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PST’s World Cup roundtable: Pre-Final edition

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What an intoxicating tournament.

It’s hard to say anything else as France and Croatia prepare for the 2018 World Cup Final.

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From Russia’s blowout opener and the Spain-Portugal thriller right down to Wednesday’s semifinal tussle between Croatia and England, this tournament has been as close to unforgettable as we’ve seen in some time.

The ProSoccerTalk staff is answering questions ahead of Sunday’s final.

Forget their age, Who would you rather have in your midfield for a one-game winner-take-all final: N'Golo Kante or Luka Modric?

Joe Prince-Wright: Luka Modric on current form. But only just. Does all the simple things well and forces opponents to totally change their defensive shape.

Nicholas Mendola: Kante is amazing, but there are a few players of his ilk/style that can come close to replicating what he does so well. Modric types are more difficult to find, and given the insane year he’s had — much of it his doing — I’m amazed he’s been able to stay so laser-focused.

Kyle Bonn: Modric has had a wonderful World Cup and may win the Golden Ball, but in the modern game, N’Golo Kante is potentially the most valuable piece of any top European team, and any teambuilding starts with him.

Matt Reed: It’s such a tough decision because they offer such different aspects, but if you’re looking for a player that does what he’s asked every single match I’m going with N’Golo Kante. His positioning and tactical awareness are always flawless, and Kante’s ability to essentially serve as a fifth defender makes life very difficult for opposing sides to break them down.

Dan Karell: I think Modric. He’s just so good all-around, and playing at Real Madrid has taught him the defensive side of the game. He’s certainly not as good defensively as Kante but I think he’s so much better with the ball than Kante is that it outweighs the defensive skill Kante has.

Nikola Kalinic (L) and Modric (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

Scale of 1-10, 1 being “not a chance” and 10 being “it’s haaaapppening,” what odds does Croatia have of winning on Sunday?

JPW: 4 out of 10. Croatia’s exertion have to catch up with them soon but France will be very wary.

NM: 3. I don’t want to bet against a relentless Croatia, but France has gotten it done without hitting its top gear. That probably comes Sunday, and the tired Bleus will have a trouble matching that over 90.

KB: 5! I truly believe this is a wide open match. Croatia has earned the right to have an equal chance at winning this game. They have tactically been superior to every team they’ve played so far.

MR: It’s easy to argue that Croatia has benefited from being on the “easier” side of the draw, but they’ve done everything necessary to take care of business and reach this point. That said, the Croats have played an extra game… and then some… with three consecutive extra time efforts. I just don’t envision them being able to find complete fitness ahead of the final, so I’ll go with a 4.

DK: 7. Croatia has defied the odds up till this point in the knockout stages and has grown into every game they’ve played. Assuming they’re still drinking some of MJ’s Secret Stuff and have energy on Sunday, they will surely put France on the defensive. If France doesn’t score a couple of quick goals in the first 20 minutes of the game, Croatia has a great chance to lift the title.

Are Croatia’s three trips to extra time going to crush them?

JPW: Not crush but hamper. France also had an extra day of rest and Croatia have wracked up the miles in this tournament.

NM: That and one day’s less rest is going to make a difference. That’s 90 full minutes and two nervy, adrenaline rides through penalty kicks.

KB: I thought they would against England, yet they were the team with the legs at the end. Hard to have seen that and then bet against Croatia on the grounds of tired legs.

MR: They’ve proven us wrong up until this point, so let’s not rule them out completely. Let’s put it this way though. If France plays up to its potential, especially having had an extra day of rest, Les Bleus will be champions once more.

DK: We’d have assumed, but somehow they’ve survived and continue to get stronger. After the tournament, these guys are going to all need a month-long rest in one of those cryo-chambers, but for now their bodies are holding up.

How has this World Cup affected Paul Pogba‘s reputation, if at all?

JPW: Enhanced it slightly. He’s played well so far without setting the tournament alight but you could say that about everyone apart from Mbappe and Kante for France. Deschamps has everyone doing the dirty work and Pogba has been a lot more regimented at doing that than he was in the past with France and Man United.

