this was a summer of extreme fun spread across the vast European region of Russia as fans were welcomed by locals, stars delivered on the pitch and countries across the world rejoiced or cried depending on how their teams fared. I’m not sure this World Cup could have gone any better for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and their organizers.

As it always does, this tournament captured the imagination of fans across the world.


BIG BOYS OUT EARLY

Germany became the third-straight reigning champions to crash out of the World Cup at the group stage and that was one of the biggest storylines of the tournament. How on earth did Joachim Low’s star-studded side fail epically? Warnings signs were there as Manuel Neuer was rusty and the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller were out of sorts, but still, Die Mannschaft’s title defense was woeful.

Argentina’s organization was woeful throughout as Jorge Sampaoli basically surrendered control of the team to the players as they scraped by Nigeria in their final group stage game, then lost 4-3 in a thriller against eventual winners France in the Round of 16. Lionel Messi may never grace the World Cup stage again and Argentina were an unbalanced, top-heavy shambles in this tournament. So sad.

Omnishambles can be used to describe Spain’s World Cup. On the eve of the tournament they fired head coach Julen Lopetegui after he agreed to take over as Real Madrid manager without informing the Spanish Football Association and although they made it to the last 16 under caretaker boss Fernando Hierro, something wasn’t quite right as they crashed out to hosts Russia on penalty kicks in the last 16.

Portugal departing in the last 16 wasn’t too much of a shock but did deprive us of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo in the latter stages of the tournament, while Poland didn’t show up at all as they crashed out of the group stage with Robert Lewandowski a shadow of his usual self.


FRANCE WORTHY, PRAGMATIC WINNERS

Swashbuckling, they weren’t. Champions, they are.

France didn’t exactly set the tournament alight but Didier Deschamps set up his team to be tough to beat and they battled their way through the stacked side of the bracket (beating Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final) to win it all.

Les Bleus conceded once in the group stage and apart from a wobbly display against erratic Argentina in the last 16, they shutout Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final. For all of their young attacking talents, France’s title was built on a solid defensive foundation as they bounced back from the agony of defeat on home soil in the European Championships two years ago.

Kylian Mbappe was the young star of the tournament at the age of 19 and became just the second teenager in history to score in a World Cup final with the only other being Pele in 1958. While the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Hugo Lloris and Paul Pogba delivered when it mattered as the second youngest team in the tournament prevailed.

There was plenty to like about this stubborn French side as young defenders Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti were sublime at center back and Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez excelled after being thrown in at the deep end.

Deschamps also became just the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager as he captained France’s first World Cup success in 1998 and 20 years later he masterminded a second success by cutting his cloth accordingly and making smart tactical decisions throughout.


TOP GOALS

So many to choose from but Lionel Messi’s goal v Nigeria, Benjamin Pavard’s beauty against Argentina, Nacho’s lazer for Spain v Portugal, Denis Cheryshev’s cracker against Croatia, Philippe Coutinho‘s stunner v Switzerland and Angel di Maria’s long-range effort against France stand out.

There was also Cristiano Ronaldo’s epic free kick against Spain, Dries Mertens’ volley, Kevin De Bruyne‘s smash against Brazil, Jesse Lingard‘s curler versus Panama, Ricardo Quaresma’s outside-of-the-foot beauty and Toni Kroos’ amazing late free kick against Sweden.

That’s 12 goals of this highest quality right here. Here’s a look at a few of our favorites.


SET PIECE, VAR STARDOM

The unsung stars of this World Cup? Set pieces and VAR.

The former saw more goals from set pieces at a World Cup since 1966, and the latter caused a few issues but was largely brilliant in getting the decisions correct in a speedy manner.

Nothing is perfect but VAR proved it is here to stay and set piece dominance may well be the theme of the next few years as smaller clubs and nations continue to improve and close the gap to the elite.


EUROPEAN DOMINATION

Six of the final eight teams were from Europe and all of the final four were from the same continent as the European teams stood tall on what could be considered as home soil. What does this say for the future? With England, Belgium and France all having young squads, they could also be in the latter stages of the 2022 World Cup if they continue to develop their talented youth teams.

With their talented youngsters nurtured in stable academy environments in England, Belgium and France and quickly moved into the big leagues, their central models are all working as we are starting to see St. George’s Park being reminiscent of Clairefontaine and Belgium’s model of integrating their club teams at youth level.

Having a clear plan has clearly worked to develop Belgium’s golden generation which came third, while France and England preferred to give youth a chance and it worked.

South America has some incredibly talented individuals in Neymar of Brazil, James Rodriguez of Colombia, Luis Suarez of Uruguay and of course Messi of Argentina, but the organization of the European nations in terms of youth development has improved drastically and we may now see European domination in the next few World Cups. A seismic shift in the power of world soccer occurred the summer as the huge wealth of the European game has been invested into better resources to develop young players. It is working superbly.


MEXICO FLY CONCACAF FLAG

Contrasting that European domination was CONCACAF disappointment. Only Mexico made it out of the group stage from the three teams CONCACAF sent to Russia and both Panama and Costa Rica failed to win any of their games at the tournament. Mexico almost blew their chance too as they were thrashed 3-0 by Sweden in their final group game and had South Korea beating Germany to thank for advancing to the last 16.

El Tri lost 2-0 to Brazil in that feisty encounter as Juan Carlos Osorio blamed Neymar flopping and referees but, in all honestly, Mexico weren’t good enough to dine at the top table of this tournament.

Sure, they beat Germany in their group opener to set themselves up to make the knockout rounds, but we saw that something wasn’t right with Germany. A seventh-straight exit at the last 16 for Mexico underlined that CONCACAF has a lot of catching up to do and the fact that the U.S. national team didn’t even qualify for this tournament hit home just how poor the USMNT were during qualifying.


SPARE A THOUGHT FOR…

There are always teams who deserved to make it out of the group but it doesn’t happen due to small margins and just plain bad luck. Enter: Iran, Peru, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Serbia. All six of those nations put in gutsy displays but it wasn’t to be as Senegal went out due to having more fair play points than Japan (two more yellow cards, to be exact), while Morocco and Iran almost upset powerhouses Spain and Portugal in their wild final group games which included VAR galore and there was late drama throughout Group B. Morocco, in particular, were one of the best teams to watch in the tournament as Herve Renard’s team scored a last-gasp own goal to lose to Iran, then somehow drew with Spain in their final group game despite giving them a heck of a scare.

Serbia were another team who started the tournament well but succumbed to their attacking instincts late on against Switzerland, while Nigeria dazzled when defeating Iceland but came unstuck late on against Argentina to lose out on making the last 16. Peru also came up short against France and Denmark despite positive displays as they beat Australia comfortably in their group stage finale to end on a high.

This was a tournament were some of the more exciting teams vanished early on as giants turned to pragmatism to find a way out of the group stage.

Oh, and spare a thought for Michy Batshuayi, who will be remembered only for this moment from the World Cup. Sorry, Michy, but what did you think would happen!?


AWARD WINNERS

Luka Modric dazzled in midfield to lead Croatia’s charge to the final, the first time they have reached that stage in history, and deservedly won the Golden Ball.

Perhaps Kylian Mbappe deserved third, but he won the Young Player of the Tournament, so Griezmann getting third seemed about right, while Eden Hazard was superb alongside Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne as Belgium’s stars showed up.

Below is a look at the full list of awards.


Golden Ball (player of the tournament)
1st – Luka Modric, Croatia
2nd – Eden Hazard, Belgium
3rd – Antoine Griezmann, France

Silver Ball (young player of the tournament) – Kylian Mbappe, France
Golden Boot (top goalscorer)Harry Kane, England
Golden Glove (top goalkeeper)Thibaut Courtois, Belgium


RONALDO, MESSI, NEYMAR STRUGGLE

All three of these players had major highs and lows in this tournament, with Ronaldo scoring twice, Neymar twice and Messi once.

The latter missed a penalty kick in Argentina’s opener against Iceland and his struggles summed up La Albieceleste crashing out at the last 16 stage. Messi’s stunning control and finish against Nigeria in their crucial group finale will live long in the memory, but that was about it from a World Cup where it looked like the pressure of a nation was too much for him to handle.

Ronaldo scored four goals, including a hat trick in Portugal’s wild 3-3 draw with Spain to open up group play and the former Real Madrid star (who has since signed for Juventus) scored the winner against Morocco too. Yet he couldn’t do it all on his own as Portugal’s other star attackers failed to show up.

Neymar, ah, yes. Brazil’s talisman may have broken the record for most rolls after being fouled in a World Cup tournament as his theatrical dives overshadowed all of his good work. After working his way back to full-fitness following three months out, Neymar scored a late goal against Costa Rica to set Brazil on their way but he also annoyed many with his antics. Against Mexico he was treated brutally but many neutrals seem fed up with him.


BREAKOUT STARS

Every single World Cup will scour the rosters for who will be the breakout stars of this World Cup and a couple really stood out: Mexico’s Hirving “Chucky” Lozano had a great tournament with two goals and was a constant pest as the PSV Eindhoven winger will surely get a move to one of Europe’s elite teams.

The unfashionable English trio of Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford saw their stocks rise significantly, while Japan’s Takashi Inui was a star as it seems like Real Betis have found themselves a star playmaker at the ripe age of 30.

