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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.

[ MORE: Premier League TV schedule released ]

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.

Kane: England loss hurts but World Cup ‘fantastic journey’

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England captain Harry Kane took to the microphone after the Three Lions’ strong World Cup run ended one match short of the final.

Croatia defeated England 2-1 in extra time in Wednesday’s semifinal, outshooting the Three Lions 22-7.

[ WATCH: Croatia’s winner | Player ratings ]

England managed just one shot on target, its goal, and Kane came close to scoring a few times in the match.

Here’s what he said, broadcast on FOX:

“It’s tough. We’re gutted. We worked so hard. The fans were amazing. It was a tough game, a 50-50 game. I’m sure we’ll look back and there’s stuff we could’ve done better but we’ve worked as hard as we could.

“It hurts, it hurts a lot. It’s gonna hurt for a while of course but we can hold our heads up high. It’s been a fantastic journey. We got further than anyone else thought we would’ve, and we’ve gotta learn from it.”

England now plays a Saturday third place match against Belgium, a rematch of the final group stage match won by the Red Devils.

Why they’ll win the World Cup: England

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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That said, let’s talk about why England will be lifting the World Cup trophy on July 15 in Moscow.

[ RECAP: England tops Sweden ]

There’s an argument to be made that all four World Cup semifinalists are playing with house money. Didier Deschamps has already declared France’s tournament a success; Belgium’s Golden Generation has scored several historically memorable wins; Croatia was bounced at the group stage at its three previous World Cups, and England’s men have met their first semi in ages.

If that’s the way England continues to view their tournament, then perhaps the title really may be “coming home.” It seems the media and fans are riding the momentum of an unexpected run and relatively easy path to the final instead of doing what they usually do: Heaping pressure on England due to “an opportunity that cannot be dropped!”

England has emerged relatively unscathed, driven by the performances of two fellas named Harry, a Jordan, and a Kieran.

While Harry Kane‘s heroics have been well-documented at Tottenham Hotspur, his teammate Kieran Trippier has mostly been under the radar going back to his time leading the Premier League in crosses with Burnley.

And Harry Maguire was the star man on Hull City’s relegation campaign in 2016-17 before moving to Leicester City and performing well albeit under the radar last season (Note to self: Keep looking at which PL relegated players haven’t landed with new PL clubs).

Then there’s Jordan Pickford, the Everton-via-Sunderland backstop who is enjoying not being massively under fire for once in his last three seasons. The Northeast England native may be called upon to reprise his busy act soon, but has so far been constrained to the occasional mega watt save.

In taking over for Sam Allardyce, Gareth Southgate has been the anti-Big Sam: no bluster, all feel good. And we know the honeymoon may not last forever, but the ex-Middlesbrough boss so far has the momentum of something much bigger than his resume.

The sum of its parts > England’s collection of talent.

Maybe the World Cup trophy is “coming home.”

Top 5 storylines — 2018 World Cup quarterfinals

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We’re less than 24 hours from the start of the quarterfinals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Captivating storylines have been plentiful through the first 20 days of the tournament. Here’s five to keep an eye on when the eight remaining teams return to action on Friday and Saturday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Is it really coming home?

When England let Belgium beat them lost to Belgium on the final day of the group stage, it sent the Three Lions to the “easier” side of the knockout bracket — while the Red Devils headed to the side featuring France and Brazil — and, oh boy, has it worked like a charm for England. Spain, the only true giant of the eight, went out in the round of 16 to Russia, thus leaving England a potential path to the final featuring Sweden and Croatia. The objective is clear for England: don’t mess this up, because you’ll almost certainly never get another chance like this. Also of note regarding England: Harry Kane could just about lock up the Golden Boot with another goal (or two), to pad his current 6-4 lead on Romelu Lukaku.

[ MORE: Spurs place $58-million bid for USMNT’s Christian Pulisic ]

Brazil vs. Belgium — meeting of the most impressive sides so far?