NM: His rep has been burnished, as he’s played in both advanced and set-back roles. Honestly, his performances may have justified some of what Jose Mourinho has chosen to do with Pogba’s immense talent.

KB: This is hard to say. We’re so used to praising Pogba on his standout performances with Juventus, but the way he plays these days he doesn’t stand out anymore, even when he has a good match. I don’t think his reputation changes much, even if they win the World Cup.

MR: Pogba may be one of the biggest winners of the World Cup regardless of result on Sunday. He’s taken a lot of heat at Manchester United for not being able to adapt and at times being selfish, but this tournament has shown his willingness to put ego aside and take the squad’s needs to heart. The semifinal performance against Belgium really shed some light on his recent change in play by just breaking up balls and clogging the midfield for Les Bleus.

DK: It’s a tough call. I think part of Pogba’s problem is he is so skilled in so many areas – technique on the ball, speed, strength, aerial ability – that he wants to be 4 players in one instead of just being the best Pogba. In the game against Belgium, he completely wore down Fellaini, no small task against his Man United teammate, and showed excellent control on the ball and vision to keep the ball moving and keep it away from Belgium, or find Mbappe in space down the wings. If that’s Pogba at his best, it’s certainly worth the price of admission.

Who deserves the World Cup’s Golden Ball?

JPW: Probably Modric. He’s been sublime. Kante should be in the running too and if Mbappe scores a few in the final, he may well get it.

NM: Modric is the favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Antoine Griezmann pass Modric and Kylian Mbappe with a fine final.

KB: Whoever has a better match, Mbappe or Modric, will win the Golden Ball. They have both been stunning this tournament.

MR: It has to be Kylian Mbappe. He’s playing on the best team in the tournament right now, but more importantly he’s carrying their attack. Antoine Griezmann has been largely disappointing in this World Cup, while Olivier Giroud has been nearly nonexistent. Had it not been for Mbappe’s pace and skill, France wouldn’t be at this point.

DK: Two words. Luka Modric. Yes, Harry Kane has 6 goals and has been brilliant. But he’s failed to score in each of England’s last two games and he’s also failed to make a real impact on the game. Modric meanwhile has been absolutely stellar for the entire tournament. His consistency is unparalleled and he is a joy to watch. 2nd place would be for N’Golo Kante.

Barring a 4-goal night from Griezmann or Mbappe, Harry Kane will have at least a share of the Golden Boot. Where does he rank in the world right now, as an impact player? Top Five? Top Ten?

JPW: Top five. He delivered in most of England’s games and you would have put your mortgage on him scoring at least one of his two big chances vs. Croatia. Wasn’t meant to be.

NM: He’s on the edge of the Top Five, though admittedly he’s sitting there more for club play than the World Cup. That said, he was quite good even when not facing Panama.

KB: If you asked me 2 weeks ago, I would have told you he ranked in the top 5 strikers in the world, without a doubt. But he underwhelmed in the knockout stages, and I still have questions about his ability to carry a team and produce something out of nothing like a world class striker can. He hasn’t played in too many extra-high leverage matches in his career, and that needs to happen before we consider him world class.

MR: You’re talking about two very different Harry Kane-s. The Tottenham Kane is arguably the best striker in the world. He’s probably a top 5 impact player when with Spurs, but this showing with England was honestly a bit disappointing for me. Some of that has to do with the fact that many of the Three Lions’ attackers were less than impressive, but half of Kane’s goals came from the penalty spot and he only scored once after the group stage. This World Cup won’t hurt his overall stock, but it’s very easy to argue that he wasn’t the best striker in Russia.

DK: Against Sweden and Croatia, his stock dropped significantly. But I’d still say he’s one of the 10 best players in the world. Like Luis Suarez and other great poachers, he has a great knack for being in the right place at the right time, and he’s clinical in front of goal, whether from 12 yards out or 18.

England’s Harry Kane, right, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, centre, and Kieran Trippier (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

It is not coming home, Pt. 1: Where will time see this England side? Are they a nation returning to consistent contender status, or simply the recipients of good performances and a friendly bracket?

