Russia Review: Day twenty-five

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Sunday, 15th July 2018.

For fans of France and Croatia, this is a date that wouldn’t be forgotten for some time, as both sides prepared to do battle in the 21st FIFA World Cup Final.

It was a massive day for each nation, and to put that into context – of the previous 20 tournaments, a quarter (five) had been won by Brazil, whilst only one had been a success for either of these sides – 1998, for France, on home soil.

Whoever the victor would be making history with a first World Cup title away from home, but which team would become the fourth European country in succession to lift football’s most famous and iconic trophy?

Entertainment expectations for the tournament’s conclusion had been fuelled by the hype that had been build up throughout a brilliant summer of football, and the grand finale did not disappoint.

First-class France win second world title in fitting finale for Russia 2018

Paris partied long into the French night as France became world champions for the second time with a six-goal thriller against final debutants Croatia.

Les Bleus put the demons of 2016 to bed once and for all with their 4-2 win, which makes Russia 2018’s finale the highest-scoring 90-minute World Cup final since 1958; when Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2.

A number of similarities can be drawn between France’s success and Brazil’s from 60 years before. Like Croatia, Sweden were appearing in their first (and to date, only) World Cup final, and on both occasions, there was one teenager who played a starring role and lit up proceedings to help lead his adoring nation to victory.

Back then, it was Pelé. This time? Step forward, Kylian Mbappé.

The 19-year-old became the first teenager to score in football’s biggest game since his Brazilian predecessor, but this came in the second half and all-but sealed France’s crown after a highly entertaining game.

In terms of a World Cup final, it had everything you could have wished for and more – Goals, drama, moments of brilliance, mistakes, and controversy (fuelled further by VAR) – and will no doubt go down in history as the conclusion to one of football’s greatest ever World Cups.

Despite their ultimate failings, it was Croatia who started the brighter in their first ever major final.

But although Zlatko Dalic’s side looked the stronger in possession, France took the lead with less than twenty minutes on the clock through a free-kick – a fitting way to go ahead in final of the ‘set-piece World Cup’.
Forward Antoine Griezmann won it cheaply against Marcelo Brozovic and dusted himself down to take it. The Atletico man curled the ball in dangerously, and Wednesday’s semi-final hero Mario Mandzukic could only inadvertently flick it into his own net in a desperate attempt to clear it.

France celebrated, but that was not to be the only set-piece goal of the day, as just ten minutes later, Croatia responded through one of their own.

Their captain and talisman, Luka Modric, floated a free-kick towards the back post which was nodded back across goal. After a couple more flick ons, it eventually fell to the feet of Ivan Perisic on the edge of the box.

The man who started Wednesday’s comeback against England then took one touch with his right foot to nick it away from N’Golo Kante, and then another with his left to hammer the ball across Hugo Lloris and into the corner to fire Croatia level and spark yet more wild celebrations.

It was scrappy, but the Croats didn’t care. They had their first ever World Cup final goal, and a platform to build on.

But the restored optimism didn’t last long, as less than ten minutes later, Perisic had gone from hero to zero.

And it came from another set piece – Blaise Matuidi went to flick on an inswinging France corner but missed the ball completely and it struck the unfortunate Perisic on the left arm.

Argentine referee Nestor Pitana initially thought nothing of it, but after French uproar, was prompted by VAR officials to take a second look, and after much deliberation, the spot-kick was eventually awarded, but not without its controversy.

Griezmann stepped up to take on Danijel Subasic, which was no mean feat considering the Croatian shot-stopper had kept out four penalties previously in the tournament.

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But that didn’t phase the Frenchman, who coolly sent his opposite number the wrong way, slotting the ball to Subasic’s right and into the corner to regain France the lead.

The 27-year-old celebrated with his famous and now trademark Fortnite dance, and left Croatia needing to come from behind again to ensure they wouldn’t be ‘taking the L’ at full-time.

Dalic’s Croatia are the smallest nation to reach the final since Uruguay in 1950 however, and weren’t going to go down without a fight, having come from behind in each of their previous three knockout rounds.

Defender Domagoj Vida, who scored in the quarter-final success against hosts Russia, was their only player with a glimpse in the closing stages of the opening 45 minutes, but he glanced a dangerous Ivan Rakitic corner way wide and that was that for the first half as France went in 2-1 ahead.

The Croatians were well in the game as Dalic prepared to deliver the biggest half-time team talk of his life, but he knew they had a job on their hands to produce a second half comeback.

Whatever the 51-year-old said did appear to have an initial impact in truth – just two minutes in and the Croatians already had a glimpse, as nice play from Rakitic saw him take on Paul Pogba and set up Ante Rebic, but the Frankfurt man’s first-time effort was well saved by Lloris.

But whatever Croatia could muster going forward, they always had to be wary of the blistering pace France possessed on the counter, and the warning signs were there again just moments later.

Mbappe showed scintillating speed to breeze past and hold off Vida, before Subasic had to smartly save with his legs to deny France bigger lead. The French may have continued to look dangerous, but Croatia would have to take a chance or two eventually.

With less than ten minutes of the half gone, there was a glimmer of hope for the Croats as, on a yellow card, Kante was replaced by Steven N’Zonzi. With the Chelsea man, widely regarded as one of the world’s best in his position, could Croatia expose his absence and overrun the French midfield?

In a word, no. Any potential optimism fuelled by Kante’s departure was soon distinguished, as just before the hour, France did get their breakaway third.

The impressive Pogba played a stunning diagonal through ball from his own half and released Mbappe down the right flank. Fronted by the Croatian defence, the teenager was challenged and it fell for Griezmann. He couldn’t work the shooting opportunity, but the man who could was none other than Pogba. The Manchester United midfielder, who started the move, made up all of fifty yards to catch up with play, and had the final say as his first time shot was blocked before his follow-up attempt was drilled into the corner, leaving Subasic with no chance.

Wild celebrations ensued inside the Luzhniki, and it would only get better for Les Bleus shortly after in the 65th minute.

With confidence running through the French side’s veins, left full-back Lucas Hernandez found himself well forward and showed great feet to get away from his man. A pull-back from the Atletico man found Mbappe on the edge of the box.

There was only one thing on this tournament’s shining light’s mind – as he shifted the ball onto his right foot, and hammered a low shot across Subasic and into the corner, leaving the AS Monaco goalkeeper – who had been a hero on numerous occasions throughout the competition for Croatia – with absolutely no chance.

France had their fourth, and for all intents and purposes, were world champions, but it wasn’t to come without one final hiccup, as the action wasn’t over quite yet.

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Tuesday night’s semi-final winning hero, Samuel Umtiti, rolled the ball back to his goalkeeper and captain, Lloris, under minimal pressure.

The Spurs man controlled, but bizarrely as he went to clear any possible danger, inadvertently created a red alert situation as his pass was blocked by the onrushing Mandzukic and ricocheted into the net.

Croatia had been gifted an unlikely lifeline, but it was still a long way back from two goals down with little over twenty minutes remaining.

France could have been rattled by their captain’s mistake, but Didier Deschamps’ side retained their composure, as they had done throughout the entire tournament.

A couple of half chances here and there for Barcelona’s Rakitic were all the Croatians could muster as they looked to close the deficit further and set up a nervy finale, but his efforts rolled wide and flew over.

With the clock ticking over to ninety minutes, the French supporters partied in the stands of the Luzhniki, whilst their opponents were left to wonder what might have been.

The Argentinian referee Pitana put the whistle to his lips, and with one mighty blow of the whistle for the final time, France were on top of the world for the second time – and the first time outside of their own country.

In leading his nation to glory, Deschamps joins an elite club also consisting of Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo in winning football’s most prestigious of tournaments as both a player and manager.

His side didn’t have the most convincing of starts, doing just enough in truth to progress past the group stage with relative ease, but as the tournament reached its latter stages and the knockout rounds, Les Bleus really started to turn on the style.

Their 4-3 success against Argentina in the last 16 a turning point, as France announced to the world that they were the real deal.

The ghosts of Paris 2016 well and truly behind them, Les Bleus were thoroughly deserving of their second star, and with the talent in abundance possessed by the new world champions, don’t be surprised should an era of domination be upon the French, as previously seen with the likes of Spain from 2008-2012.

As for Croatia, it was just one step too far for the lowest ranked side to ever reach the World Cup final. Dalic’s troops also became the smallest nation to appear in football’s biggest game since Uruguay in 1950, so despite their ultimate defeat, it has proven to be a summer to remember for Croatia.

Their Golden Ball winner Luka Modric may not be around Qatar 2022, but should this prove to be his final World Cup, the Real Madrid midfielder will have left a lasting legacy on his nation, and could possibly go down as their best ever.

Player of the Day – Paul Pogba (France)

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They say the biggest stage of all is reserved for only the best, and they also say that the best always rise to the occasion and leave a lasting mark on history.

The World Cup Final is such a setting. Down the years, football has seen dreams broken, stars born and legacies formed by legends of the game on this great occasion that only comes around once every four summers.

To this day, people still talk about 17-year-old Pele’s brace sixty years ago in the 1958 finale against Sweden, whilst other famous moments such as Andres Iniesta’s extra-time winner against the Netherlands to earn Spain their maiden World Cup title will be etched into the memory of football supporters across the globe for all eternity.

And the 2018 final proved no different. But this time, there was a different kind of player who stole the headlines. One who isn’t universally loved across the beautiful game, and a man who has earned his fair share of criticism during his career to-date.

Step forward, Manchester United and France’s Paul Pogba.

In 2016, the now 25-year-old rocked the footballing world when he rejoined his boyhood club and became the most expensive player ever at over 100 million euros.

But since joining two years ago, the midfielder has struggled to live up to his hefty price tag, and has looked unconvincing at times whilst leaving supporters scratching their heads over why United shelled out all that cash to bring back a player they allowed to leave on a free transfer just four years prior.

There have been glimpses of excellence, but consistency has been a big problem for Pogba in a red shirt.

However, this summer there have been no such problems for the Frenchman, who has more than played his part in bringing the World Cup home for only the second time in his nation’s history.

Pogba has been an integral part of the France side this summer, and has been among Les Bleus best performers in each game of this World Cup – and the final proved no different.

Leading from the middle of the park, the sometimes-controversial figure ran the show yet again, and even rounded off a superb individual tournament with a stunning goal that came from a move he started himself.

A stunning through ball to Kylian Mbappe, and then sprinting almost the whole pitch to pick up the pieces from a scramble and hammering the ball past a helpless Danijel Subasic to all-but seal France’s crown.

That is the Paul Pogba Manchester United fans have been crying out for, and the Paul Pogba they now hope and expect to see more of this coming season, as the midfielder returns to the Premier League with renewed confidence, energy and ingenuity.

But for now, it’s time for Pogba to relax. This charismatic, exciting talent from a small Parisian town called Lagny-sur-Marne has written his name into history for all eternity, and will forever be a hero to his proud nation.

Allez les Bleus.

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Russia Review: Day Twenty-four

The third place play-off – the one game nobody wants to be involved in going into the final week of a World Cup.

But unfortunately, for two teams after the midweek semi-finals, the match-up became a stark reality. Twenty-two players having to dust themselves down, and go again for one final hurrah, despite the disappointment of coming so close, yet so very far, lingering over their heads.

It is very rare that two nations meet on more than one occasion during a World Cup, and a lot has changed for both Belgium and England since their group stage meeting last month.

Had things been different, we could have had a Group G rematch for a final, but instead, these two European powerhouses did battle for bronze, and the right to at least take something away with them from their efforts at Russia 2018.

Bronze for Belgium as Red Devils blow England away for second time

Belgium registered their best ever World Cup finish and will be heading home with bronze following a comfortable win over England in St Petersburg.

Wing-back Thomas Meunier opened the scoring inside five minutes with his sixth international goal, and talisman Eden Hazard wrapped things up in the closing stages to condemn England to successive defeats.

It was a disappointing end to an uplifting tournament for the Three Lions, but ultimately the final week of Russia 2018 proved too much for Gareth Southgate’s men who recorded their joint-best World Cup performance on foreign soil.

Both side’s made changes in a bid to bounce back quickly from their respective semi-final defeats – Belgium made two as Meunier and bright prospect Youri Tielemans came in for Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini, whilst England freshened up further with five alterations.

And perhaps it was the Belgians keeping a bit more of a consistency about their side that led to them taking the lead in just the fourth minute – despite the goal being scored by the incoming PSG man Meunier.

