Both Didier Deschamps and Zlatko Dalic have fielded very settled teams throughout this competition and after gruelling runs to the final, both look set to leave their teams as settled as possible. Dalic will go with his “golden generation” as they’re almost at the end of their international careers, while Deschamps will put faith in his young squad to get them over the line.
France have a very settled back four as young full backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez have been revelations at this tournament, plus Hugo Lloris is well and truly back to his best. The midfield trio picks itself, as long as Matudi is fit, as Tolisso is ready to come in if the PSG midfielder doesn’t recover from his knock against Belgium. Up top Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann will look to wreck havoc underneath targetman Olivier Giroud, with Ousmane Dembele ready to come off the bench when needed.
Croatia (4-3-3 formation)
—– Subasic —–
—- Vrsaljko —- Lovren —- Vida —- Strinic —-
—- Modric —- Brozovic —- Rakitic —-
—- Rebic —- Mandzukic —- Perisic —-
Following Sime Vrsaljko’s incredible recovery from injury to face England, Dalic’s two main injury concerns are Mandzukic and Strinic who both limped off in the semifinal. Lovren and Vida have been solid at center back, while the midfield has stolen the show for Croatia. Yes, we all know and love Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic for their silky passing and incredible workrate (Modric has covered 63 km during the tournament, more than any other player) but Marcelo Brozovic has been brilliant in winning the ball back and feeding his midfield partners. Up top Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic have worked tirelessly out wide and Mandzukic should be fit to lead the line after his game-winner against England. If he isn’t, expect Andrej Kramaric to come in with the Hoffenheim forward a handy attacking option off the bench too.
Danijel Subasic – 6 – Great stop from Harry Kane in the first half. Positioning poor on Trippier’s goal?
Sime Vrsaljko – 7 – Some rare forays forward and a fine cross for Perisic’s goal. No sign of his injury.
Dejan Lovren – 5 – Looked rattle all game long and could have easily picked up two yellow cards.
Domagoj Vida – 6 – Solid enough and managed to keep Kane quiet.
Ivan Strinic – 6 – Steady but forced off in extra time with an injury.
Ante Rebic – 6 – Gave Ashley Young some issues with his surging late runs. Booked and reckless in extra time.
Marcelo Brozovic – 8 – Dug deep to win the ball back in the heart of Croatia’s midfield, especially in the second half.
Luka Modric – 7 – At the heart of everything good for Croatia and subbed out late on as he looked exhausted.
Ivan Rakitic – 8 – Won the ball back on multiple occasions and came out on top in his midfield battle. Extra experience showed.
Ivan Perisic – 9 – Fantastic finish for his goal, hit the post and had several shots blocked. The Inter Milan man was on fire and set up Manduzkic for the winner with a clever header.
Mario Mandzukic – 7 – Didn’t have much service and was frustrated for most of the game but popped up when it mattered most to score.
Josip Pivaric on for Ivan Strinic (95′) – 5 – Did his best to stop England’s attackers and stood tall. Andrej Kramaric on for Ante Rabic (101′) – 5 – A few decent chances.
Vedran Corluka on for Mario Mandzukic (115′) – N/A
Milan Badelj on for Luka Modric (119′) – N/A
Jordan Pickford – 6 – A mix-up in the second half with Stones, some poor kicks in the first half but a great save from Mandzukic.
Kyle Walker – 5 – Some really shaky moments in the second half around a decent block from Perisic. Subbed in extra time.
John Stones – 5 – Tried to calm everyone down. Header cleared off the line in extra time but caught out on Croatia’s winner. Showed a lack of experience at a key moment.
Harry Maguire – 6 – Some good runs out of defense but sent an easy header wide and not his best defensive display.
Kieran Trippier – 7 – A stunning free kick to put England ahead early but caught out for the equalizer and didn’t make the most of some good crossing opportunities. Forced off late in extra time.
Jordan Henderson – 5 – Tried his best to drive England on from midfield but he was totally overrun in the second half but Modric and Rakitic. Dier replaced him.
Dele Alli – 6 – Another display where he couldn’t get on the ball and impact the game.
Jesse Lingard – 6 – Some nice touches in and around the box but missed a big chance in the first half.
Ashley Young – 6 – A fine late tackle to deny Rebic in the first half but hardly got forward and subbed out for extra time.
