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.


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.

2018 World Cup – Best XI’s

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There have been some sensational individual displays throughout the 2018 World Cup, with a mixture of young stars arriving on the big stage and experienced pros leading the way.

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With that in mind, and given the fact that there are only two games remaining in the tournament (deep sigh), we asked our writers to select their best XI’s of the tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Below you will see our selections of the players who shone brightest in Russia,

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


Joe Prince-Wright (3-4-3 formation)
Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris
Defenders: Benjamin Pavard, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane
Midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne, Luka Modric, N'Golo Kante, Ivan Perisic
Strikers: Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappe


Nick Mendola (3-4-3 formation)
Goalkeeper: Igor Akinfeev
Defenders: Harry Maguire, Andreas Grandqvist, Domagoj Vida
Midfielders: Paul Pogba, Luka Modric, N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard
Forwards: Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappe


Kyle Bonn (4-3-3 formation)
Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois
Defenders: Mario Fernandes, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire, Lucas Hernandez
Midfielders: Luka Modric, N’Golo Kante, Kevin De Bruyne
Forwards: Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kylian Mbappe


Daniel Karell (3-4-3 Formation)
Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris
Defenders: Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Domagoj Vida
Midfielders: Kieran Trippier, Luka Modric, N’Golo Kante, Ivan Rakitic
Forwards: Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku

Mahrez, Man City share No. 1 goal: Win Champions League

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After winning the Premier League in historically dominant fashion last season — Pep Guardiola‘s second at the club — every new signing Manchester City make from here on out will be made, and judged, with one goal in mind: winning the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Southgate “the backbone of this team; the man’s a gentleman” ]

Guardiola and Co., won’t be splashing out $80 million for a player with the lowly intent of consolidating domestic power and merely hanging on to the PL title, Riyad Mahrez, who completed his transfer from Leicester City for that very fee on Tuesday, knows it. It’s why he’s at the club.

Having already led the Foxes to the unlikeliest of PL titles two seasons ago, Mahrez has bigger fish to fry, and his targets are perfectly aligned with those of his new employer — quotes from the BBC and the Guardian:

“The Champions League is for big clubs, they’re a big club, they have everything to try to win it.

“City have ambition to go further than the Champions League quarterfinals like they did last season. I made the decision to come here because I want to be part of that.

“Pep [Guardiola] is a big manager, he’s won a lot of things and made history with this club. I’ll give my best to achieve for the club.”

“I haven’t talked about my precise position with the manager yet, but City wanted me and that means a lot. The price tag doesn’t affect me — fees for players have got very big in the last couple of years. I am very happy to be here and will try to give my best for the club. I thought what City did last year was amazing, it was unbelievable to break all those Premier League records, but I am confident about myself. I want to help this team improve and I believe that is what the manager wants.”

“Players at top clubs always have to face competition for places, it is normal for big clubs to have a lot of great players and City are a big club with a big manager.”

Mahrez is an ideal signing for a side with Man City’s ambitions and embarrassment of mega-bucks talent. Sure, he cost the club $80 million — a club-record fee — and you can say that he won’t get enough games with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, David Silva and Bernardo Silva also in the team, but injuries will inevitably rear their ugly heads, and Mahrez’s presence will make City two-deep at three positions behind strikers Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero.

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

The goal is to win the Champions League while retaining the PL title as an absolute bare minimum expectation. They made it look easy in 2017-18, but their pursuit of all-time records likely played a part in coming up short in European competition. City have an unfair advantage in terms of resources and weapons, but winning a treble (or a quadruple) would amount to a massively unfair achievement.

Deschamps: For this game, Henry is ‘the enemy’

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Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry finds himself in an awkward position this week.

Currently serving as an assistant coach to Belgium, Henry now sits on the opposite side of the field from his native France, which faces Belgium in a highly-anticipated World Cup semifinal Tuesday afternoon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Despite his stature across both teams, Henry’s former teammate and France manager Didier Deschamps has set out to ensure his team knows which side Henry is on, at least for now.

“When you go to a club abroad and play against one from your own country, you are part of the enemy,” Deschamps said at the pre-match press conference. “This time, in an international match, it is much higher. He is facing his home nation. From the time he became an assistant to Roberto Martinez, he did know that can happen. It is a difficult situation – bizarre – it is not easy for him.”

Also on Monday, Belgium star Kevin De Bruyne said it wouldn’t be strange for the team to hear Henry belting out France’s La Marseillaise, the national anthem, because of his history with the team and his home nation.

But it certainly makes for an awkward, if not interesting situation. Henry will surely be doing his best to help Belgium make the World Cup final, but perhaps he won’t feel too bad should France win. By the end of the game, he won’t be an “enemy”  anymore.