Starting at the back with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, the ball was floated up towards halfway and nodded down to striker Romelu Lukaku, who found himself with time and space to pick a pass.

The Manchester United frontman played an incisive pass through to Nacer Chadli, and the quarter-final hero’s low ball into the box was met by Meunier who got in front of Danny Rose and poked home beyond Jordan Pickford from six yards out.

It was the perfect start for the Red Devils as Meunier wheeled away in celebration, but the cracks were evident in the English defence as Southgate’s side struggled with their Croatian hangover from three days prior.

The England backline was rocking, and it could have been two after John Stones failed to deal with Lukaku’s ball, allowing the defender’s Manchester City teammate Kevin de Bruyne the chance to shoot, but his effort was deflected and saved by Pickford before being thumped to safety.

But amidst all the Belgian domination, a chance for the Three Lions.

Eric Dier’s ball over the top found Raheem Sterling on the edge of the box. He cut inside and layed it into the path of Harry Kane, but the striker – in search of his seventh goal of the tournament to extend his lead in the race for the golden boot – could only skew the effort harmlessly wide.

Kane had another half-chance after the interval, but failed to get on the end of substitute Jesse Lingard’s venomous cross-cum-shot; missing it by inches.

De Bruyne looked in fine form as he then created the perfect chance for two with a seemingly effortless pass through to an unmarked Lukaku, but a poor touch allowed Pickford the chance to smother the ball.

And the 6 ft 3 ins striker was almost made to pay soon after, as England carved open the Belgian defence and forged their best chance of the game.

After receiving the ball from Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Dier played a neat one-two with Marcus Rashford and with that was in one-on-one with Courtois. The Tottenham man then showed great composure to bear down on goal and dink it over the onrushing goalkeeper, but rushing back onto the line was his club teammate Toby Alderweireld to superbly clear the danger.

Meunier then nearly had his name on the scoresheet for the second time with what would have been a solid contender for goal of the tournament.

Some stunning one-touch football from Roberto Martinez’ troops culminated in Dries Mertens floating a cross to the back post for the wingback, but his fizzing volley was brilliantly kept out by Pickford with a strong right hand.

But Belgium did eventually get their insurance goal with less than ten minutes on the clock, and it was their two brightest sparks who connected to provide it.

De Bruyne was the driving force behind the move again, and his pass through to Hazard left Phil Jones struggling to sort out his feet, and the Chelsea winger got in behind the man who brought him down for the match-winning penalty for his club in the FA Cup final, to calmly finish past Pickford and put the result beyond doubt.

The Belgians comfortably saw the game through to claim their first ever medals-finish at football’s elite international tournament, but despite that there will still be those left wondering what might have been for Roberto Martinez’ golden generation.

England on the other hand finish in disappointing fashion, but Gareth Southgate and his charges will go away with their heads held high – knowing they reunited a nation that for so long has lacked genuine direction, leadership and togetherness.

Player of the Day – Eden Hazard (Belgium)

​Eden Hazard may have seemed a strange choice as captain to some in a Belgium squad that contained the likes of Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, but the tricky winger has more than silenced any critics.

Having led from the front throughout the tournament, the Chelsea man’s three goals – as well as numerous attacking moves – contributed heavily to what will go down as his nation’s best ever World Cup, and today’s success against England was no different.

Hazard is used to bamboozling defenders in the Premier League, and with a number of regular opponents on the St Petersburg pitch during this third place play-off, it’s no surprise that the winger was running rings around those trying, and ultimately failing, to pin him down.

His late goal means that, since 1966, no Belgian has contributed directly to more World Cup goals than him – seven (three goals and four assists). Only Jan Ceulemans, who played in three versions of the tournament, can equal that tally.

It speaks volumes for the type of player Hazard is and just how vital he is to the Belgium setup.

The Chelsea man will be 31 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around. For football’s sake, let’s hope he’s still just as effective, effervescent and exciting to watch then as he is now – the World Cup, particularly this summer, is a better place for it.

Russia Review: Day Twenty-three

Rewind four weeks to the start of this summer’s World Cup, and you’d have been given extraordinary odds on a Croatia vs England semi-final.

On the one hand, you’ve got a nation of just over four million inhabitants, whose best ever World Cup finish was fourth in 1998, and has not been beyond the group stages since.

And on the other, you’ve got the home of football – a country whose fans have become disillusioned with their national side over recent years with one poor tournament after another, having not registered a win in an international knockout game since 2006.

It’s funny how football works, isn’t it? But one of these two teams was destined for either their maiden, or second, World Cup final appearance.

​All it would take, is ninety minutes.

Or would it?

Heartbreak for England as Croatia claim extra-time semi-final victory

England fans were left heartbroken as Croatia worked their way to the World Cup final with a 2-1 victory that took extra time.

Gareth Southgate’s side took an early lead through Kieran Trippier, but this was cancelled out by goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic.

For England, it was like watching a project you have been working on for years ripped up in front of your eyes. The dream of a nation to make it to their first World Cup final for more than half a century was over in what seemed the blink of an eye, and the heroic players trotted around the pitch in zombie-like fashion, with little emotion on their face.

It was a tough emotion to ponder for England players and fans. On the one hand, mass heroism was to be expected – the young but exciting lions flew to Russia with no expectation, yet they exceeded this by far – but one cannot help to feel that this will be a lifetime regret.

The likes of Maguire, Stones, Pickford and more all had doubters at club level. They had raw talent but did they have what it takes to form part of a youthful spine of Southgate’s Three Lions? Yes they did. The boys that got on the plane almost five weeks ago, return to England as men.

However, it wasn’t meant to be. A valiant Croatia side, led by 1998 star Zlatko Dalic, defied the odds to make it to the World Cup final for the first time in their history, overturning an early England lead.

The English media talked the talk in the days leading up to the game. Croatia were tired after two previous victories on penalties. England were the favourites according to the papers, with them already talking about the final with France or Belgium.

For the first half, this was showing. England started with energy and came out of the blocks faster than ever before in Russia 2018. Croatia players were mere shadows to the England attacking quartet of Kane, Sterling, Alli and Lingard.

Dele Alli wriggled into some space early on and was fouled by Luka Modric on the edge of the box. Set piece England. Set piece for the nation that has earned its worth from these kinds of situations in this World Cup. Set piece for Kieran Trippier, dubbed the ‘Bury Beckham’ by many commentators.