Raheem Sterling – 4 – Perhaps his worst display of the tournament. Got into some promising positions but couldn’t get the final pass or shot right. Subbed out in second half.
Harry Kane – 5 – A quiet evening for the skipper who was hit hard time and time again by Croatia’s defense. Missed a great chance in the first half and a header at the back post late on in normal time. Unlike him.
Subs Marcus Rashford on for Raheem Sterling (74′) – 5 – Some decent runs forward but no real service. Danny Rose on for Ashley Young (90′) – 6 – Some fine surges forward to pin Croatia back. Eric Dier on for Jordan Henderson (97′) – 5 – Tried to shore up the midfield. Had one shot from distance. Jamie Vardy on for Kyle Walker (112′) – N/A – No time to impact the game.
1) Which nation’s stock rose the most following the opening round?
Joe Prince-Wright: Probably Croatia, closely followed by Sweden. They both looked solid and have game changers. Belgium also impressed and if you scratch Mexico’s final group game then they were superb. Overall, lot of teams stepped up and delivered when it mattered most.
Nicholas Mendola: Count me among those leaping onto the Croatia bandwagon (as long as I can stay within safe distance of the Belgian version). Coming out of, let alone dominating, that group is remarkable. It took three distinctly different battle plans, and each was executed to near-perfection.
Andy Edwards: I would say it’s Croatia, given how dominant they were in group play, but what we saw in each of England and Belgium’s first two games was too impressive to ignore. They went from “fun team, but that’s it” to “they’re good enough to win this thing”, at least in my mind.
Kyle Bonn: Croatia looked fabulous in the group stage as Luka Modric ran the show in midfield. They may not be a favorite to win the tournament all of a sudden, but they could absolutely do some damage in the knockout round. Favorites beware, Croatia means business.
Matt Reed: I’d say without a doubt it has to be Sweden. You’re talking about a country that took a lot of flak for not bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the World Cup, and not only have they not missed him, but he’s barely been mentioned. They took Germany to the dying seconds, and looked quite convincing in their matches against South Korea and later Mexico. They are one of the most compact teams defensively in the tournament, and the draw has opened up very nicely for them.
Dan Karell: Probably Belgium. I would have said Mexico but the shocking 3-0 defeat to Sweden really dampened things and was a well-timed wake up call for El Tri. But Belgium has looked dominant and clinical enough in all three of its group stage matches, and even after making a ton of changes against England, the Red Devils still won. With de Bruyne and Lukaku in fantastic form, I don’t think they can be stopped. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Mexico, Croatia and Sweden, who won its group including Germany and Mexico. It’s not pretty, but they find a way to win most of the time, and would have drawn Germany if not for Toni Kroos’ heroics.
2) Which favorite is the favorite’s favorite: Brazil, France, Spain, or other?
JPW: Brazil. They’re stacked going forward and solid defensively. Great balance in the squad with Casemiro and Paulinho in midfield protecting an experienced and dependable back four. Neymar is getting better every single game and Coutinho, Willian and Gabriel Jesus will deliver goals.
NM: I like France’s path post-Messi.
AE: This is 100 percent a cop out, but there is no favorite. There’s either a fatal flaw in each squad’s makeup, or they looked completely disinterest and uninspired in the group stage. For that reason alone, the knockout rounds should be unbelievable drama.
KB: Brazil has to be the overwhelming favorite at this point, with Germany out. Spain has defensive issues to solve under new management.
MR: Spain has their moments of weakness in the group stage, but I think getting through Group B really toughened them up and made them realize there’s no more time for lazy mistakes. They’ve got a solid draw in their favor, and the experience to get back to another World Cup final.
DK: I guess Brazil? But I also am now predicting Brazil to lose to Mexico. Classic trap game, and I think Mexico matches up well, with the speed of Layun and Lozano against Fagner and likely Felipe Luis, with Marcelo possibly out due to a shoulder injury.
3) Which dark horse will make the longest run: Denmark, Sweden, or Switzerland?
JPW: Sweden. I think they have the nous to find ways to win games and collectively they’re tough go break down. The only issue is whether they can take their chances. Andreas Granqvist can’t keen scoring PKs you know…
NM: The Switzerland-Sweden winner, and I’m tabbing the Swiss to edge their Round of 16 rival.
