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:

France edge past Belgium to reach World Cup final

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Two years to the day after losing in the final of the 2016 European Championship on home soil, France booked their place in the final of the 2018 World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Belgium, narrowly besting their northern neighbors in a exciting, back-and-forth affair at the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Samuel Umtiti scored the game’s only goal, though 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe will undoubtedly be remembered as the star of 2018’s first semifinal for his constant threat on the counter-attack, and one moment of individual flair and brilliance against a packed-in Belgian defense.

Hugo Lloris began the battle of the goalkeepers when he denied one of four current of former Tottenham Hotspur teammates-turned-foe, thwarting the game’s first clear-cut scoring chance in the 22nd minute. Toby Alderweireld corralled the ball in the box after Nacer Chadli‘s corner kick near the penalty spot. Alderweireld turned on the ball and fired through a sea of bodies toward Lloris’ right-hand post, but the French captain went full-stretch to make a stunning save.

Lloris’ opposite number and London rival, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, made a save nearly as impressive six minute before halftime, denying Benjamin Pavard who made a long, underlapping run into the penalty area and fired toward the far post from a tight angle with a reactive kick-save.

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France needed just six second-half minutes to find the breakthrough, and it came as so many goals have done during this tournament: via a set piece (WATCH HERE). 69 of this World Cup’s 158 goals have been scored from set pieces. Antoine Griezmann served it up to the near post, where Marouane Fellaini was matched up against Umtiti, but it was the Barcelona defender who won the battle for positioning and rose highest to head past Courtois.

Lloris was forced to come up big again in the 81st minute, when Axel Witsel unloaded a low, swerving drive toward his left-hand post. Hit from all of 25 yards out, Witsel’s shot violently moved left to right, but Lloris got two hands behind it and punched it away to safety.

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France will now wait 24 hours to learn who they’ll face in Sunday’s final in Moscow. England are favorites against Croatia, but that has meant very little — as in, next to nothing — during this tournament.

VIDEO: Umtiti heads France in front of Belgium in WC semi

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Today might just be the day Samuel Umtiti becomes a World Cup semifinals hero in France after heading home the opening goal to put Les Bleus ahead of Belgium in Tuesday’s final-four clash in St. Petersburg, Russia.

[ WATCH LIVE: World Cup semifinal – France v Belgium ]

For 50 minutes, the Western European neighbors thrilled and excited, but each and every attacking advanced proved futile, with most of the thanks and/or blame going to world-class goalkeepers Hugo Lloris and Thibaut Courtois.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Then, in the 51st minute, Umtiti bested Marouane Fellaini, a noted aerial specialist himself, to get his head to Antoine Griezmann’s corner kick. Courtois couldn’t react quick enough to cover his near post, and France went 1-0 ahead.

Why they’ll win the World Cup: France

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First of all, relax — This is part of a four-post series making the case for each of four World Cup semifinalists in their respective bids to win the 2018 edition of the tournament.

That said, let’s talk about why France will be lifting the World Cup trophy on July 15 in Moscow.

[ RECAP: Belgium ousts Brazil ]

Why France will win the tournament: Following a 2-0 defeat of Uruguay in Friday’s quarterfinal, manager Didier Deschamps noted that Les Bleus relative inexperience peeks out at times.

That might be helping France, who has built its tournament acumen back up following the embarrassment of 2010 in South Africa. France lost to eventual champions Spain at EURO 2012, then again fell to a champion when Germany knocked the French out at the quarterfinal stage of the 2014 World Cup.

The French then (mostly) bossed the home EURO 2016 and the final despite losing to Eder‘s extra time tally in setting the stage for this summer in Russia.

France has survived legacy-desperate Lionel Messi and Argentina (just, really) and a feisty Uruguay despite still waiting to get consistent star turns from Samuel Umtiti and Hugo Lloris (though the backstop made a magnificent save late in the first half Friday versus the South American side.

Olivier Giroud, a man known for big goals, also is still waiting to break onto the score sheet. France has thrived through a kid (Kylian Mbappe), a dominating should-be Ballon d’Or candidate (N'Golo Kante), and two stars attackers doing it loudly (Antoine Griezmann) and quietly (Paul Pogba).

Throw in Raphael Varane, and France has been steady up the middle. If they can get past Belgium, which this post assumes they do thanks to the title, find us a team on the other side of the bracket equipped to punish the French. England? Sweden? Russia?

No, it would come down to Croatia. And right now we’d sign up for that feast of football… and expect Les Bleus to emerge victorious.

La Liga: Barcelona win to go 14 clear, set unbeaten record at 39

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Wolverhampton Wanderers win promotion, return to PL ]

Barcelona 2-1 Valencia

They’re out of the Champions League in heartbreaking fashion, sure, but Barcelona bounced back to winning ways in league play on Saturday, and in the process set a new La Liga record by improving to 39 games without defeat, dating back to last season. It’s hardly commensurate consolation after blowing a 4-1 lead over Roma following the first leg, but it’s yet another piece of history nonetheless.

On the not-so-bright side, Valencia entered the weekend one point ahead of Real Madrid for third place, thus beating Los Che opened the door for Los Blancos to return to third on Sunday.

Luis Suarez bagged the game’s opening goal after a quarter-hour, poking the ball past the goalkeeper from close range at the near post, and Samuel Umtiti made it 2-0 in the 51st minute — both goals were set up by Philippe Coutinho.

With the victory, Barca are now 14 points clear of second-place Atletico Madrid, with the season’s final El Clasico coming up in three short weeks, at the Camp Nou.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Girona 0-1 Real Betis (Friday)
Sevilla 2-2 Villarreal
Leganes 1-0 Celta Vigo
Las Palmas 0-1 Real Sociedad
Atletico Bilbao 2-3 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Eibar vs. Alaves — 6 a.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs. Levante — 10:15 a.m. ET
Getafe vs. Espanyol — 12:30 p.m. ET
Malaga vs. Real Madrid — 2:45 p.m. ET