Trippier stepped up and proved exactly why he has earned said nickname. He bent it round and over the wall into the top corner, sending the entire nation into euphoria.

“Kieran Trippier’s first goal for England is in a World Cup semi-final inside five minutes; dreams do come true”, said ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley, but those dreams were far from a reality just yet.

Did England have it in them to see out a 1-0 for 85 minutes? Against a team led by Modric, Mandzukic, Rakitic – players who have won it all at club level – could an inexperienced defence of John Stones, Harry Maguire and a full back Kyle Walker, defend a one goal lead?

The world was about to find out, but Southgate’s charges were keen to build on their early momentum and really solidify their position in the game.

And not long later, England held its breath, as Harry Kane was found where Harry Kane is at his clinical best – completely unmarked, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and in the penalty area.

A throw from Ashley Young was neatly worked – Kane layed it off for his Spurs teammate Dele Alli, who took his time and picked out Jesse Lingard on the edge of the Croatian D.

The Manchester United man then had time to look up, and pick out his man – exquisitely releasing Kane on the left side of the box, but as England’s six-goal hero opened up his body with the first touch, he couldn’t quite bend the second around goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, and as the AS Monaco shot-stopper spilled the effort, Kane just about kept it in on the byline before hammering it against the post from a tight angle.

England had spurned an absolute golden opportunity for an oh so vital two-goal cushion in their first World Cup semi-final since 1990, but would it come back to haunt them?

Yes. Yes it would.

Despite allegedly being the team that would tire due to their previous extra-time exploits, Croatia grew in confidence and belief in the second half as England began to look devoid of ideas going forward, and with a quarter of the game remaining, Dalic’s men got their just rewards.

Bringing a crossfield ball down on his thigh, fullback Sime Vrsaljko whipped in a dangerous outswinging cross to the edge of the six yard box.

It looked destined to be dealt with by an England defence that had looked resolute all evening, but somehow, almost out of nowhere, popped up Ivan Perisic.

Despite primarily being a winger, the Inter Milan man showed great determination and a real striker’s instinct to get in front of not just Trippier, but Walker too, and flick a boot at the ball to divert it beyond Pickford.

It wasn’t the first time England had been pegged back in this World Cup. Southgate’s men showed their character to respond to that gut-wrenching last minute equaliser against Colombia in the last sixteen, but how would they cope here, against an undoubtedly more seasoned and experienced Croatian team, in the final four?

Things didn’t look great for the Three Lions, as minutes later, the game could have swung in favour of the Croatians completely.

A long ball forward caused all sorts of problems for their backline. A huge mix up resulted in Stones unconvincingly clearing the ball straight to the dangerous Perisic, who managed to find space away from the pacey Walker with a couple of step-overs and unleash a low left-footed shot towards the bottom corner, but plucky England saw it strike the base of the far post, and almost bounce off Ante Rebic and into the hands of Pickford. A lifeline, if England had ever seen one.

Both sides inevitably tired after that and, with the game headed for extra-time, conserved their energy for the frantic thirty minutes that would follow.

Croatia already had two penalty shootout wins under their belt, whereas England also had one to their name – but who would come out on top this time? And would it even make it that far?

Southgate’s side were determined to ensure it wouldn’t. In the first period, Trippier curled an outswinging corner which was powerfully met by the head of Stones – a man who had already got two goals to his name at Russia 2018 – but this time his brilliant effort was even more impressively headed off the line by the backtracking Vrsaljko.

Then it was Croatia’s turn. England’s nemesis for the evening Perisic curled in a stunner of a cross which was met by Mandzukic six yards out after getting between both Stones and Maguire, but Pickford was out in just enough time to block the shot at source and see it fly over for a corner.

It was still anybody’s game, but with four minutes of the second period played, the decisive blow was struck.

Substitute Josip Pivaric’s cross was flicked high into the air by Walker in an attempt to clear the danger, but England found themselves in a mess again as Perisic won the resulting header.

He beat Trippier to the ball and flicked it behind him, and unbeknown to the flat-footed pair of Stones and Maguire, right into the path of the onrushing Mandzukic.

The Juventus marksman did what all top strikers do – gamble. Once again he got between the England centre halves, and this time it proved fatal.

With one lethal swing of the left boot, Mandzukic swept the ball low and hard into the corner past the helpless Pickford, and Croatia had one foot in a first ever final, sparking wild celebrations in Moscow.

England were floored, and had nothing left to give. After a month of heart, fight, bravery and commitment, the dream was over.

As Croatia broke forward from one final English free-kick, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir put the whistle to his lips and with one last blast, signalled the end of England’s journey. Croatian staff and players alike flooded the Luzhniki pitch in jubilation, Zlatko Dalic simply stood beaming on the touchline with his arms outstretched and aloft, whilst the Three Lions picture was one of stark contrast.

With reality beginning to set in, a chorus of ‘Southgate you’re the one’ could be heard from the travelling English faithful. Despite the hurt, despite the devastation, despite the heartbreak, the Three Lions and their leader had given their nation a summer to remember – memories that will last a lifetime, but with them, a lingering feeling of ‘what if?’

But as for Croatia, little Croatia – they march on to their first ever World Cup final against heavy favourites France and will be back at the Luzhniki on Sunday, as the lowest ranked team to ever reach football’s showpiece event.

Could Russia 2018 have one final twist?

Player of the Day – Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

Following yet another spirited fightback from this dogged side of Croatian heroes, it’s difficult to pinpoint one player exactly who stood out above the rest.

But in a squad that contains a number of highly talented, decorated and experienced footballers in their ranks, some still outshine the rest.

Luka Modric has won all there is to win in the game domestically, but surprisingly the star man against England wasn’t the predictably brilliant figure of Real Madrid’s maestro – who did produce yet another midfield masterclass. It was in fact a long-term target of Premier League clubs, namely Manchester United, in Ivan Perisic.

In a tight game of two halves, it was the 29-year-old whose industrious play, combined with sheer grit and desire, that hauled his nation back into this semi-final.

Typically a big game player at both club and international level, having previously scored goals for Croatia in the 2014 World Cup, Euro 2016 – which included an 87th minute winner to see his side top the group ahead of Spain – and in last November’s qualifying play-off victory against Greece, Perisic stepped up to the plate yet again on the biggest night of his eleven year career.