French youngsters Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez came of age at full back for France, while Emil Forsberg impressed for Sweden and Yerry Mina delivered goals and desire to Colombia’s defense. Kasper Schmeichel starred in goal for Denmark and Aleksandr Golovin was a hero for Russia in their run to the quarterfinals.

Overall, it was a World Cup of lovely surprises and even after a month we wish it was still going on.


Lampard: Chelsea first leg loss ‘quite sobering,’ ‘harsh lesson’

Frank Lampard
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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Chelsea manager Frank Lampard isn’t sugarcoating his side’s 3-0 first-leg loss to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on Tuesday.

“Sometimes you have to be brutally honest about it,” he said in televised remarks after the loss. “It’s quite sobering.”

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Lampard admitted that Bayern was firing on all cylinders at Stamford Bridge, and proffered tepid support for the idea of an unlikely comeback in Germany next month.

“The level of team they showed that they are, hence why they challenge in the Bundesliga and the Champions League,” he said, via Football.London. “I’m disappointed we couldn’t do better against them. It’s a reality check. Don’t look at anyone else apart from yourself.”

“We should never say the door is closed because our fans would never accept that. I’m more concerned with the bigger picture here. There’s a lot to be done.”

Sure is.

Chelsea leads fifth-place Manchester United by three points in the top four race and has a four-point edge on sixth-place Spurs in the scenario that fifth is enough for Champions League football.

That’s important because the UCL path back to the tournament looks like a massive ask. And Lampard said the players need to use Tuesday’s blowout loss at home “as a positive effect” moving forward.

But he also put it pretty plainly during his post-match comments.

“It was a harsh lesson,” Lampard said. “This is Champions League football.”

Griezmann gives Barcelona first leg draw with Napoli (video)

Napoli v. Barcelona recap and video highlights
Photo by CARLO HERMANN/AFP via Getty Images
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Antoine Griezmann scored in the second half to earn Barcelona a 1-1 draw with Napoli in a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg at the San Paulo Stadium on Tuesday.

Dries Mertens scored a beautiful opener for Napoli, who heads to the Camp Nou for a March 18 second leg.

Arturo Vidal was sent off in the 89th minute for a second yellow card, and Sergio Busquets picked up a yellow which will cost him the second leg.

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Gennaro Gattuso’s plan was to limit Barcelona’s shots, and it worked well in the first half.

Mertens got his goal on one of only five shots in the half, the only two on target coming via Napoli.

How a tale can turn on a moment, though, as Nelson Semedo set up Griezmann’s second-half marker to give Barca a useful away goal.

Barca was much better in the second half but could not find a second away goal.

Here’s the goal of the day, and it belongs to Mertens.

Bayern Munich puts Chelsea in three-goal hole

Bayern Chelsea
Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images
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Too easy.

Serge Gnabry scored off a pair of Robert Lewandowski assists as Bayern Munich earned a 3-0 first-leg lead over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Lampard reacts to ‘harsh lesson’ ]

Chelsea played the last dozen minutes down a man; Marcos Alonso was sent off via VAR for contact to the face of Robert Lewandowski away from the play. He’ll miss the second leg, as will Jorginho after collecting another yellow card.

Lewandowski capped off the scoring to make Chelsea’s task even more difficult heading to the Allianz Arena for the March 18 second leg.

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Three things we learned

1. Bayern loves London: Just under five months ago, Bayern Munich buried Tottenham Hotspur in North London in a seven-goal show. This wasn’t quite that, but the Bavarians out-classed a Chelsea side which had few answers for Hansi Flick’s tactics. Bayern has hung 10 on London.

2. Ex-Gunner Gnabry runs the show: Gnabry scored just one goal in 14 appearances over four years between Arsenal and West Brom, and is making up for lost time during this season’s Champions League. He scored four times and added an assist when Bayern visited his former North London Derby rivals. This time, it was two goals in four second-half minutes at Stamford Bridge, the German playmaker contributing plenty in the defensive half.

All it took was one slip from Cesar Azpilicueta to start the scoring.

3. Chelsea’s backs torn apart: It’s difficult to find any fine individual performances from the Blues aside from Mateo Kovacic, though Mason Mount had his moments, but the worst days came from the back three. Bayern was credited with a half-dozen big chances via Sofascore, and the visitors took a whopping 11 shots inside the box.

Man of the Match: The 30-year-old Muller was everywhere early, but it’s difficult to give this to anyone but Gnabry or Lewandowski. We’ll give it to the German.


Kingsley Coman was the first to scare the opposition, working a long 1-2 with Thomas Muller before thumping a low shot wide of the near post in the 12th minute.

Chelsea backstop Willy Caballero made a sliding trail leg save on Robert Lewandowski in the 28th.