AE: Sweden, because they can defend and frustrate the best attacking sides like nobody’s business
KB: The question isn’t who I think is the best team of the three (Denmark) so I will go with Switzerland, since Denmark unfortunately matches up with on-fire Croatia. Switzerland looks like a complete team, if not a dominant one, and Xherdan Shaqiri brought his A-game to the World Cup. Look for Switzerland to make some noise and challenge England in the quarterfinals.
MR: Sweden has the defensively capabilities to hold their opponents, so I like them to get to at the quarterfinals, where a date with England or Colombia would be quite the intriguing battle.
DK: I think Sweden can make it to the World Cup semifinals. Defensively they are beasts, and they will be hard to break down. If Emil Forsberg or Ola Toivonen can find a way to score, Sweden can muck it up and win 1-0 to keep advancing.
4) What percent chance do you give Mexico of beating Brazil?
JPW: 25%. They have to replicate their display against Germany to have any chance of getting by Brazil. Mexico will play on the counter and this could suit them but there’s no doubt they need to have a perfect gameplan and execute it 100%. Over to you, JCO.
NM: 25 percent. El Tri can do the job on defense, but their history against Brazil plus the accompanying fifth-game specter means it’s hardly more than a puncher’s chance.
AE: 45 percent. Brazil’s lack of a midfield will ultimately be their undoing.
KB: Their press worked wonders against the German midfield, but Paulinho and Casemiro are a different story. They won’t have success with the press, and they can’t out-possess Brazil, so Mexico will have to play on the counter. It isn’t out of the question, but it’s a long shot. I think Mexico gets a 20% chance to win at best.
MR: After what I saw against Sweden on the final group day, my opinion of Mexico changed drastically. It’s not out of the question considering the talent in the squad, but El Tri looked uninspired in their last match. I’ll give them a 25% chance of getting past Neymar and Co.
DK: 50 percent? I think it’s certainly possible, for the reasons I said above. Brazil isn’t 100 percent, Neymar is crying after beating Costa Rica, clearly the pressure to win is getting to him. And without Dani Alves and (maybe) Marcelo, Brazil are a bit weaker in defense along the wings, which is where Hirving “Chuky” Lozano and Miguel Layun thrive.
5) Is Croatia the “real deal?” Can they make a run to the final?
JPW: I’m not sure they will get to the final but a semifinal berth is definitely in them. Potentially coming up against Spain in the quarterfinal round will be their toughest test and I’m not sure they’re solid enough defensively to stop Costa, Isco, Silva and Co. Modric has been brilliant and deserves to lead Croatia to at least the final four.
NM: Yes. Quoting myself from above, “Coming out of, let alone dominating, that group is remarkable. It took three distinctly different battle plans, and each was executed to near-perfection.”
AE: Absolutely. Everything that Brazil’s midfield is not, Croatia’s midfield is. And more. Too much of the world’s population is about five years late in crowning Luka Modric the best midfielder in the world, but at least they caught on at some point.
KB: Yes they are the real deal. No, they cannot make a run to the final. Croatia would need to get through both Spain and England to reach the promised land, which I do not believe is something they could do. While they could potentially beat Spain if Sergio Ramos and company aren’t on their game, but winning both those matches would be too tall a task.
MR: Yes. Their midfield is the best in the tournament for me, and more importantly they’ve done a tremendous job limited their opponents to chances in front of their own goal. If they get past Spain in the quarters, I honestly won’t be surprised if they win the whole thing. Croatia is such an underrated team, and I love them from front to back on the depth chart.
DK: Croatia is certainly a terrific team. With Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric in midfield, it’s a team that can control the tempo and heartbeat of the game, which will certainly lead to goal-scoring chances for Mario Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric. I think they can make it to the quarterfinals, but they may struggle against a stronger Spain squad.
6) Which player outside of Messi/Ronaldo are you most excited to watch in the knockout rounds?
JPW: Probably Harry Kane. I want to see if he can keep finishing clinically to lead England to the latter stages. It’s all lined up for him to be a hero. Can he deliver?
NM: Romelu Lukaku. His chemistry with Eden Hazard, the rooting subplot delivered by his Players’ Tribune post, and his status as a finishing monster on a wildly-talented dark horse combine for something beautiful.
AE: Harry Kane. If England can get to the semifinals, it’ll almost certainly be because he reached double-digit goals.