Everything good about the Croatians offensively against their English opposition came down that left hand side through the forward-thinking Perisic, who provided even more than just his goal – which forced the tie into extra time – and match-winning assist.

As a traditional left-sided midfielder, Perisic was able to exploit the space down England’s right left in the gap between right centre back Kyle Walker, and the wingback Kieran Trippier.

Time and time again in the second half, Perisic got between the lines of the two, and caused England havoc.

After showing his determination to get in front of both men and on the end of Sime Vrsaljko’s cross to fire in the equaliser, he also hit the post minutes later with some brilliant footwork which left Harry Maguire and Trippier helpless, whilst Walker could only lunge in desperation to try and block the attempt following an England mix-up.

The Three Lions survived that occasion, but then in extra-time, the winger – fronted by both Jesse Lingard and Trippier – delivered the perfect pinpoint cross to Mario Mandzukic six yards from goal, but he was foiled by Pickford.

England simply could not live with Perisic. They say you need players who grab the game by the scruff of the neck to be successful, especially in games like this, and that’s exactly what their Man of the Match did.

He and his side got their just rewards late on when the quick-thinking Perisic again capitalised on an English catastrophe, as he flicked a miscued Walker clearance through to Mandzukic, and this time the Juventus striker did not let his prime creator down.

Croatia are into their first ever World Cup final, but go into it as the overwhelming underdogs.

Should this small nation of merely 4 million pull off one of football’s greatest miracles, their star man of the night will have to live up to the hype he’s created through one of the World Cup’s best ever individual displays in a semi-final.

Russia Review: Day Twenty-two

And then there were three.

As we reach the final week of Russia 2018 and this captivating, compelling and delightful tournament nears its conclusion, Day Twenty-two saw the number of contenders reduced even further on another night of high drama and absorbing action.

But with Croatia and England set to battle it out for a place in Moscow’s final on Day Twenty-three, who would be the first to secure their spot?

With some of the world’s greatest starts on show, it’s over to you, St Petersburg…

New favourites France frustrate Belgium to confirm date with destiny

France reached the World Cup final for the third time in twenty years as Samuel Umtiti’s second half header earned them a narrow win over neighbours Belgium.

It is also Les Bleus’ second successive major final, having successfully navigated the route through to their showpiece Paris finale two years ago in the European Championships – a tournament they ultimately lost in heartbreaking fashion to Portugal.

Didier Deschamps’ team have proved over the past three weeks however that they have laid their demons of 2016 to rest, and are now full-steam ahead as they bid to lift football’s biggest prize for only the second time.

In St Petersburg they faced a Belgium side bouncing with confidence after their hugely impressive win against tournament favourites Brazil, but it was another test the 1998 winners passed with flying colours as they kept the imperious threats of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard et al at arm’s length.

Heading into what was Russia 2018’s first semi-final, this was the match-up being billed as the big one.

Many fans and pundits across the globe had pinpointed this fixture as the final four clash that would give us our ultimate winner, with many feeling the same way about that famous Brazil-Germany tie four years prior.

But this battle was a little less one-sided and more tense, as both teams tried to assert their authority on proceedings early on.

And it was France who took the bull by the horns right away. There had been much talk about teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe during the build-up to this one, and eager to continue his fine form, the 19-year-old was causing problems within twenty seconds for Belgium.

The PSG forward gave the Red Devils an early fright as he unleashed that blistering pace we’ve become accustomed to down the right hand side before rolling the ball across the box, but the Belgians were alert enough to deal with the threat – however that was just the start of Mbappe’s evening, and an early warning sign to the opposition.

As both sets of players traded spells of possession, Mbappe was the one bringing about the ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s from the crowd, as he was nearly played in by Paul Pogba.

Antoine Griezmann, who has almost surprisingly been usurped by the teenager as France’s leading light at this World Cup, picked up the ball in his own half and started a counter attack with just under a quarter of an hour gone.

The Atletico Madrid star picked out Pogba, but there was just a little too much on his through ball as even the pace of Mbappe couldn’t get on the end of it before Thibaut Courtois snuffed out the danger.

Belgium were holding firm and just about dealing with the threat of Mbappe, and grew in confidence themselves in the knowledge that they could cause problems themselves with their array of attacking talent.

One of a number of England-based stars in Roberto Martinez’ ranks is captain Eden Hazard, and the Chelsea man found himself with the best of the early chances just minutes later.

In an attempt to play it out from the back, France inadvertently lost possession with a Hugo Lloris ball which was won by the head of Mousa Dembele.

It fell kindly for De Bruyne, who flicked it into the area for his ex-Chelsea teammate, but the chance evaporated into thin air when Hazard dragged the shot across goal and wide with his weaker left-foot, but as Mbappe had done to Belgium, Hazard was letting the French know that he and his team were there.

And he could have done more than that moments after, when France had Raphael Varane to thank for keeping them level.

Picking it up on the left, Hazard skinned the hapless Benjamin Pavard and sent a vicious curling effort towards goal from the corner of the box, but the Real Madrid defender got up well to flick the ball over and away for a corner.

All of a sudden the tables had turned, and it was Belgium on the front foot as Hazard seemed to be the man leading his side’s charge.

With a quarter of the game gone, Lloris was then forced into the game’s first real save, and it was to deny one of his Tottenham allies.

The first corner of the match was whipped in and dropped at the feet of Marouane Fellaini. France were probably thankful it wasn’t met by the big man’s head, but nonetheless, the Manchester United midfielder touched the ball to Toby Alderweireld, who spun and sent a left-footed shot towards the corner, only to be denied by a brilliant Lloris stop.

In truth, you could fill a shortlist for save of the tournament purely with stops from the French captain, and this was another for him to add to his highlights reel as he quickly dived away to his right and got two hands to Alderweireld’s effort, turning it round the post.

Both sides continued to press and create openings, and it was Olivier Giroud, leading the line for France, who was the next to be guilty of wasting opportunities.

First, the Chelsea target man glanced a header wide from a Pavard cross, and then he failed to convert the best chance of the half – Griezmann picked out Mbappe wide right, and the teenager played a wonderful first-time cross into the box, but Giroud cracked under pressure from Alderweireld and could only fumble the chance wide.