No one thrashed through their respective group quite like Belgium did — won all three games and finished with a +7 goal differential — and no one knocked off their round-of-16 foe quite as soundly as Brazil did — the Selecao beat Mexico by a score of 2-0, the only game of the eight to finish with a multiple-goal margin of victory. In that sense, it would be fair to say Brazil and Belgium have been the most impressive teams through their first four games. So, naturally, they’re set to face one another in the second quarterfinal on Friday. It’s a small feather in the cap of those who believe the World Cup should be re-seeded at the conclusion of the group stage.

[ MORE: Key battles in each World Cup quarterfinal match ]

Uruguay face France, without Cavani

Edinson Cavani scored both goals for Uruguay in their 2-1 victory over Portugal in the round of 16, but will now pay a steep price for doing so: Cavani, who alongside Luis Suarez forms arguably the best forward partnership at this World Cup, is expected to miss Friday’s quarterfinal clash with France on Friday. Cavani suffered a calf injury during the second half of the game against Portugal. Cavani (45) has scored more goals during his Uruguay career than anyone not named Suarez (53).

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

(When) will the “upsets” stop?

While Belgium beating Brazil would only constitute a mild upset (compared to everything we’ve seen thus far), it would still signal the elimination of the next-to-last remaining pre-tournament favorite. The same goes for Uruguay versus France, though most would see that as more of a shocker than an upset. It’s possible that we could end up with a World Cup final featuring not a single team from outside the top 10 of the current FIFA rankings (Uruguay versus anyone from the other half), but more likely that we’ll see a final without a top-six side (France, who are currently ranked seventh).

[ MORE: World Cup quarterfinal predictions ]

What if the upsets don’t stop?

Speaking of upsets, Uruguay versus Belgium, and Russia versus Sweden — that’s a very possible final-four field, should anyone expect to waltz through their matchup on Friday or Saturday. While everyone is penciling in an England versus Croatia semifinal, and hoping to put England through to the final, if we have learned anything from this tournament, it’s that it would be very stupid to look past Russia and Sweden. Would it be the star-studded semifinal showdown everyone projected, or get excited for, before the tournament started three weeks ago? Certainly not, but it feels like an ending perfectly befitting this particularly crazy World Cup.

Falcao calls it “peculiar” American referee Geiger officiated Colombia vs. England match

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American referee Mark Geiger has received criticism for how he managed the physicality between Colombia and England in their World Cup Round of 16 match on Tuesday. Some of that criticism has come from the parties involved.

Geiger handed out six yellow cards to Colombian players – including to Falcao in the 63rd minute – and whistled them for 23 fouls. He awarded England a penalty in the 57th minute that Harry Kane buried for England’s lead. Meanwhile, England players were only shown two yellow cards and called them for 13 fouls.

“The referee disturbed us a lot,” Colombia striker Falcao said after the match. “In the 50-50 plays, he always made the calls in favor of England. He didn’t act with the same criteria for both teams. When in doubt, he always went to the England side.”

The criticism from Falcao is slightly odd given how much Colombia looked to cause havoc with its physical play, hoping to muck up the game with the South American side missing playmaker James Rodriguez due to injury. In fact, it seemed Geiger could have punished them further at times, especially during the four minutes between the penalty decision and Kane’s attempt from the spot when Colombian players surrounded Geiger protesting furiously. Geiger did not caution a single Colombian player during the fracas.

On social media, Geiger was often criticized for losing control of the match as it seemingly devolved into a 90 minute wrestling match.

But that’s not all Falcao had to say about the American referee’s match assignment. “I found it peculiar that they put an American referee in this instance. To tell you the truth, the process leaves a lot of doubts,” he added.

Falcao was not the only one to question FIFA’s decision to appoint an American to referee the match. Outspoken Argentinian legend Diego Maradona, who was spotted wearing a Colombia jersey during the match and celebrated their late goal, said after the match, “Here’s a gentleman who decides, a referee who, if you Google him, shouldn’t be given a match of this magnitude… Geiger, an American, what a coincidence.”