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.


Belgium headed to World Cup semis after beating Brazil

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Belgium are headed to a World Cup semifinal for the first time since 1986 after knocking off Brazil, a side which hadn’t lost a game — competitive or otherwise — in nearly 13 months, in Friday’s thrilling quarterfinal clash in Nizhny Novgorod.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Kevin De Bruyne scored the latest stunner in a 2018 tournament full of them (WATCH HERE), to add to an early own goal, before Brazil fought back valiantly but ultimately fell in the end, 2-1.

Fernandinho opened the scoring, into the wrong goal, in the 13th minute (WATCH HERE). Vincent Kompant, Fernandinho’s teammate at Manchester City, rose above the scrum to get his head to Nacer Chadli‘s corner kick, but didn’t make the cleanest of contact. The ball appeared headed across the six-yard box, until it made contact with the arm of Fernandinho and eluded a flailing Alisson in goal.

The 1-0 scoreline didn’t last long, as Belgium doubled their lead just after the half-hour mark. Romelu Lukaku picked the ball up inside his own half and surged forward, past a handful of defenders, before the ball was knocked away but fell to De Bruyne to Lukaku’s right. Three touches later, De Bruyne had the ball on his right foot with far too much sight of goal. The laser which ensued was un-savable (WATCH HERE).

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

For the ensuing 45 minutes, the Belgian defense appeared impermeable, thwarting anything and everything Brazil through at them. Even a pair of penalty-kick claims, from Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, fell on deaf ears.

Everything changed in the 76th minute, when Philippe Coutinho curled the perfect ball toward te penalty spot where Renato Augusto was waiting and anticipating. The Beijing Guoan midfielder applied every bit of contact and power he could muster with his head to beat Thibaut Courtois inside his left-hand post.

Fewer than five minutes later, it was Augusto who had Brazil’s first golden opportunity to draw the five-time world champions level, but he dragged his shot wide from just outside the box, letting the Belgian backline off the hook for a failed clearance.

Coutinho badly skewed Brazil’s next chance high and wide. Neymar beat his man to the endline and cut back inside before laying the ball back for the late-arriving Barcelona man, but Coutinho got his first-time effort all wrong and Belgium again went unpunished.

Once more, Brazil threatened in the 94th minute, but Courtois made a seemingly impossible save to tip Neymar’s curling shot just over the crossbar.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Up next for Roberto Martinez’s side will be a highly anticipated semifinal matchup with their southern neighbors, France, the last remaining pre-tournament favorite still breathing.

Key battles in each World Cup quarterfinal match

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The World Cup has reached the quarterfinal stage – the point in the competition where no slouches are left, all the pretenders have packed their bags, and only the truly cohesive squads remain. We’ve seen some barnburners, some defensive grinders, and plenty of exciting moments.

With just eight teams left, there will be plenty of key matchups in each game for pundits to dissect, white boards to draw, and coaches to highlight. Here are a few of those battles that each team must work around.

Uruguay vs. France – Edinson Cavani vs. Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane

France will get its opportunities to score goals, of that there is no doubt. Diego Godin leads one of the most gritty back lines remaining in the big dance, but Kylian Mbappe has already shredded enough defensive units to know that he will provide France chance to take.

With that in mind, the true test will come on the other end of the pitch. France’s defensive unit has been shaky, while Uruguay’s attack is banged up. Cavani came off injured in the dying minutes of the 2-1 Round of 16 victory over Portugal, while Luis Suarez was reportedly injured in Uruguay training. Can they test the French central defenders enough to keep up with the high-powered France attack? They may be forced to play in from the flanks, where France is the weakest. Lucas Hernandez has been surprisingly solid, but aside from scoring a wonder goal against Argentina, young Benjamin Pavard has been mediocre at best. That may be Uruguay’s best chance to score.

Brazil vs. Belgium – Philippe Coutinho and Willian vs. Belgium midfield

Brazil defensive midfielder Casemiro is out thanks to picking up his second yellow card of the tournament in the previous match, so that may very well leave his midfield partner Paulinho on an island.

[ MORE: Tite’s biggest tactical test comes in Casemiro’s absence ]

That’s not where we’re focused on here. No, we’re looking in the other direction. With Brazil likely to maintain a significant portion of the possession, They will look to build their attack through the midfield where Japan exposed a serious weakness in the Belgian setup. In the first half of their Round of 16 matchup, Japan ran the ball straight down Belgium’s throat, with only Axel Witsel covering the back line. It worked. After halftime, Roberto Martinez brought on Marouane Fellaini to shore up the midfield, plus Nacer Chadli to help give the Japanese something else to think about, and it shifted the tide of the match.

So who will Roberto Martinez start in midfield against Brazil? If Witsel and Fellaini are paired from the opening whistle, it may nullify Coutinho’s influence and put pressure on Willian, who has had an underrated tournament thus far. If Witsel is by himself, Coutinho may have a field day.

