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Pep: Hart’s future uncertain, will play in preseason

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Joe Hart has returned to Manchester City after spending last season on loan at West Ham, and his future is very much up in the air as it stands.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was asked about Hart’s situation at the pre-match press conference prior to City’s International Champions Cup match against Borussia Dortmund. He confirmed they are shopping the English veteran. “We’re going to try and make a solution for Joe,” Guardiola told reporters, “but if not then he is with us. He’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever seen but at this moment he is with us.”

Guardiola also confirmed that Hart would play in the preseason game against Dortmund. Starting goalkeeper Ederson is not on the roster for the US preseason tour, having returned from participation in the 2018 World Cup with Brazil, although he didn’t play as he served as Alisson’s backup.

The former #1 England goalkeeper, Hart has struggled mightily in recent seasons. He last played a full Premier League season back in 2015/16, starting 35 games for Manchester City. However, he lost his place the following year and was loaned to Italian top flight club Torino. He had mixed success during his one year in Italy and was loaned out to West Ham last campaign with Ederson and Claudio Bravo entrenched at his parent club. Hart only made it half the season before losing his starting spot for the Hammers, replaced by Adrian. That saw him lose not just starting job with the England national team but his place in the squad, forcing Gareth Southgate to take a trio of inexperienced goalkeepers to the World Cup, leading to the emergence of Jordan Pickford.

West Ham returned Hart to Manchester City at the end of the season, and here he sits in limbo again. Hart has just one more year left on his contract, but according to the Manchester Evening News, wants to leave this season on a permanent deal anyway.

Tomorrow, Hart will get the opportunity – albeit a small one – to showcase himself to potential suitors. If he gets another chance to play in the ICC (Manchester City plays Liverpool and Bayern Munich before heading home to England), he will have another opportunity to plead his case.

Southgate: “Against the very best, England came up short”

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England won over a ton of the haters and indifferent onlookers at the 2018 World Cup, as the Three (young) Lions made their unlikely run to the semifinals of the tournament in Russia.

[ MORE: Hazard hints at Chelsea exit, has “preferred destination” in mind ]

Gareth Southgate, who guided the squad with an average age of 25.6 years old, isn’t letting the feel-good factor, or the respectable accomplishments of the last month, cloud his vision, though. “Against the very best teams, we’ve come up short,” he said following Saturday’s defeat to Belgium in the third-place game. There is much work still to be done, if the current generation, which might just find itself dubbed a golden generation over the next few years, is to reach its potential — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are very realistic about the level we are. We’ve had a lot of praise, which has been nice, but also balanced with that a lot of reality as well. We don’t kid ourselves at all. We know exactly the areas where we hope to get better. We’re not in club football where we have a checkbook to buy new players. We have to coach and develop, and the players need a willingness to learn and improve, and they’ve shown that in the last seven weeks in particular. That continues, but we leave here having progressed a lot.

“It’s nice to reach a semi-final because that builds belief and gives momentum to the team. There’s some evidence that they can have success, and they can feel that and commit to the England shirt. But we need to keep improving.”

“We’ve finished in the final four, but we’re not a top-four team yet. Against the very best teams, we’ve come up short. But we’ve had a wonderful adventure and some experiences which will stand this group of players and staff in good stead for the future. We have to try to constantly evolve and improve. We’ve done that, particularly over the last eight months, and we’ve ended up having a brilliant adventure here.

“Every member of our party, players and staff, has enjoyed it immensely. That’s what we keep having to do: review how we play, how might we improve, what we can get better at. That’s what we will do.”

Despite the momentum and support England managed to create over the last four weeks, the fact that their tournament finished with back-to-back defeats could prove something of a blessing in disguise for Southgate and his coaching staff. A squad as young and ambitious as this one will only return hungrier, and with a chip on its shoulder, when they reconvene in September for UEFA Nations League action.

England, Belgium still have something to give World Cup fans

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These teams are not favorites, they are not marquee names, and they are not giants. Therefore, as Saturday’s much criticized third-place match comes our way, two dejected teams meet in a meaningless match still with something to earn, something to gain, something to work for.

At its core, the third-place match is utterly pointless. Two teams who saw their chance at glory derailed just days earlier are trudged back out onto the pitch to play for a shadow trophy, something with hollow meaning and provides little consolation for players who are still in the process of moving on from the heart-wrenching result days before.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

However, given pre-tournament expectations, these teams can still be happy to have reached this point, and could find motivation in leaving on a high note, especially given the alternative of capping such a promising showing in Russia with a pair of losses.

England, especially, will have plenty to prove. The Three Lions’ performance in Russia has been hailed as a smashing success despite falling just short to Cinderella story Croatia in the semifinals, and Gareth Southgate can put a feather in his cap by taking down one of the strongest rosters in the field. While they won’t publicly admit it, many of the England players will also hope to strengthen their cases for individual awards, with Harry Kane hoping to secure the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer, while Kane, Jesse Lingard, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, and Jordan Henderson all have a shot at earning a place on the World Cup Best XI. Finally, they will also be looking to avenge their group stage loss to the Red Devils in a game that had little meaning to either side.