Giroud is yet to register a shot on target during the competition which is pretty astonishing for a striker in a team with so much attacking flair, but Griezmann and Mbappe continued to show exactly why it was they who Deschamps relies so heavily on to provide the spark.

After picking up the ball in his own half, the former led a French counter with a mazy run but could only drag a poor effort wide when he may have been better served picking out a fellow blue shirt, and Mbappe then created the final chance of note as he showed great awareness to flick a pass through to the onrushing Pavard, but despite being one-on-one, the full-back couldn’t beat Courtois who saved well.

With neither side able to take their numerous chances in a pulsating opening 45 minutes, it seemed only a matter of time before the deadlock was finally broken.

And that proved to be the case, as with just over five minutes gone following the restart, France were ahead.

Griezmann, who has been heavily involved in a number of France’s goals throughout the tournament, was the architect, although this time it was one of his more simpler assists.

Les Bleus’ poster boy curled a dangerous corner in towards the near post, and powering his way past the imposing figure of Fellaini was Umtiti, who forcefully headed the ball beyond Courtois who couldn’t do enough to keep it out.

With one movement, Umtiti had gone from zero – having conceded a sloppy and bizarre penalty in his side’s opener against Australia three weeks ago – to hero, after nudging France into the driver’s seat for a place in the final.

As the French celebrated in their numbers, Belgium were left stunned, and struggled to respond as their opponents nearly extended their lead moments later.

An awe-inspiring move from France saw the returning Blaise Matuidi flick a ball to Mbappe, and the youngster showed he lacks no confidence with an industrious backheel through to Giroud, but Dembele made a brilliant – and huge – block to keep Belgium in the game.

Roberto Martinez’ men needed something from somewhere, and in response to what he was witnessing, the Spaniard sent on Dries Mertens for Dembele in a show of intent.

And the Napoli forward made an immediate impact. Hitting the byline, he sent in a cross which France struggled to deal with. It eventually fell to De Bruyne in the area, but the usually so reliant Manchester City magician failed to connect properly under pressure from his Premier League rival Pogba and Lloris was able to easily gather.

But Mertens was at the heart of Belgium’s chance creation again soon after, as he delivered another dangerous ball into the box, but it was to no avail once more as this time Fellaini headed wide.

Having already put so much into the game and sitting pretty with the lead, France were content to soak up whatever pressure the Belgians could throw at them from that point on.

The Red Devils struggled to break through a stubborn back line, and the only real test Lloris faced in the closing stages was a swerving 25 yard strike from Witsel which was straight into his midriff.

As the clock ticked over to 90 minutes, De Bruyne tried to provide one final piece of inspiration in typical KDB-style, but his superb floated ball into the box was inches away from Lukaku, who had evaded the French defenders, and it drifted harmlessly behind.

The board went up to signal an additional six minutes, but France retained the composure they had shown throughout the course of the evening and could have even wrapped it up themselves.

Having run from wide, Griezmann fired a low right-foot shot comfortably at Courtois, and then Tolisso had the golden chance to crown it in the final minute as he was found in acres of space just yards from goal, but Courtois saved well – which ultimately resulted in a France corner.

Time was up for Belgium, and as referee Cunha’s whistle met his lips, the party started as France celebrated wildly whilst their opponents were left floored in complete and utter despair.

2018 marks Belgium’s second appearance in the World Cup semi-finals, and should they secure third place on Saturday, this summer will go down as their best ever performance.

But that will be little consolation to the team of Red Devils and their supporters, as the belief was there that this was their time, and best opportunity to lift their inaugural international trophy.

As for France, they go into Sunday’s showpiece final as favourites regardless of who their opponents may be.

But in order to lift football’s most iconic trophy for a second time, Les Bleus will need to go again one last time – to prove that the ghost of Euro 2016 are well and truly behind them, by putting on a show that will go down in French folklore at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Player of the Day – Kylian Mbappé (France)

Last time out, Day Twenty-one saw us name our first ever two-time Player of the Day, and we marvelled at the fact that a goalkeeper managed to outshine Russia 2018’s abundance of attacking brilliance to achieve the feat.

But on Day Twenty-two, it is one of those offensive talents who becomes our second two-time winner, and it is very much a star in the making – which is frightening to say, considering how good he already is.

Kylian Mbappe announced himself to the global stage unexpectedly in 2017 with some stunning Champions League performances in a run that saw his AS Monaco side reach the semi-finals.

The boy wonder scored home and away in his Ligue 1 team’s victories against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, and also notched up his club’s solitary goal in their last four defeat to Juventus.

But that was just the beginning for Mbappe, and certain similarities are beginning to appear between this World Cup and that European club competition for the youngster.

The 19-year-old seems to come alive in knockout football, and has turned on the style for France in the latter stages of Russia 2018 – he put in one of the best individual displays of the tournament in their last 16 win against Argentina, and proved again when facing up to the Belgians that he can deliver under pressure and on the biggest stage of all by bamboozling defenders with his pace, tricks and fancy flicks.

Naturally now, the next step for Mbappe is to lead his national side to eternal glory by claiming their second World Cup honour on Sunday evening – something even the likes of legendary figures Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have failed to do during their illustrious and record-breaking careers.

Beyond this summer, speculation linking Mbappe with a megabucks move to Real Madrid is rife, and in light of one of the all-time great Galacticos, the previously mentioned Ronaldo, moving on from the European champions, rumours have only escalated.

But when you take into account this boy’s pace, power, technical ability et al, it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to suggest that he really could go all the way in his career and possibly emulate what his potential predecessor at the Bernabeu has over the last ten years.

Russia Review: Day Twenty-one

“If not you, who? If not now, when?”

Russian supporters unveiled banners that read these famous words ahead of their World Cup quarter-final date with Croatia on Day 21, with their side going in search of a first semi-final appearance since 1966 – when they were then known as the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the time wasn’t now for a Russian team that had unexpectedly brought a sense of togetherness and pride back to their noble country.

Day 21 saw us bid a fond farewell to our charming and welcoming hosts on another drama-packed evening of football.

Three Lions roar into semis with comfortable win against Sweden

England reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1990 with a comfortable and comprehensive victory against a struggling Sweden.

Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli in each half were enough for the Three Lions to reach the last four of a major tournament for only the second time on foreign soil.

Despite being in the driving seat for large spells, England were put under pressure on a number of occasions and had inspired goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to thank as they kept their first clean sheet of Russia 2018.

