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23rd July 2018

Europe Dominates World Cup as France, Belgium, England, Croatia in the Semis!

By Jason Burt (08/07/18)

France meet Belgium in the semis on Tuesday and England face Croatia on Wednesday as Europe dominates the World Cup in Russia 2018.


Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli have sent England to the World Cup semi-final. England Manager Gareth Southgate has liberated England and now the country’s ambitions ought to be higher than 1990. 

They will say it was only Sweden, they will say England were indebted to goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with three quite brilliant saves, they will even say the nations in the other half of the quarter-final draw will all have won this tie comfortably but, frankly, who cares? Who really cares? England are in the semi-final of the World Cup, where they will face Croatia who saw off the World Cup hosts Russia on penalties, and they deserve it. How they deserve it. They are in the last four for the first time since 1990, for 28 long years and only the third time ever, and the dreams, the hopes, the euphoria will rise and rise and rise even further until they play again in Moscow on Wednesday.

The unlikely reconnection is complete and the summer of 2018 will rank alongside those of 1990 and 1996, when semi-finals were reached, and maybe it has surpassed them already given how low expectation was and how high disenchantment had become in recent years and tournaments. A corner has been turned which, given the number of goals scored from corners, is pretty apt.

But can they go all the way? Can they bring it home as they did 52 years ago? England keep getting told they will have to play better but there are now only four countries who can be crowned world champions and they are one of them.

At the final whistle Three Lions played and then, as a jubilant Gareth Southgate pumped the air in front of the England fans, there was The Beatles and “All You Need is Love”. And there is so much to love about this new England.

From Southgate to captain Harry Kane and throughout the squad with their own individual stories and their superbly coached approach and their never ending team-work and desire to play for England and do so in the right way. Like brothers, Kane said, and the band of brothers are heading for Moscow for at least one more game and maybe two with the final in the Russian capital on July 15.

The goals were scored by Harry Maguire and Dele Alli and both were well-worked thumping headers and those two also have wonderful stories to tell. But they were not alone in standing tall. There was John Stones, now a leader in defence, there was Jordan Henderson, controlling midfield, and there was Raheem Sterling who may have missed a golden chance but who stretched the Swedes when all they wanted to do was stay compact and grind this out to a closer finish. And there was Kieran Trippier, who is a kind of English Cafu with a David Beckham delivery.

It was never going to be a classic. But it was a classic. The classic was what it meant and what it means the length and breadth of the country but even out here in Russia the sense of excitement can be felt. And a sense of fun both on and off the pitch. As the clock ticked down England actually looked like they were enjoying it and there were grins as wide as the nearby River Volga as they consoled the Swedes and acknowledged their own relentless supporters. (Photo: France celebrated after beating Uruguay).

England were the better team here by some distance and deserved the victory although there was little of the drama and tension of the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the last-16. That, in itself, was another sign of progress. Sweden may be limited, effectively a team of spoilers with players from Hull City, Krasnador and Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates but they beat France and finished above Holland in qualifying, they defeated Italy in the play-off and they knocked out Germany in the group stages. That record speaks for itself.

So they were tough opponents and set out exactly what that meant at kick-off when they lined their players up on the left-hand side of the pitch and had no-one down the right. It was like a rugby union match and the ball was launched in that direction with Sweden trying to slow it down, sit deep and draw any pace they could out of England’s approach.

In a goalless opening half hour it was hard work. England seemed nervous but finally profited from the familiarity of a corner routine - the eighth set-piece in fact from which they have scored at the World Cup. It came from a rare moment when they quickened the pace to earn that opportunity.

Ashley Young swung the corner in and the ‘love train’ - of players lining up behind each other to stop themselves being blocked off - broke to create space for Maguire who proved too strong for his marker, Emil Forsberg. A meaty header nestled in the net with no Swedish defender covering the post. Maguire had his first England goal and how they needed that.

Harry Maguire of England celebrates after scoring his team's first goal. Before half-time it should have been two but Sterling wasted a clear chance after being picked out by Henderson with a long ball forward which was nimbly taken down only for goalkeeper Robin Olsen to get a hand to it as he attempted to round him. Even then it fell to Sterling although instead of teeing up Kane he decided to shoot with the ball deflected over by Andreas Granqvist.

The fear was England would pay the price but Pickford made the first of his hat-trick of saves as Sweden finally responded when Marcus Berg met a cross, above Young, and the goalkeeper dived to his left to push the header out one-handed. It proved so important. Soon after, Trippier checked and played the ball inside to Jesse Lingard who crossed deep. Alli, whose place had been under threat, drifted away from Emil Krafth and planted a firm header over the hands of Olsen.

Game over? Not quite. Pickford excelled again with another one-handed save to deny Viktor Claesson after he was set up by Berg with a smart flick into his path. Even then Henderson threw himself to block the follow-up and, finally, Pickford tipped over a powerful rising shot on the turn from Berg to gain his first clean sheet and the first for England in a World Cup quarter-final. Another small record. And now a bigger one awaits. (Photo: Croatia below:

What is Croatia's World Cup Record?

Twenty years ago Croatia reached the last four with a brilliant team including the likes of Davor Suker, Zvonomir Boban and Slaven Bilic. They knocked Germany out in the last eight before losing to France in the semi-finals, but since then they have struggled - until this year. Group Stage exits in 2002, 2006 and 2014 were split by a failure to qualify in 2010 but this Croatian side is the best since those days of the late 90s.

What’s their History with England?

England have generally had the upper hand - with one obvious exception. Steve McClaren’s reign as manager was brought to an end by a 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley that ended England’s hopes of qualifying for the 2008 European Championships, but apart from that the Three Lions’ record is good. They have met once previously in tournament football, when Wayne Rooney scored twice in a 4-2 win at Euro 2004, and Theo Walcott claimed a hat-trick in a 4-1 win in Zagreb in 2008.