[ MORE: Pre-Final PST World Cup roundtable ]

Gareth Southgate himself has some growing to do as well, and this match presents the perfect opportunity. He was out-managed in the semifinal against Croatia, failing to adjust while his midfield was stretched by great full-back play from the opposition. Against a star-studded Belgian squad, Southgate can prove he is no newbie, and has a fantastic chance to right the ship and earn player trust on the tactics board. Winning this match would give the players, the fans, and most importantly the front office confidence that Southgate’s success in the 2018 World Cup was more than a flash in the pan, and that he is ultimately the right man for the job not just in the immediate future but long-term through the next World Cup cycle.

For Belgium, Roberto Martinez will hope to find a silver lining in a tournament full of what-ifs. Belgium was not listed among the Brazil, Germany, France favorites contingent, but did find itself just beneath that upper echelon of giants, a roster bursting with Golden Generation talent. While a trophy won’t be hoisted, Martinez can prove to the world that this tournament was not wasted, and coming so close was a performance worthy of praise. Like the English, there are Belgian players who have something to prove on an individual basis. While the Golden Ball will likely be awarded to a player in the France Croatia final, players like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Thomas Meunier could be part of the tournament’s Best XI, while Thibaut Courtois has a serious chance at earning the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper in the field.

[ MORE: PST’s World Cup Best XI ]

Four years is an eternity in this realm of soccer, and while that’s how long these players will have to wait at true redemption, a win on Saturday provides them with a way of coping with the disappointment, an avenue to channel that frustration and morph some of it into appreciation for the opportunity they received and the achievement they attained, even if the ultimate goal failed to fully manifest. Both these sides have germinated strong futures thanks to the results over the last four weeks, and they have taken the next step in becoming a force both on the European and World stage.

So while the third-place match will continue to be the butt of jokes all over the world – most of them warranted – there is still something left to earn, something left on the line in Moscow on Saturday. It won’t have nearly the audience that Sunday will draw, and that will be understandable.

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.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

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.

Walker: Southgate ‘backbone of this team; man’s a gentleman’

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Oh, the difference 24 months can make.

[ MORE: Deschamps: EURO heartbreak drives France to World Cup final ]

The entire footballing world could infer pretty safely that the vibe surrounding the England camp had changed massively between the time the Three Lions were eliminated from the 2016 European Championship — at the hands of Iceland — and Wednesday, when Gareth Southgate‘s side was defeated by Croatia in the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup.

Following Wednesday’s heartbreaking failure, Kyle Walker, who was in the squad and on the field when the full-time whistle blew and England were effectively embarrassed after losing in such hopeless fashion, spoke passionately of the 180-degree turnaround in terms of belief and support that he has witnessed over two years, and that he felt in the moments immediately following the end of extra time — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was there in France, in the Iceland game, and it was completely different to that. For them to still be singing when we’re seeing friends and families, chanting our names and singing the manager’s name, is completely different. And I think we need to take full credit for that because we’ve changed that.

“I think the football has brought the nation together, people are going to pubs and celebrating, and that’s what football should be about. It’s enjoyable, we all love to play the game and fans love to support it. So it’s hats off to us. It’s unlucky we couldn’t bring it home for them, but hopefully there’s time in the future.”

“There’s nothing better, when people are writing you off and saying, ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt,’ slagging people off, it’s kind of saying: ‘Well, there you go, have that back at you.’ But we do it for ourselves as well.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am to share the dressing room with these players. We’ve all grown up watching England, and to represent your country at a semifinal of a World Cup, there’s no better feeling.”

[ MORE: Mourinho: England needs to keep coaches for next World Cup ]

As for Southgate, to hear Walker tell it, there’s not a single person in the locker room that wouldn’t run through a brick wall for him.

“The man’s a gentleman. That’s the best way to describe him. He’s been in our shoes. He relates to us massively. He knows what to say at the right time. And he makes you feel like you’re the best player in the world. He gives you that confidence, and I think that he needs to take the most credit out of everyone of us.

“We’re the guys who are running on the pitch, but he’s the backbone of this team. He’s made sure that everyone has stuck together through good and bad moments, and made sure our feet stayed on the floor. I can’t put into words how much credit he deserves for this.

And to think, Southgate only wound up in the job — one he pretty openly and firmly stated he didn’t want — because Sam Allardyce incriminated himself in a newspaper sting operation after 67 days on the job.

Southgate was the England U-21 manager at the time. Fast-forward 22 months, and he’s a near-lock to receive a four-year contract and be tasked with leading his country through the upcoming EURO and World Cup cycles.