With the World Cup final less than a week away, it’s anyone’s guess as to which of the remaining four teams will fight for football’s most coveted trophy on Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Two nations – Belgium and Croatia – have a chance to feature in their first World Cup final, while England and France have played in one and two previous championship matches, respectively, winning one apiece.
So, with the semi-finals set for Tuesday and Wednesday, here’s one reason each remaining team will reach the World Cup final, and one reason they’ll falter in the final four.
Why Croatia will beat England: England’s defenders will be focused on limiting the damage from stars like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, and Mario Mandzukic, so Croatia’s supporting cast should have plenty of opportunities to venture into dangerous territories and provide their teammates with other legitimate scoring options. The Three Lions have enjoyed a relatively fortunate World Cup run that included Tunisia, Panama, a “friendly” against Belgium, a James Rodriguez-less Colombia, and Sweden, so Croatia will be their biggest test yet.
Why Croatia will lose to England: After a gruelling journey to the semi-final – including a pair of knockout ties that went to extra time – Zlatko Dalic’s men may run out of gas if England scores early and forces them to claw back and chase the ball until the final whistle.
Why England will beat Croatia: The combination of Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier could be the ingredient that ensures England’s place in a World Cup final for the first time in over 50 years. They’ve been a revelation in Russia, and will be tasked with limiting Perisic and Ante Rebic to their own half. Reducing Perisic’s and Rebic’s influence will allow England’s centre-backs to focus on containing the threat that Mandzukic poses while forcing Modric and Rakitic to look for inferior options in attack.
Why England will lose to Croatia: If England finds the back of the net, chances are it will come from a set piece – the side has eight such goals in this World Cup and just four from open play. That overreliance could spell trouble against Croatia, which has only allowed one goal from a set piece (not including penalties) in five matches so far, and will have prepared tirelessly to defend free-kicks and corners.
Why Belgium will beat France: France’s hopes of lifting the trophy will fade if Belgium produces a masterclass performance similar to its dominating first half against Brazil. France’s backline faces the threat of being overwhelmed by a speedy attack led by Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, and Kevin De Bruyne.
Why Belgium will lose to France: Belgium’s midfield is about as good as it gets, but the influence of De Bruyne and Hazard could be cut in half when they go up against the tireless N’Golo Kante. Kante probable won’t ever win the Ballon d’Or, but his rare arsenal of skills could be a major reason why France limits the damage and ends up in the final.
Why France will beat Belgium: Fighting fire with fire is one of the routes France might take against Belgium as the tournament’s best counter-attacking teams meet Tuesday. France appears to have found its groove in Russia, and could be set for a date in the final if Kylian Mbappe is given the freedom to terrorise Belgium’s backline the way he embarrassed Argentina and Uruguay in the previous knockout rounds.
Why France will lose to Belgium: France has done just enough to reach this point, but despite going unbeaten through five matches, the side has attracted criticism for its lack of attacking flair. Didier Deschamps’ collection of world-class players will need to find cracks in a Belgium backline that’s one of the few shortcomings in a squad bursting with talent.