KB: I have loved watching Luka Modric run the show for Croatia so far, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic lived up to the billing, but in my mind the most exciting player left in the tournament has to be Marcelo. I believe Marcelo is one of the top five best players in the world, and is Brazil’s most valuable asset. That’s right, more than Neymar. Marcelo is the best left-back in the world, and is an absolute joy to watch play. I hope Brazil makes a deep run so he can go to work.
MR: Isco has been one of the best players in the tournament for me, and I just love what he offers Spain in the attacking third. His vision reminds me of one of his aging teammates, Andres Iniesta. He has a knack for scoring as well. He’s got everything you want in an attacker, and could be the engine of the Spanish midfield for many years to come.
DK: Kevin De Bruyne. He can really cement his legacy – like Andres Iniesta did in 2010 – as one of the world’s premier midfielders with a run to the World Cup final.
7) Who are your semifinalists?
JPW: France v Brazil. Spain v England.
NM: France vs. Brazil, Spain vs. Colombia.
AE: France, Belgium, Croatia, England
KB: England is just such an impressive squad, and they did exactly what they needed to do against Belgium to secure a less challenging path through the bracket (“easier” is not the right world choice in that situation, no team left at this stage is “easy”). Gareth Southgate continues to push all the right buttons, and their squad is deep enough to withstand any injuries or yellow card suspensions. Brazil is the favorite and should reach the semifinals no problem, I don’t see them struggling with Belgium, who I am still not sold on yet. France is here by default, as long as they don’t stumble against Portugal again as demons from Euro 2016 linger. I’m not impressed by France, but neither Argentina or Portugal poses enough of a threat in my mind. Finally, Spain reaches as well after shoring up the defensive issues and topping Croatia, who runs out of steam.
MR: Give me Belgium and France in one half, and Spain and England in the other. I had Spain and Belgium before the tournament so I’m riding that to the final, with the Spanish hoisting their second World Cup.
DK: Belgium, France, Croatia and Colombia
8) How did the performances of Panama and Costa Rica affect your perception of the USMNT’s failure? How often did you contemplate the USMNT during the group stage?
JPW: I thought all three CONCACAF teams would struggle before the tournament, so not too much but it did hammer home just how poor USMNT was in qualifying. I’ve contemplated the USA’s absence quite often actually, especially seeing Hirving Lozano ripping it up. That should’ve been Christian Pulisic.
NM: I’ve thought about the USMNT far less than I expected. There’s been a freedom associated with watching a USMNT-free tournament, and I’ve adored this World Cup. That said, Keylor Navas gave Costa Rica their Tim Howard vs. Belgium game in a loss to Brazil, while Panama looked like a team that only got to the World Cup on a goal that never crossed the line. That part, I admit, brought the U.S. to mind a bit.
AE: Very little, if at all. The World Cup is for the 32 teams that qualify; it’s meant to be enjoyed for what it is, and for who is there. We had seven months to rue what happened in qualifying, and we’ll pick right back up in a couple more weeks, but for now, it’s the furthest thing from my mind.
KB: As much as I don’t want to project CONCACAF’s performance in this tournament onto the USMNT, as the transitive property is a dangerous game, but I couldn’t help it. Watching Panama struggle so mightily left me crying out for more answers as to how in the world the United States failed to deal with such a weak opponent. I’m wildly disappointed not just with the confederation as a whole, but the entire United States performance over the last two years. Bruce Arena has projected blame on just about everyone, but watching Panama only makes me shake my fist at him and others culpable even more.
MR: It was definitely frustrating seeing the CONCACAF teams struggle at times, but given the way the USMNT was playing heading into the tournament and the roster that they would have likely put out, it was for the best they weren’t in Russia. I’m not convinced they would have advanced out of any of the three groups that featured CONCACAF teams, so we’ll try this thing again in four years when Qatar hosts.
Pre-World Cup international friendlies are coming to a close as teams wrap up their preparation before heading to Russia for the big dance. A number of teams played their final tests before making their way to the host country, and matches on Friday gave us a decent look at where teams are, including a couple of matchups featuring World Cup squads on both sides.
Germany 2-1 Saudi Arabia
Timo Werner scored just eight minutes in as Germany skidded to victory at BayArena in Leverkusen despite the positive showing by World Cup minnows Saudi Arabia. The Germans unlocked the opposition for the opener on a dinked chip over the entire defensive unit by Joshua Kimmich which found Marco Reus on the left-edge of the six-yard box. Reus probably could have scored himself with a well-placed shot, but instead he touched across the face of goal to Werner who poked home from point-blank range off the underside of the bar.
