France defender Samuel Umtiti and (Right) Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic.
KATHMANDU, July 14: Long gone the time when the powerhouses, from South America to Europe like Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay and lately Spain, dominated the football world. The narrative is changing.
As the 2018 FIFA World Cup progressed, the aforementioned big guns faltered and low-ranked teams progressed to the next round.
Germany started with an upset defeat being beaten by Mexico and ultimately getting knocked-out by South Korea in group stage, and then Argentina, Portugal, unprecedentedly Spain and Colombia crashed out of the Round of 16 in some intriguing fashion.
The quarterfinals saw tactically fit teams like Brazil and Uruguay getting eliminated. Then followed the semifinals where England and Belgium went home ending their impressive runs from the group stages to the last-four.
France is unbeaten in the tournament so far. Winning its two group stage matches and drawing one, France topped Group C scoring just three goals and conceding one.
Getting better of the number of goals it scored in the group stages, France scored four past Argentina in the Round of 16 beating the South American side 4-3 with a brace from Kylian Mbappe.
Even though the game was highly entertaining and France did little at the back, the following two games against Uruguay in the quarterfinals and Belgium in the semifinals impressed many. France defeated Uruguay 2-0 and Belgium 1-0.
The defensive part of the one-time winner was totally astonishing to watch as the midfield presented itself as the most solid and balanced of all the 32 teams.
Uruguay struggled to penetrate the French backline in the match, and showed some signs of missing Edinson Cavani, who had been instrumental scoring brace in a 2-0 win over Portugal in the Round of 16.
The semifinal match against Belgium was even more entertaining as France stayed back, absorbed the pressure, bullied Eden Hazard-led Belgium attack and scored a crucial goal through Samuel Umtiti to win the game.
Hazard was left frustrated despite showcasing a superb performance like he did in the other matches, but struggled to break, the hallmark, solid French defense.
The midfield will again be crucial in the final on Sunday with in-form duo Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante looking to get their hands on the trophy.
France has won the trophy once in 1998. Back then, the current coach Didier Deschamps led the team as a captain.
Croatia has defied odds to reach the final in a remarkable winning streak from defeating Nigeria in first game to defeating England in semifinals. Not only did it defeat Gareth Southgate’s England, but it came back from a goal down to win the match 2-1.
Like France, Croatia topped its group, but had won all its matches including a 2-0 victory over Nigeria, 3-0 thrashing of Lionel Messi’s Argentina and 2-1 win over Iceland in Group D.
Scoring seven goals and conceding just one was the highlight of its group stage performances.
Croatia had to rely on penalty shootout wins against Denmark and the host Russia. Croatia beat Denmark 3-2 in the penalty shootout in the Round of 16 when captain Luka Modric missed an extra time penalty, and Ivan Rakitic scored the winning goal in the shootout.
The quarterfinal saw Croatia and Russia being held in a 2-2 draw and the former beat the host 4-3. The semifinal was also destined to go to the penalties once the score was level at the end of the regulated time, but Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal in the 109th minute after Ivan Perisic had equalized for the Croats cutting out a fifth minute freekick goal from Kieran Tripper of England.
Now, the highly inspired Croatian side with a stellar midfield performance of Modric and Rakitic will be a key to the final when it takes on France.
Croatia has reached the World Cup final for the first time. It made semifinal appearance in 1998, the same year France lifted its first title. France bested Croatia 2-1 in the semifinal.
The attacks of both the sides haven’t been on its expected best, but with the powerhouse midfield and the solid defense, we can expect a highly entertaining match.
Third place playoff
England and Belgium meet again after the last match of Group G when a second-choice English side was beaten 1-0 by second-choice Belgium side.
The teams were subject to criticism of not taking the match seriously as the winner went on the route of Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Belgium and Japan, while the runner-up was placed on a route of Spain, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Colombia.
Belgium starts as favorites boasting the talents of Kevin de Bryune, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku including Dries Mertens, if need be.
Belgium has scored the most goals in the tournament with 14 goals, and more of the similar approach can be expected against England on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the English side is short of creative midfielder and its talisman and captain Harry Kane has to drop deep to collect the ball and feed the other forward Raheem Sterling, who has been doing all the offensive works along.
Both teams have been playing some entertaining attacking football setting up an interesting clash on eve of the final.