JPW: They’ve given their fans hope but you can’t deny this was a golden chance to reach the final. They were on the easier side of the bracket but this is a young team and they’ll be together for EURO 2020. I expect them to do well in that tournament too with Gareth Southgate at the helm.

NM: The Three Lions were inspiring for the entire run, even in the face of a shaken extra time performance. England is probably set to remain a second-tier team, not too bothered in qualifying but not favored to get to a semi-final. Kane’s continued growth along with consistency for Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford can make a difference.

KB: This is a team on the rise. Gareth Southgate made tactical mistakes in the loss to Croatia, but he is the right man forward, and hopefully England sticks with him through thick and thin. Only Young, Vardy, Delph, and Rose are at an advanced age and will be unlikely to take part in 2022. There is more young talent coming through (think: Sessegnon and Alexander-Arnold). Southgate is a great talent evaluator (think: discovering Maguire as a true international). They will be contenders in Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.

MR: Nearly everything went right for England to reach the semifinals in Russia, but make no mistake, this team is young, hungry and only improving over the next several cycles. Of the squad’s current 23 players, only eight of them are older than 28. The likes of Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford are going to be with this Three Lions side for a very long time, while some of England’s elite youths including Phil Foden and Tammy Abraham will surely make a push into the team. The loss to Croatia is a difficult pill to swallow, but Gareth Southgate’s men instilled a belief in the national team once again, one that will surely grow their confidence heading into Qatar and beyond.

DK: I’m sure time will see this England side as the beginning of a great generation, with Kane, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, John Stones, Jordan Pickford and many more still very young, with more talent challenging the starters coming from the youth ranks. England were awarded plenty of luck from the draw but that’s part of the fun of a World Cup, sometimes you get that luck and sometimes you have to earn it in harder circumstances, like France has from its side of the bracket. Ultimately, this England team made fans believe again and that’s a feat no one would have expected heading into the tournament.

It is not coming home, Pt. 2: Where is it going, and what score line will it bring with it?

JPW: France will win. 3-1.

NM: France, 3-1. It’s 2-0 for a while before Croatia pulls one back and France quickly answers through a substitute.

KB: France takes it on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

MR: France, 2-1.

DK: I think it’s going to Croatia. 2-1 winners. After extra time. Because of course.

Player ratings: Croatia v England

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Croatia beat England in extra time of an epic 2018 World Cup semifinal.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Kieran Trippier‘s early free kick filled the Three Lions with hope but Croatia fought back valiantly as Ivan Perisic scored and set up Mario Mandzukic to net the winner in the 109th minute.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Below you can find our marks out of 10 for each player from both teams.

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


Croatia

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.

Subs
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


England

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.

VIDEO: Mandzukic puts Croatia ahead in extra time

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Mario Mandzukic picked up a date with the World Cup Final, and it looks like the trophy is not coming home.

Juventus’ towering striker seemed due for a big moment, and they hardly get bigger than this.

[ MORE: France beats Belgium ]

Ivan Perisic, who scored Croatia’s equalizer, won a 50-50 ball with Kieran Trippier, who scored England’s opener, and the ball popped out of the reach of Kyle Walker.

Mandzukic cut past the mark of John Stones, and squeezed a shot beyond the reach of Jordan Pickford.

Kane joins England greats, now chasing Golden Boot

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NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Harry Kane now has a permanent souvenir from the World Cup.

The England striker grabbed the game ball and kept it in his grasp after scoring a hat trick in his team’s 6-1 win over Panama on Sunday.

[ VIDEO: England hammer Panama ]

Those goals — two penalties and a lucky deflection — made Kane the third Englishman after Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker to score a hat trick in a World Cup match.

“One to be proud of,” Kane said. “Not many players get to score a hat trick in a World Cup.”

The third goal was “probably one of the luckiest ones of my career,” he said. It came when a shot from teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek deflected off his heel and wrong-footed Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.

The other two were penalties, but it didn’t matter that his goals weren’t vintage. It was enough to put England into the round of 16 with a match to spare.

Kane now has a tournament-leading five goals at the World Cup, one more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku.

