And then there were two. France and Croatia are into the World Cup final after brushing aside Belgium and England, respectively. Here, we look at five takeaways from a pair of tense semi-final encounters.
Defence still wins championships
It’s an old trope, but it’s hard to dismiss.
France is off to a third World Cup final in 20 years, but not in the manner everyone expected from one of the pre-tournament favourites. Didier Deschamps brought the most exhilarating collection of attacking talent with him to Russia – and left plenty more of it at home – but it’s Les Bleus’ backline that has them on the verge of a second-ever title.
Raphael Varane has been the best central defender in the competition, with Samuel Umtiti following closely behind in that race. Each has chipped in at the other end, too, with the Barcelona stalwart scoring the lone goal in the 1-0 win over Belgium in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Getting ahead, often times from a set piece, and then locking things down has been the French philosophy thus far, and it’s working like a charm. Belgium, despite trailing for some 40 minutes on Tuesday, could only muster three shots on target against Varane and Co.
It’s not the expansive style many were hoping to get out of France, given the players available to the former defensive midfielder-turned bench boss Deschamps, but it’s effective. Outside of a back-and-forth barnburner against Argentina, France has conceded just once in the competition.
N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba – and Blaise Matuidi, who was superb against the Red Devils – have provided a near-impenetrable shield in front of the defense, while Hugo Lloris has come up large when called upon.
Croatia will have an immense task in trying to pierce the French rearguard.
Croatia never quits
It was fitting that Mario Mandzukic scored the goal that sent his country to a first-ever World Cup final. The towering Juventus striker is a boundless bundle of energy, commitment, and spirit, and his unrelenting effort on the pitch epitomises everything that has been so wonderful about this Croatian team.
Zlatko Dalic’s side has no quit. Period.
While many intangibles are nothing more than cliches that pundits use when trapped in a corner, it’s impossible to ignore the tirelessness that Croatia has displayed. Some of this is its own doing, of course, but the Croatians have battled through three consecutive extra-time matches – and a pair of mentally exhausting penalty shootouts – and come out on the other side.
No team in World Cup history has faced such a path en route to the showpiece contest.
Luka Modric looked tired (and human) for the first time in this tournament in the latter stages of Wednesday’s 2-1 win over England, but still, he was covering every blade of grass. Ante Rebic may lack quality in the final third, but his willingness to unnerve defenders and run himself into the ground can’t be questioned. The same goes for Ivan Perisic on the opposite flank, though the Inter winger has far more technical skill than his peer, and showed that on multiple occasions against the Three Lions.
Coming back to win after conceding first in every knockout-stage match is nothing to scoff at, either. France will, rightly, be favoured in Sunday’s final, but Croatia won’t go down without a fight.
England leaves with heads held high
England should rue missing a glorious opportunity to reach the World Cup final given the path that was carved out on the weaker side of the bracket, but there were plenty of positives for Gareth Southgate’s young Three Lions to take away from their semi-final run.
Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, and Dele Alli formed the heart of an exuberant side, and not one of them is older than 25. Barring unforeseen developments, they should all be back for Euro 2020, and the World Cup in Qatar two years after that.
Harry Maguire became a cult hero over the past month, while John Stones and Jordan Pickford were excellent throughout the competition.
Most crucially, though, this collection of likable players changed the perception of a team that was long viewed as overhyped and pampered.
Football may not be coming home, but the future is very, very bright.
Beer will actually be enjoyed in England
The scenes in London each and every time the Three Lions took the pitch in this tournament were a brilliant sight to behold – save for a few imbeciles running amok inside an IKEA, of course.
But without doubt, anybody who enjoys a pint will be relieved to know that no more beer will be chucked around wildly in celebration of an England goal for at least another two years.
It was fun while it lasted, though.
The best anthem made it to the final
“La Marseillaise” remains the undefeated champion, and we all get to hear it one more time.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)