Muller then swirled a shot around Caballero but just past the far post before heading off the cross bar in the 35th.

Chelsea got a prime moment in the 48th minute, but Mason Mount was dispossessed and Manuel Neuer stymied Ross Barkley.

Gnabry then stole the ball in Chelsea’s half and worked a 1-2 with Lewandowski to put Bayern on the board.

Mount latched onto a big mistake from Joshua Kimmich but badly missed his bid to catch Neuer out of the goal.

Canadian phenom Alphonso Davies produced the third goal with a roaring run down the left flank, crossing to Lewandowski for the goal.

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 27

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The latest batch of Premier League Club Power Rankings has the season’s biggest surprise dipping a bit while serial grinders Burnley head back up the list.

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Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Norwich City — The Canaries’ defense is covering the club in coal.
Last week: 20
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-0 at Wolves
Up next: 3 p.m. ET Friday v. Leicester City

19. Aston Villa — Did Dean Smith‘s strong words wake ’em up? We won’t know until after the League Cup Final, where everyone will be amped.
Last week: 14
Season high: 6
Season low: 19
Last match: Lost 2-0 at Saints
Up next: 4 p.m. ET March 9 at Leicester City

18. Watford — The new manager bounce is super dead.
Last week: 18
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-0 at Manchester United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. Liverpool

17. Bournemouth — The schedule is not forgiving, which makes the 3-0 loss to Burnley all the more sickening for fans of the Cherries.
Last week: 15
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Sheffield United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Chelsea

16. West Ham United — An improved performance from Moyes’ boys, even if all they’re doing is not winning.
Last week: 19
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-2 at Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Southampton

15. Newcastle United — Woeful versus Palace, and are in dire need of looking like a proper football team when Burnley visits St. James’ Park this weekend. If they can’t do it versus the Clarets, who don’t really require the ball, maybe they can’t do it. Not safe yet.
Last week: 13
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 1-0 at Crystal Palace
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Burnley

14. Crystal Palace — The Eagles were all over Newcastle, but should be alarmed to only score once. Wilfried Zaha is a mess, but perhaps the M23 Derby will sort him out.
Last week: 16
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 1-0 v. Newcastle United
Up next:  7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Brighton

13. Brighton and Hove Albion — Three-straight draws, but Graham Potters’ men still have not won in 2020. It’d be a shame if they slipped out of the top flight.
Last week: 17
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Drew 1-1 at Sheffield United
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Palace

12. Southampton — Totally dominant v. Villa, a trip to West Ham could be a goal fest.
Last week: 12
Season high: 7
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-0 v. Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at West Ham

11. Sheffield United — No shame in just getting by, but Chris Wilder‘s men are looking a bit less like a Europa League side in recent weeks.
Last week: 6
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 1-1 v. Brighton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET March 7 v. Norwich City

10. Burnley — Wins are wins are wins are wins, and we can no longer discount anything Burnley is doing just to lean on stats. Sean Dyche is Cinderella Man.
Last week: 11
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 3-0 v. Bournemouth
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Newcastle United

9. Everton — Carlo Ancelotti will be truly let down by the lack of stops versus Arsenal to kickstart a brutal run of fixtures. Manchester United home, Chelsea away, Liverpool home are up next.
Last week: 5
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Lost 3-2 at Arsenal
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Manchester United

8. Arsenal — With West Ham, Brighton, Saints, and Norwich next, the win over Everton could be a real springboard for a surprising top four run.
Last week: 8
Season high: 4
Season low: 13
Last match: Won 3-2 v. Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET March 7 v. West Ham

7. Wolves — Huge Top four six-pointer at Spurs on Sunday, and Wolves will be grateful they’re bringing a 4-0 advantage to Espanyol on Thursday. Will Nuno Espirito Santo actually rotate?
Last week: 9
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 3-0 v. Norwich CIty
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Spurs

6. Leicester City — The Foxes’ next four matches are against relegation candidates. Let’s see if Brendan Rodgers can get the boys looking like a top four side again.
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Man City
Up next: 3 p.m. ET Friday at Norwich City

5. Manchester United — Bruno Fernandes is the real deal.
Last week: 10
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 3-0 v. Watford
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Everton

4. Tottenham Hotspur — Very fortunate on so many levels to not have been walloped by Chelsea.
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

3. Chelsea — A much-needed win over an old friend, sweeping Jose Mourinho to firm up top four credentials.
Last week: 7
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Bournemouth

2. Man City — It’s all about the UCL for a club which is clearly one of the two best in the Premier League but miles off the title.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Won 1-0 at Leicester City
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

1. Liverpool — For maybe the first time this season, Liverpool looked like it thought it could walk into a venue and win on its jersey alone. They were awakened before it was too late.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 3-2 v. West Ham United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Watford