[ MORE: Colombia thrash Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal ]

“You’ve got some of the best players in the world doing well, scoring goals, so it’s nice to be up there,” Kane said. “But for me it’s just about the wins. The most important thing is that my goals help my team win. I just hope to continue it.”

Kane took advantage of an overly-physical Panama team to score twice from the spot in the first half. The first penalty came when Jesse Lingard was fouled. Kane won the second himself.

He converted both penalties convincingly.

“You can dismiss penalties as being easy, but the length of time you have to wait before taking it, and the number of distractions to keep focused and start again, it tells you a bit about the mental toughness that he’s got,” England coach Gareth Southgate said. “He’s there. He’s up at the top. We wouldn’t swap him for anyone. We know when he gets opportunities he’s going to bury them.”

Hurst, who got his hat trick in England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, also had that ability. As did Lineker, who scored three against Poland at the 1986 tournament.

Like them, Kane was expected to lead England’s attack. But defender John Stones wasn’t.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The big center back contributed two goals with a pair of headers. That gives him more World Cup goals than he has in 122 games in the Premier League, where he has scored only once.

But, as Stones swiftly reminded everyone, he did score twice in a Champions League game last year.

He said his cellphone was “blowing up” with messages after his goals. But he’s more concerned with Kane’s tally and his chance to beat Ronaldo and others to the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top scorer.

“I’d love Harry to get it,” Stones said. “I know Harry would want us to win more than get the Golden Boot. That’s the most important thing. But, on a personal level, I’d love Harry to get it.”

England urge caution after record World Cup win

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England recorded their largest-ever victory in World Cup history on Sunday, demolishing Panama to reach the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup.

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

Harry Kane scored a hat trick, John Stones scored two headers and Jesse Lingard curled home a beauty as the Three Lions ran riot in Nizhny Novgorod with their set-pieces causing Panama endless problems and England 5-0 up at half time.

But Gareth Southgate and his players are urging caution ahead of their Group G showdown against Belgium on Thursday.

[ VIDEO: England hammer Panama ]

With England and Belgium level on points, goals scored and goals conceded heading into the game, if it ends in a draw in Kaliningrad then England will top the group on “fair play points” if they don’t pick up more yellow or red cards than Belgium.

Hat trick hero and England’s skipper Harry Kane revealed England are enjoying themselves but are keen to stay grounded.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

“Fantastic. I am so, so proud of the boys. We are just enjoying it – enjoying being here,” Kane said. “We have been working on set pieces and working on the way we play and it is all coming together. Fantastic to be through and to do it this way is brilliant. We are enjoying it and we have to keep it going, not get ahead of ourselves.”

That last part is key to England making a deep run in this tournament.

Leaking a late goal against Panama may actually do them some good in terms of refocusing the group and creating a little bit of anger that they let a slight advantage slip ahead of facing Belgium.

When speaking to the media afterwards Southgate said he was a little annoyed with England’s start and finish to the game.

“At 5-0 we talked about the importance of one more goal to be top of the group, so that’s why the goal at the end was disappointing, but by the same token for everything everyone has put into it over the last few weeks it is rewarding to see how they are playing and how they are enjoying their football and I am sure everybody at home was enjoying it as well,” Southgate said. “Confidence wise it was important that we were able to score goals. Our set plays were also a threat and that was pleasing to see.

Do England want to win the group?

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

With the likes of Germany struggling, they may well be better suited to finishing second in Group G behind Belgium and be on the other side of the bracket. If that happens England would face the winner of what will likely be Mexico vs. Switzerland in a quarterfinal, if they make it past Group H’s top team in their last 16 clash.

Again, all of this is getting way ahead of ourselves but England can’t afford to do that as their young squad have shown enough defensive lapses in their opening two games to suggest better teams will benefit better than Tunisia and Panama did. A fluid 3-4-3 formation has allowed England’s attacking players to flourish with Kane leading the World Cup in goals with five, but it has also seen their back three left exposed at times with both wing backs encouraged to push on.

England is safely through to the last 16 and although many will say they’ve played two weak teams so far, you can only beat what is in front of you.

Now, the real tournament begins for Southgate’s boys.