Saudi Arabia had a number of chances in the first half that went begging, and Germany scored a second just before halftime as Omar Othman challenged Thomas Muller for a Werner cross at the doorstep, and it went in off the defender. The underdogs made things interesting late as Saudi Arabia won a penalty with six minutes remaining, and while Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved the spot-kick, the rebound was eventually powered home by Taiseer Al-Jassam.
Poland 2-2 Chile
Robert Lewandowski bagged a goal as Poland drew with Chile in Poznan. The Bayern Munich frontman opened the scoring 30 minutes in as he struck a fine effort from outside the top-left corner of the penalty area. Poland doubled its lead four minutes later as Kamil Grosicki caught the Chilean defensive line way too high, eventually feeding Piotr Zielinski for an easy tap-in on the break.
Chile, however, struck right back with seven minutes to go before halftime via Diego Valdes, and Miiko Albornoz scored the day’s best goal just before the hour mark as he rifled home a long-range missile on the volley.
Switzerland 2-0 Japan
Switzerland scored a goal near the end of each half as they waltzed to a 2-0 victory over Japan in Lugano as they head into the 2018 World Cup on a high. The home side put just two of their 11 total shots on target, but both resulted in goals.
Southampton defender Maya Yoshida conceded a penalty in the 42nd minute after fouling Breel Embolo, and defender Ricardo Rodriguez buried the spot-kick with a confident and powerful strike to open the scoring. Haris Seferovic was the man to finish things off in the 82nd minute, capping a vicious and beautiful counter-attack.
Croatia 2-1 Senegal
Another matchup of two World Cup qualifiers saw Croatia come from a goal down to beat Senegal 2-1 in Osijek. After a scoreless first half that saw the visitors appear to have the advantage, Stade Rennais winger Ismaïla Sarr scored the opener thanks to Wolves midfielder Alfred N'Diaye, who timed Sarr’s run perfectly with a pinpoint long-ball that sailed the entire defense.
Ivan Perisic leveled things back up past the hour mark with a heavily deflected free-kick, and lively halftime substitute Andrej Kramaric grabbed the winner off a broken play with 12 minutes remaining. The Hoffenheim striker hit an ugly, off-balance shot from a tight angle that was blocked easily, but the rebound came right back to him and he struck again, catching Senegal goalkeeper Abdoulaye Diallo off-guard.
Sadio Mane was bright for Senegal, but he clanged a free-kick off the crossbar in the dying minutes of the game, unable to secure an equalizer.
Iran 1-0 Lithuania
Olympiakos striker Karim Ansarifard grabbed the game’s only goal in the 88th minute as Iran heads to the World Cup on a winning note. Ansarifard had a spectacular Greek Super League campaign, scoring 17 goals and grabbing 6 assists in 25 league matches this season.
Hoffenheim has found itself in a Champions League position after topping Hannover 96 at home 3-1 behind a hat-trick by Andrej Kramaric.
The first of the game came 16 minutes in as a terrible back-pass by defender Salif Sane failed to reach the goalkeeper and instead fell straight into the path of Serge Gnabry who eluded a charging Philipp Tschauner and touched to Kramaric for the tap-in. Gnabry was actually hurt on the play and had to be removed minutes later.
Hannover leveled things up after just eight minutes, but Kramaric was there to give Hoffenheim the lead back five minutes after the halftime break. On a corner, the outswinger evaded the pack but fell to 26-year-old Croatian who produced a fabulous volley to send a rocket into the back of the net.
And yet somehow, his third was even better. A long ball forward saw Kramaric go up against two defenders, and instead of taking them head-on, seeing Tschauner cheating forward, he dinked the ball past the two defenders, over the goalkeeper’s head, and into the back of the net. A wonderful goal that sealed the deal in the 86th minute and put Hoffenheim into fourth place in the Bundesliga table, a Champions League position.
Just a point behind them is Bayer Leverkusen who will play on Saturday against Stuttgart at home hoping to regain that position. Should Hoffenheim gain control, they would be gunning for the club’s second Champions League place in club history, with the first coming this season as they finished fourth the previous year as well. They were eliminated from the Champions League playoff round by Liverpool before finishing last in their Europa League group of SC Braga, Ludogorets, and Istanbul Başakşehir.