The game started pretty even, but after Gareth Southgate’s men took control of the possession, they struggled for the most part to create any clear openings.

But that was until they started winning set pieces – which has more than been their forte during the last three weeks.

On the half hour mark, England won a corner down the left side, and Ashley Young strolled over to take it.
In Young and his opposite wingback, Kieran Trippier, England find themselves spoilt for choice when it comes to dangerous set-piece takers. This one was the turn of the experienced Manchester United man, who delivered a straight ball into the area, and with how the competition had gone thus far, you just knew it would be a red shirt that got on the end of it.

The red shirt in question this time around wasn’t worn by captain Harry Kane, nor defender John Stones, but a fellow member of the latter’s defensive trio – Harry Maguire, who timed his run to perfection and left Emil Forsberg in a heap after powering his header low and fiercely past the helpless Robin Olsen.

Yet another set-piece had left fans across the nation, as well as those who had made the trip to Samara, utterly delighted once more.

And as England gained confidence from Maguire’s first international goal firing them ahead, they looked the more likely to score next as they went in search of extending their lead.

One of the side’s unsung heroes, Jordan Henderson, lofted a perfect first-time through ball from his own half and picked out Raheem Sterling, who had beaten the offside trap by finding a gap between the two Swedish centre halves.

Sterling’s first touch was exquisite as he brought it down sublimely on the edge of the box, but faced by Olsen, the Manchester City forward’s lack of cutting edge in the final third let him down not for the first time this summer.

He opted to take it round the goalkeeper rather than shoot, and as Olsen got a hand to it, Sweden recovered with bodies on the line, and despite having both Kane and Alli to his left, Sterling eventually went alone before seeing his effort deflected behind for a corner.

That was a big chance spurned, as Sterling’s wait for a tournament goal for England went on. But would his side later be made to pay for the miss?

Early on in the second half, they nearly were.

Pickford was at last called into action and made the first of a string of stunning saves to keep the Swedes at bay and England in pole position.

Ludwig Augustinsson, who had been one of the more impressive left-backs during the group stage of the tournament, curled a dangerous ball into the area which striker Marcus Berg rose highest to win.

He beat Young to the cross, but his powerful header was brilliantly saved by Pickford – scrambling across his line and getting a strong left hand to the ball to beat it away from danger.

That was the warning sign England needed, and Southgate’s men pressed on in response as they looked for that second goal to kill the game.

And luckily for them, it didn’t take too much longer to find.

A nice move saw Trippier released in space down the right. With bodies in the box, a cross seemed likely, but the Spurs man cleverly cut back and found Jesse Lingard in space on the edge of the area.

The Manchester United man played a delightful first-time cross in, and having peeled off his marker to beat the offside trap, Dele Alli nodded a free header past Olsen from four yards out.

Unlike against the Colombians in the round of 16, England crucially had a two-goal lead, and with half an hour to play, it was all about game management for Southgate and his troops as they looked to seal their spot in the final four.

But even though they were looking comfortable, Sweden still posed a threat as England desperately defended in a bid to claim their first clean sheet of the tournament.

A terrific move from the Swedes saw Viktor Claesson bamboozle Maguire before finding Ola Toivonen in the box. He played a first-time ball across the area which his strike partner Berg flicked to the onrushing Claesson, but his powerful low effort from close to the penalty spot was superbly kept out by the diving Pickford.

England scrambled to eventually get the ball clear thanks to Henderson’s block on the follow-up, but it was another clear indication that the game was not yet won.

The disappointing Forsberg, who was seen as Sweden’s most creative spark prior to the match, was subbed, as England’s opponents seemed devoid of ideas on how to beat the plucky Pickford.

And the Three Lions shot-stopper was to have one final hurrah, as he cemented his place in English hearts.

Former Manchester City man John Guidetti was one of those introduced, and his pass across the box found Berg with his back to goal, but as the big man swivelled and striked the ball towards the roof of the net, Pickford was there again – with great reflexes – to raise his hand and tip it over the ball.

In truth, England weren’t at their free-flowing best, but as was the case with the French against Uruguay the day previous, they were always in control and never panicked.

As the celebrations got underway in Samara and back home, England fans are daring to dream that this could well be their year.

Only their fourth-ever tournament semi-final awaits them on Wednesday night after their biggest ever quarter-final victory, and it would take a brave man to write these even braver lions off, as they continue to roar their way to unprecedented success in Russia.

Croatian delight as they book place in semi-final at expense of hosts

Croatia won their second penalty shoot out in as many games to advance to the World Cup semi finals for the second time in their history, ending the tournament for hosts Russia, who equalised late on in extra time.

Danijel Subasic, who was the hero against Denmark, was the man of the moment again. He saved Russia’s first attempt from the spot to give Croatia the confidence to go on and win, helped via a poor Mario Fernandes penalty.

As they have been all tournament, the home support was firmly behind their nation, roaring Stanislav Chershesov’s team forward from the off. The Russian fans have been treated to a surprisingly good national team in their host World Cup.

Despite this, it was Croatia who started the brightest, with Ante Rebic and Ivan Rakitic going extremely close early on.

The Croatians dominated the early exchanges, but it was Russia who opened the scoring just past the half hour mark.

Cheryshev gathered the ball, before playing a neat one-two with Artem Dyzyba to get around Luka Modric. The Villarreal man then launched a stop from the edge of the box into the top corner, leaving Subasic helpless.

The crowd erupted as expected, but their side was pegged back as Croatia equalised just eight minutes later.

Hoffenheim striker Andrej Kramaric was the man to get that goal, as he latched on to the end of a Mario Mandzukic cross to head home.

The second half was much more cagey as neither team were prepared to come out of their shell too much.

Croatia had the better of the chances, as Akinfeev stood tall on numerous occasions, but the goal seemed far away.

The game went to extra-time, with both teams used to this situation from their round of sixteen ties.

Croatia were the better side, and were rewarded with what seemed to be a winner.

Domagoj Vida got on the end of Modric’s cross and headed goalwards, through a crowded penalty area into the back of the net.

Croatia celebrated as if they had won, but it turned out to be premature celebrations, as Russia equalised with just minutes remaining in extra time.

Alan Dzagoev’s cross was flicked in at the back post by Fernandes to level the game in the 115th minute.

It was evident that both teams were to settle for penalties, which was the ultimate outcome.

