Top three battles in 2018 World Cup Final

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The World Cup Final is Sunday, and there are three areas which could tip the scales in favor of a Croatian upset or an expected French title.

[ MORE: PST’s World Cup roundtable ]

Kante and Pogba vs. Modric, Rakitic, Brozovic

Yes, Antoine Griezmann is a midfielder, but he’s a fourth forward if N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are at their very best. Croatia’s midfield triangle has been responsible for much of its World Cup success, and will need to keep that up if it hopes to collect an upset.

Mandzukic renews acquaintances with La Liga CBs…

Two goals in the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid, one the year before in the final, and an assist in that UCL run-up versus Barcelona.

So, yes, Real’s Raphael Varane and Barca’s Samuel Umtiti have tangled with him a time or two. And the big Croatian striker Mandzukic really seems to be rounding into form.

…And Giroud versus Lovren and Co.

Olivier Giroud has yet to score in the tournament, but sleeping on his industrious performance up top is a mistake. Dejan Lovren has branded himself “one of the best defenders in the world” based on this tournament and his Champions League run with Liverpool.

If France needs to whip crosses toward Giroud, we’d expect things could look a bit like the below highlight reel. Check around the 1:00 mark of this video:

Real Madrid 1-1 Spurs: Lovely Lloris!

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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An error from each time in its own box and outstanding goalkeeping gave Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid a 1-1 draw in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday at the Bernabeu. (video)

Raphael Varane recorded a 28th minute own goal, but Serge Aurier gave away a penalty as Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for Real Madrid at home in the 43rd minute.

Hugo Lloris and Keylor Navas were the stars of the show, with Lloris making the lion’s share of saves.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Both teams are well-positioned to advance, with seven points. Spurs have the tiebreaker advantage, but both Tottenham and Real are six points clear of Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia after a surprising draw in Cyprus.

Early nerves were apparent for Mauricio Pochettino‘s men, but Tottenham grew into the game and took an early lead.

Concerned with the presence of Harry Kane, Real defender Raphael Varane saw a cross move off his pegs and behind Keylor Navas to put Spurs ahead.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The lead was short-lived, however, as Spurs back Serge Aurier cut short Toni Kroos’ rare foray into the 18, and Ronaldo buried the ensuing penalty kick.

Lloris made an outstanding save on a point-blank Karim Benzema header in the 54th minute.

A moment later, offside Ronaldo flashed a sitter over the goal before the whistle alerted viewers to his offense.

Ronaldo had another chance stymied by Lloris as Real really began to pile on pressure past the hour mark.

Kane had a 71st minute chance against the run of play off a gorgeous pass from Fernando Llorente, but Navas got low quickly to redirect Kane’s point-blank shot wide of the far post.

Navas made another save when Llorente cued up Christian Eriksen for a chance, and the Dane then sent in a corner that led to a Davinson Sanchez’s header wide of goal.

Llorente was quite good in the second half in this surprise two-striker move from Mauricio Pochettino, and the Spurs boss also deployed Danny Rose for a season debut off the bench.

Real Madrid lock up young core with new long-term deals

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Real Madrid are already the two-time defending UEFA Champions League winners, and are tabbed as one of two or three favorites to be crowned champions of Europe again this season.

[ MORE: Carlo Ancelotti out as Bayern Munich manager ]

While the past (three Champions League triumphs in four seasons) is already littered with silverware, the future isn’t looking so bad either after the defending La Liga champions announced new long-term contracts for a pair of under-25 superstars in the making in the span of 24 hours this week.

24-year-old defender Raphael Varane, who featured prominently in all three UCL runs, signed on Wednesday a new five-year deal which will keep him at the club until 2022. A day later, 21-year-old attacker Marco Asensio, who’s loudly announced himself onto the world’s stage already this season, re-upped for six more years with a new deal tying him to Los Blancos until 2023.

[ MORE: Southgate refreshingly honest about England’s lack of quality ]

Asensio signed for Madrid from Mallorca in the summer of 2014, but spent the next two seasons on loan, back at his old club for a season and then at Espanyol. Last season saw him break into the first team and flash momentary bits of brilliance late on in the season. That momentum has carried over to this season, as the heir apparent to the trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema has four goals and one assist through the first 10 games (all competitions).

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Real Madrid will remain quite good for quite some time to come.

De Gea swap? Report links Manchester United interest in Varane, Morata

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Could Real Madrid and Manchester United be involved in a swap deal for David De Gea?

Pardon the Groundhog Day feel, but there’s more talk about United using Real’s De Gea interest to its advantage.

The Red Devils reportedly rejected a $77 million bid for their star goalkeeper earlier this week, and the two clubs failed to get a De Gea for Keylor Navas plus money swap over the line at the August 2015 transfer deadline.

Sky Sports says United has interest in two Real players, with the Spanish club preparing for Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final against Juventus.

One of those is almost certain to move this summer, as striker Alvaro Morata just cannot get enough playing time at the Bernabeu (though his fate may be sealed for Italy).

Another is baffling.

Yes, of course Jose Mourinho is interested in 24-year-old French center back Raphael Varane. We’re not doubting that part of the report. But why would Real sell an outstanding young center back, even if they believe De Gea is the answer at goalkeeper?

Even with the truth that Real can spend almost as much as it wants on a replacement, terrific and tested young center backs remain at a premium. Varane could have three UCL crowns stacked on his head after the weekend. Buy it?

Roma 0-2 Real Madrid: Ronaldo bags away goal, Jese adds exclamation point

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s deflected goal helped silence his critics, and Jese Rodriguez added a late tally to lift Real Madrid past AS Roma in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Wednesday in Rome.

The second leg comes March 8 at the Bernabeu in Spain. Real was fortunate to avoid conceding a late penalty. The match was frenetic, fun, but ultimately a bummer for the fortunes of leg No. 2.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Stadio Olimpico was electric from the start, and Roma frustrated the favorites by playing extremely well-disciplined in banks of four or five.

Yet Real tracked back with fury, and closed down some promising Roma breaks with great tackles. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane specifically shown in the opening 45 minutes.

And Cristiano Ronaldo was booed almost every time he touched the ball. One of those touches was a cheeky looped pass that Marcelo nearly bent inside of the frame from a wild angle.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

Stephan El Shaarawy showed some danger after Varane cut him off in the first half, followed by a sliding Keylor Navas save in the second. Mohamed Salah was also particularly dangerous for i Lupi.

That’s when Ronaldo struck, racing by Alessandro Florenzi to reach a long ball. The Portuguese star cut back to lose Florenzi before ripping a deflected shot around Wojciech Szczesny. Was he offside?

James Rodriguez took an absolute beating at the hands of the Roma defense, needing stitches to his head after a high-cleated follow through and treatment on his shoulder after a rough Kostas Manolas tackle.

Roma had its second-half chances as well, as Salah stayed dangerous and William Vainqueur belted a 20-yard shot just beyond the far post. Edin Dzeko‘s 79th minute chance wasn’t ideal thanks to Varane, and the shot went off the outside of the net.

Ronaldo nearly put the tie away when his in-tight header beat Szczesny but bounced just wide of the goal.

Salah should’ve equalized, but a terrible first touch allowed Navas to rescue a prime Roma chance in the 83rd minute.

Super sub Jese salted the tie away when he pushed a low shot past Lucas Digne’s legs and by a diving Szczesny.