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.


NYCFC shut down Rooney, DCU for first win (video)

Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): New York City remedied their rocky start to the 2019 season with a Sunday stroll through Audi Field and three points. D.C. United, on the other hand, looked a sad shell of their former selves, the side hotly picked to represent the Eastern Conference in MLS Cup 2019. Alexandru Mitrita and Heber bagged the goals for Domenec Torrent’s side, which has lost just once in seven games to start the season and suddenly sits a point outside the East’s seven playoff places. Heber stole the spotlight in his first MLS start, bagging NYCFC’s second goal and notching a secondary assist on their first. Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta were mostly held in check, outside of set-piece opportunities, in large part to a formational switch by Torrent: he opted for three center backs including 18-year-old academy product James Sands.

[ MORE: Everton pummels Manchester United (video) ]

Three moments that mattered

35′ — Mitrita scores through a sea of legs — Mitrita gets a bit lucky when his shot deflects off the leg of Frederic Brilliant, but United’s defending as a whole is far too lax to begin the sequence.

45’+4 — Moralez’s penalty smashes off the post, keeps DCU alive — When it happened, Maxi Moralez’s missed penalty kick appeared to be the second chance United needed to get back into the game. Alas…

56′ — Heber rifles inside the far post to make it 2-0 — United’s lifeline lasted all of 11 game-minutes, as they were slow to react to a simple ball over the top. Heber made the most of his first real look at goal, from a tight angle.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: _______

Goalscorers: Mitrita (35′), Heber (56′)

Dortmund hammer Freiburg but gain no ground on Bayern

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Borussia Dortmund moved back within one point of Bundesliga leader Bayern Munich with a 4-0 win against Freiburg on Sunday.

[ LA LIGA: Real Madrid win to stay within striking distance of 2nd ]

Dortmund went ahead in the 11th minute when 19-year-old Jadon Sancho scored from the six-yard box after a run by Marco Reus. It was Sancho’s 11th Bundesliga goal this season.

Dortmund added three after the interval with goals from Reus, Mario Gotze and Paco Alcacer with a penalty.

[ MORE: PSG crowned Ligue 1 champions with five games left ]

In the day’s other game, Hertha Berlin was held 0-0 at home by bottom side Hannover, which ended an eight-game losing streak.

On Saturday, Bayern beat Werder Bremen 1-0.

With four rounds left, Bayern leads with 70 points, Dortmund has 69 and Leipzig is third with 61.

La Liga: Real Madrid win to stay within striking distance of second

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: PSG crowned Ligue 1 champions with five games left ]

Real Madrid 3-0 Athletic Bilbao

Karim Benzema bagged a hat trick (WATCH HERE) — his 19th, 20th and 21st goals of the league season (second-most, 12 behind Lionel Messi) — to send Real Madrid to a comfortable victory over Athletic Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu. The result also keeps Los Blancos within four points of capital rivals Atletico Madrid in something of a battle for second place behind runaway leaders Barcelona.

Benzema has scored 10 goals in his last seven La Liga appearances, a run in which Madrid have complied a 5W-1D-1L record. Benzema failed to score in Zinedine Zidane’s re-debut as Madrid manager, but has scored eight goals in five games since.

Sunday’s game marked the 300th league appearance for midfielder and 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric in a Real Madrid shirt.

Getafe 3-0 SevillaWATCH HIGHLIGHTS

Sevilla’s hopes of returning to the UEFA Champions League following a one-year hiatus took a serious hit on Sunday, as Pablo Machin’s side was hammered by Getafe, the side which now occupies fourth place, two points ahead of them. Getafe continue to enjoy their meteoric rise through the Spanish ranks, as they were competing in the second division this time two years ago.

Two of the three goals the scored on Sunday came from the penalty spot, as Jaime Mata and Jorge Molina converted in the 35th and 45th+4′, respectively. Molina completed the scoring eight minutes into the second half.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Betis 1-2 Valencia
Levante 2-2 Espanyol
Villarreal 2-1 Leganes

PSG wins French league after second-place Lille fails to win

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PARIS (AP) Paris Saint-Germain clinched the French league title without kicking a ball as second-place Lille could only draw 0-0 at Toulouse on Sunday.

Lille had to win to have any chance of catching PSG, but PSG is now 16 points ahead of its only rival with five matches left after this weekend.

After failing to clinch the title in the past three matches, drawing one and losing two, PSG can celebrate the eighth title in its history ahead of its home game against Monaco later Sunday.

It is PSG’s sixth title in the last seven seasons, with only Monaco in 2017 breaking PSG’s dominance.

Although the title was long expected from a side scoring 92 goals in 32 games so far, it took longer than it should have.

PSG could have won it three games ago, but drew 2-2 at home to Strasbourg when a win would have clinched it.

Then PSG needed a draw at Lille last Sunday, only to lose 5-1 in the club’s heaviest defeat since Qatari investors QSI took charge of the club in June 2011.

A win away to Nantes would have sufficed, too, on Wednesday night only for PSG to lose 3-2 .

The 10 goals conceded in those three games made for PSG’s worst defensive record during a three-game spell since 1985.

Also Sunday, striker Kalifa Coulibaly scored twice as 13th-place Nantes beat 17th-place Amiens 3-2.

Later, Saint-Etienne needed a draw at Reims to move above Marseille and into fourth place.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports