France has reached their third World Cup final after defeating a very good Belgium team, whereas Croatia defied the odds to reach their first ever World Cup final. Two exhilarating matches ending on a good note for the winning teams but not for the losing team. After some brilliant showings during the previous matches, both Belgium and England faltered at the end to two hard working teams. After defeating the likes of the mighty Brazil and Columbia during their previous matches, both Belgium and England filled their fans with optimism of winning the World Cup. But now they will play for the third place play-off.
The level of energy shown by the Croatian players during the whole match must be credited. It would be hugely unfair on Zlatko Dalic’s team not to acknowledge the ambition that helped them recover from a goal down. They have won all three of their knock-out matches in extra-time. After all the effort, they will surely want to take the Cup home. But first they must need to defeat France.
After defeating their neighbours Belgium at the semi-final, France sent a message around the world that they are there to win it. With Paul Pogba striding around midfield and Kylian Mbappe running with no fear, France definitely has the team to win the World Cup. And they will surely want to win it after the heartbreak of Euro 2016 final.
Here are the four takeaways from the two semi-final matches of the World Cup 2018.
France is a team to be taken seriously
Jubilant staff of the France World Cup team will definitely remember what happened two years ago in a major final. After the final whistle, the members of the staff and their manager huddled in union and probably sang a victory song. But deep down inside, they know the job is not over. The hurt of losing a major final at their home soil will probably make them hungrier to win the final. And Didier Deschamps knows his players will not take the match as any other match while the opponents will know that France is a team not to be taken lightly.
Deschamps and his players are in this World Cup final because they have been the most consistent team in this tournament so far (the other being Belgium). The brilliance of variety that this French team has got is its defensive strength, the composure on the ball and the simplicity with which they attack. Moreover, Argentina is the only team who has scored against France from open play. So the defensive assuredness that they have got is the forte in their game.
Given the players at his disposal, Didier Deschamps is making his players play to its potential. They have a squad that could (or should) be tearing through opponents with their abilities. Bearing in mind that they passed their test as for now, but the real test is what lies beyond. They are dangerously good because they hint at what might be. This is a team that has another level that it can find as. For now, though, they will only want to recover well for the final.
Is the golden generation of Belgium any good?
Four years ago at the 2014 World Cup, the Belgium team with almost the same players as this year lost in the quarter-finals against Argentina. Fast forward two years, they lost again at the hands of Wales in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. The golden generation faltering again they said. While this year, with just a step away from their first World Cup final, they faltered again against France. They did go a step further this time around, but for how much longer?
The defeat against France will probably produce mixed feelings of sadness and pride for the Belgian fans. Sadness, because with all their abilities and the promise that the Belgium football team showed in this World Cup, faltered again. And pride because of the fact that they have reached the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time since in a long time. But they will also bemoan a missed opportunity for their golden generation.
The high quality players on display in the World Cup did not disappoint during most stages in the tournament. Both Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were simply splendid against very good teams. But at the same time, these star players will know that they don’t have much time on their hands. After winning impressively against the mighty Brazilians, it looked as though they might be about to deliver on its immense promise. But France came in their way. As for a nation as promising as Belgium, the window of opportunity for this golden generation to win at something is low. While winning the next major tournament will be prioritised, the next World Cup will probably be the last chance for many of their current golden generation stars.
Croatia has the mettle to lift the cup
Winning three matches in a row after extra time can take its toll on anybody. And the joy in the faces of the Croatian players and staff after the energy sapping 120 minutes says it all. The small nation of less than 5 million in population reached its first ever World Cup final after only getting independence in the year 1991. And the result is immense for its people and their fans. More so for the players who have not only defied most critics but also won over millions of fans.
The tag of the underdogs made them reach another level and fight for each other. And Croatia’s performance was a perfect answer to the suggestions that they might be tired after playing extra-time twice previously. Mario Mandzukic stayed on the pitch helping his teammates even though he had cramps in his legs. The mercurial Luka Modric played as if it was the last match of his life. Ivan Perisic did all the hard work of assisting and scoring a goal and still ran to help his defence till the end. Teamwork has been the forte in this Croatian team so far, all thanks to their manager Zlatko Dalic.
So, can they go another extra mile to win the World Cup? They probably can. The amount of experience that the Croatian players have in playing for big clubs can help the team go all the way. We also should not forget that they showed their resilience against three good teams in the knockout stages. The likes of Rakitic, Modric and Mandzukic have the experience of playing in multiple Champions League finals which could be crucial during important stages of the match.
England will come back with a better team next time
England players will know they have let slip an opportunity to bring football home. The reaction on their players after Mario Mandzukic’s winning goal says it all. While John Stones beat the grass turf, the goal scorer Keiran Trippier held his head in dismay. This is what proud professional footballers do. They know they had let an opportunity slip. They know that this was their best chance. They wanted to win it for England, for their fans. After all the hard work and optimism, all they get to play for is a third place play-off.
While they can see it as an opportunity missed, on the other hand they can look back at a brilliant tournament as team. This team will move forward into a future that is promising, one that could be laden with promise if talented young players flourish with their clubs. The manager, Gareth Southgate, and the staff will have to be a central part of the team in the future, and the England FA knows it too. Gareth Southgate has changed the mood of the team during this World Cup campaign. All they can hope is that the players will not be scarred by the devastation of the defeat.
England’s mental strength during the semi-final was possibly the reason behind their downfall. While this year’s semi-final appearance was only their first semi-final in 28 years, it actually came at a very good time for the team. It will probably serve as a wonderful adventure and most importantly build much needed experience. Despite the familiar failings and frailties, they know this team is for the future and will come back as a better team.