Sweden vs. England – Emil Forsberg vs. Kyle Walker

Emil Forsberg could give England problems on Sweden’s left wing (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images).

Is this a matchup we could see in the Premier League this coming season? Emil Forsberg has seen one of the tournament’s biggest breakout performances, and he could be on the radar for a summer switch. He plays on the left wing, the same side as Walker’s assignment as part of the back three.

Walker has been impressive in his center-back role, but has slipped up at times. It hasn’t cost England dearly yet, but could Forsberg make Gareth Southgate pay for his experimentation on the biggest stage? Sweden’s shape and structure have been incredibly impressive so far in Russia, and if they can keep Harry Kane and company at bay, one goal may decide the match, and Forsberg’s movement and creativity will be critical for Sweden.

Russia vs. Croatia – Roman Zobnin and Daler Kuzyaev vs. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic

Croatia’s midfield is being hailed as the best of the remaining World Cup teams, and they have carved up defensive shape after defensive shape. Croatia has beaten Nigeria, Argentina, Iceland, and Denmark so far, all teams known for their ability to lock down the center of the pitch.

Luka Modric has deserved the Golden Ball noise he’s getting to this point, but Ivan Rakitic has been the secret weapon, pairing with Modric flawlessly moving forward. If Russia is going to win this match, they won’t be able to just bunker in and earn a 0-0 draw. They will have to open up to score, and that means keeping Modric and Rakitic locked down despite the additional space. Zobnin and Kuzyaev performed fabulously against Spain, but were aided by Fernando Hierro’s static tactics. Can the inexperienced duo – just 26 caps between the 24- and 25-year-old pair – repeat the performance against the tournament’s best midfield tandem?

WATCH: Brazil, Mexico level in tense last 16 clash

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Mexico and Brazil is going at it in their last 16 clash.

El Tri came flying out of the traps with Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela causing plenty of problems out wide, while Brazil then dragged themselves back into the game with Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus having chances.

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

A tight, tense, end-to-end encounter is playing out in the scorching conditions in Samara, with Brazil up against it to make the quarterfinals as Mexico have looked more than comfortable against the five-time World Cup champions.

Can Guillermo Ochoa shut out Neymar? Will Lozano and Co. catch Brazil on the break?

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

2018 World Cup Best XI (so far)

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With 48 of 64 games played at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a look at the brightest stars of the group stage…

[ MORE: Predicting the round of 16 ]

GK — Cho Hyun-woo — Only Guillermo Ochoa (17) made more saves than Cho (12), who made six in South Korea’s 2-0 victory over Germany — the majority in spectacular fashion — and three each in disappointing defeats to Mexico and Sweden. The Taegeuk Warriors weren’t knocked out due to any shortcomings in goal.

DF — Andreas Granqvist — Sweden conceded just two goals in three games against Germany, Mexico and South Korea, and their 33-year-old captain has been a massive part of the why and the how.

DF — Yerry Mina — Mina’s been solid in defense for Colombia, but he’s done the majority of his damage at the other end of the field. Two goals in two games played, and they were both game-winners.

DF — Jose Gimenez — No one has more interceptions (11) and only seven players have won more tackles (6) than the 23-year-old Uruguayan, who just edges out his steady-as-ever partner — for club and country — Diego Godin.

[ MORE: 10 best goals of the group stage ]

MF — Viktor Claesson — Two assists and six key passes in 254 minutes of work. For all the talk about the tough-nosed, dogged defense — and rightly so — Claesson has been at the center of everything going forward.

MF — Luka Modric — He’s been one of the three best midfielders in the world for a half-decade now, and he’s finally getting due credit after playing a massive part in Real Madrid winning three straight Champions League titles, while Croatia are a rare instance of a national team’s personnel fitting together in every way imaginable.

MF — Philippe Coutinho — With Neymar still working back toward his absolute best — and returning to his diving ways — Coutinho picked up the slack in the goal-scoring and -creating (2 goals, 1 assist) and playmaking departments (10 key passes in three games) during group play.

MF — Kevin De Bruyne — While it felt like De Bruyne didn’t quite put his stamp on Belgium’s dominant victories over Panama and Tunisia — the only games in which he played — the Manchester City man still racked up nine key passes in 180 minutes. His outside-of-the-foot ball to Romelu Lukaku is a strong contender for the pass of the tournament.

[ MORE: The five knockout round games we most want to see ]

FW — Harry Kane — Five goals in 153 minutes — even if two of them were from the penalty spot — is a pretty impressive haul for a 24-year-old making his World Cup debut. England will go as far as Kane’s goals can take them.

FW — Romelu Lukaku — Pretty clearly the most destructive and dominant performer we’ve seen thus far, Lukaku racked up four goals (in just 149 minutes) before suffering a minor ankle injury and sitting out the final group game against England.

FW — Cristiano Ronaldo — Portugal’s leading man opened the tournament with a hat trick in the 3-3 draw with Spain, then followed it up with the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Morocco.His free kick — the 88th-minute equalizer in the game against Spain — was, and still is, pure art.