Courtesy: Jason Burt, chief football correspondent, Reuters

Brazil Sent Packing: Kevin De Bruyne's Magic Fires Up Belgium to Knock Selecao Out of World Cup

By Sam Wallace

Great World Cup games can be the epic comeback tale and others, like this one, are about how one team stands firm in the gale of a relentless attacking force, although quite how Belgium hung on to reach the semi-finals and send Brazil home they may never know. (Photo: Belgium below).

It was another Russia 2018 classic, featuring a Belgium side who plundered two goals against their famous opposition twice in the first 32 minutes after which the men in the yellow shirts would spend the next hour in thrilling perpetual chase. Led by their little general Philippe Coutinho, and perhaps with a little longer at their disposal, it would have been Brazil in the semi-final against France in St Petersburg on Tuesday.

But instead the last South American side are out, beaten by the shrewdness of Kevin De Bruyne on the counter-attack and Marouane Fellaini and his fellow midfield sentry Axel Witsel, the two unmistakeable guardogs of this Belgium team. This was the golden generation of Belgium against a country where every generation is golden, and the great attacking talent of De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku prevailed.

Not as the dominant team in possession because Brazil were that, and not in terms of chances created in which the Brazilians also led, but it was in exploiting their opportunities in which Belgium prevailed. Afterwards Roberto Martinez pointed out that to beat Brazil, it is not enough to put your talent up against theirs and hope to win - even with the talent in his side. Rather, you have to have a plan.

This was a great night for Martinez and his assistant, Thierry Henry, whose plan carried Belgium over the line by the skin of their teeth. Fellaini in midfield with Witsel in front of a back three initially and Lukaku and Hazard wide, allowing De Bruyne to come through the middle. They left two up at all times, taking a risk on exploiting Brazil’s vulnerability in the wide positions and although Belgium’s first was a Fernandinho own goal their second, from De Bruyne, was an out-of-your-seat, counter-attacking classic.

“Brazil bring the psychological barrier, they wear the yellow shirt and they have won five World Cups,” Martinez said. “The players have to believe in a plan. I have never lost on the tactics board but I have lost many on the pitch. It is all about the execution on the pitch. There was a lot of threat to stop. We wanted to have a threat and Eden and Romelu gave us that with their position on the pitch. It was brave but if you execute it well it gives you a period when the opposition don’t know how to deal with it.”

This was the man who began his management career at Swansea City and Wigan bringing the curtain down on a Brazil World Cup. Tite, his Brazilian counterpart, refused to blame the decisions of the Serb referee Milorad Mazic who might have gone to VAR for a penalty-area foul by Vincent Kompany on Gabriel Jesus in the second half. “I don’t want to talk about it because I sounds like whining,” Tite said. “But I would like to have seen VAR in the incident with Gabriel.”

His team had dominated the second half especially, but they had left themselves too much to do, even with the late goal from substitute Renato Augusto headed in from Coutinho’s cross. Tite spoke afterwards about the chances his team created, their work ethic, but all great Brazilian sides have that - this one simply was incapable of overwhelming others with its sheer quality, either tactically or through its individuals.

For Neymar it was an indifferent night, with at least one dreadful dive when Fellaini was hunting him carefully in the Belgian area early in the second half. The little crown prince of Brazilian football was part of a team that was unlucky at times but it is he who reputation dictates is supposed to be able to rescue these situations. He almost did in the final moments of injury-time when Thibaut Courtois thrust a glove upwards to push a shot from Neymar over the bar.

There were no tears afterwards this time from the man who loves to be at the centre of attention, because he will have known that this time no-one would be buying it. Later De Bruyne would talk about the sacrifices he made for his team, “I don’t care where I play,” he said. “I need to contribute... I did my job and made sure the team was calm in difficult situations.”

The last two South American sides, Brazil and Uruguay, sent home from the competition on the same day and, as with the last three World Cups, 2018 will have a European champion. Brazil missed the suspended Casemiro and his replacement Fernandinho glanced in a silly near-post own-goal under no pressure other than the jump by another City man, his Brazil team-mate Gabriel Jesus, who failed to score in his fifth World Cup game.

Before then Thiago Silva had hit the post from a corner and the goal shifted the dynamic of the game. Belgium’s three-man defence switched to four and they struck again on the counter. On 32 minutes, Lukaku drove forward, the ball never completely under his control, eluding Fernandinho and Paulinho before picking out De Bruyne who beat Alisson with his right foot.

In the second half Jesus slipped the ball through the legs of Jan Vertonghen and Kompany caught his Manchester City club-mate and not the ball. VAR decided the ball was out of play when contact was made and on reflection VAR seemed to have got it wrong. Coutinho made Augusto’s goal, a glancing header. It was Coutinho who had the best chance for the equaliser, from Neymar’s lay-off, but his shot was wild.

Later Tite denied the suggestion that Neymar was not fully fit, and bemoaned the fine margins of games like this, but it is in those margins that World Cups are won and lost, and in Brazil’s most recent history - more commonly lost.

"This team wants to win every game. We wanted to beat England and maybe we chose the hardest path but we have confidence in our team [to beat anybody.

"I think I've been unfairly criticised this year. Today I proved again why I am here. I'm happy with that. I know he likes to put it that way so I saw it coming. I thought I made a good save.

"Can I say one more thing? I never mocked the height of Jordan Pickford. I would never mock the height of a goalkeeper. I want to make that clear. "I only said that I would have saved it because I am taller than him."

Courtesy: Sam Wallace, chief football writer, kazan Alistair Tweedale


1958 -1980


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