Smolov began the shootout with a weak effort that Subasic was able to save well, and Brozovic fired Croatia into the lead.

The scores were back level when Kovacic scuffed his effort at Akinfeev, after Dzagoev had scored his attempt.

Fernandes hit a poor attempt wide of the post, and Modric’s effort ended up in the goal despite a strong Akinfeev hand.

Both Vida and Ignashevich found the net at the fourth round, and Daler Kuzyaev scored for Russia to keep them alive, but it was ultimately ended as Ivan Rakitic scored to send Croatia through.

Ivan Rakitic has now won two shootouts for his nation.

Croatia become only the second team to win consecutive shoot outs in a single World Cup since Argentina in 1990. They consequently have booked a semi final date with England on Wednesday.

Player of the Day – Jordan Pickford (England)

It’s very rare that one player outshines the rest of the competition on more than one occasion over the course of a day at a World Cup, but here at Pomona de Futbol we are delighted to say that we have the first two-time winner of our Player of the Day accolade.

With the sheer abundance of attacking talent that has been on display throughout these finals, you would be forgiven for thinking that it could be a Messi or a Ronaldo that was the first man to be a two-day star performer.

But you would also be wrong. Ironically, the two men it boiled down to for Day 21’s top player were both goalkeepers – and both had previously been given recognition from our writers.

Danijel Subasic will go down in Croatian folklore after his successive shootout heroics have seen him lead his small nation to the semi-finals for a second time, but ultimately the plaudits go yet again, to England’s impressive Jordan Pickford.

Any doubts Three Lions supporters may have had over who their number one should be in Russia have been more than answered, as the Everton man has excelled beyond his years.

At just 24, Pickford is England’s youngest ever tournament goalkeeper, but could potentially go down in history as one of the side’s greatest, should he continue with his near-perfect performances.

Since taking criticism from his Belgian counterpart Thibaut Courtois, Pickford has taken his game to another level. He has dug deep when England needed him most, and having been the hero against Colombia, continued to raise his stock with another match-winning display against the Swedes.

Optimists believe it’s coming home, whilst the pessimists still feel it will eventually all come crashing down, but whatever happens – Pickford has had a wonderful tournament, and has the potential to go down as one of the finest goalkeepers to wear the Three Lions across his chest, despite his humble beginnings.

Russia Review: Day Twenty

As we reach the business end of Russia 2018, the stakes were only going to get higher and the matches even tighter.

Day Twenty continued the trend of exciting matches enthralling drama, and even saw a costly error or two thrown in for good measure.

When a World Cup is hosted in Europe, more often than not (with the exception of Brazil in 1958) it’s a European team that wins it, and after today’s results that continues to be the case as we say goodbye to two former champions – both of a South American nature.

With six Europeans left, Day Twenty saw this summer’s World Cup blown wide open, with those who now remain sharing a mere two previous titles between them.

Muslera mistake gives helping hand to France who reach final four

France’s hunt for a second World Cup title continued as they reached the semis with a comfortable victory against Uruguay.

Goals from Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann did the business for Les Bleus, on an afternoon when the top gear they displayed against Argentina was not needed as they took on a Uruguay side lacking inspiration with Edinson Cavani sidelined through injury.

The PSG striker scored both goals in the win against Portugal, but despite still having the option of Luis Suarez, the Uruguayans failed to create any clear-cut chances in a game that wasn’t particularly easy on the eye as France took the win with their only two shots on target.

Uruguay’s familiar trait of remaining solid at the back continued during a largely uninspiring first half, but that didn’t stop the French from creating a big opening for last Saturday’s star, Kylian Mbappe.

Benjamin Pavard, who also played a key role in the last round with a stunning goal, delivered a ball to the back post which Olivier Giroud headed back across goal. The target man found Mbappe entirely unmarked six yards out as Uruguay were caught ball-watching, but the teenager made the wrong decision in attempting to head the ball despite having time to control it, and his effort looped harmlessly over the bar.

That was a warning sign for Oscar Tabarez’ side, but they responded well. The South Americans registered the game’s first two efforts on target, with the second falling at the feet of Matias Vecino in the area, but his low shot was straight at Hugo Lloris.

Despite being marginally the better side however, disaster struck for Uruguay with just over five minutes remaining of the half.

21-year-old Rodrigo Bentancur, who had been one of the nation’s more impressive players throughout the tournament, brought down Corentin Tolisso from behind and conceded a dangerous free-kick. Not only that, the Juventus midfielder was booked for his troubles, meaning should his side make it through, he would miss their semi-final contest.

But moments later, any such date with Brazil or Belgium was cast in serious doubt, as France took control.

Through the resulting free-kick, the French talisman Griezmann, who had been anonymous for the most part, curled a ball into the box.

Striker Christian Stuani, in for Cavani, was back to defend and seemed destined to head the Atletico Madrid forward’s delivery away, but from nowhere came Griezmann’s city rival Raphael Varane, up from the back, to get there first and glance a header low into the corner leaving goalkeeper Fernando Muslera with no chance.

Les Bleus fans celebrated wildly with berets and baguettes visible in the stands, whilst Uruguay were left stunned having conceded for only the second time at Russia 2018. Advantage La France.

Tabarez’ man went in search of an immediate response to the setback, and four minutes later very nearly got it.

They won a free kick themselves up the other end of the pitch, and this time it was whipped in by Arsenal-bound Lucas Torreira.

As with the France set-piece, it was an attacking defender who got on the end of it – Martin Caceres sent a powerful header towards goal, but Lloris somehow clawed it out when the ball seemed nailed-on to nestle into the bottom corner, and despite Diego Godin getting to the rebound, Lloris bounced back to his feet quickly to put pressure on his opposing captain, and the veteran defender fired well over.

France had their brilliant goalkeeper to thank as they went into half-time with their lead intact, whilst Uruguay were left with it all to do after seeing their best chance superbly kept out.

But whilst it was world-class goalkeeping that kept France ahead, the same could not be said for Lloris’ opposite number on the hour as he attempted to keep the Uruguayans in the game.

Not for the first time this tournament, Paul Pogba showed great strength in midfield to win the ball back for France, and the Manchester United man led the charge forward.

Playing the ball to his left, Pogba found Tolisso, who then shifted it further towards Griezmann, and from 25 yards, the forward hammered a shot towards goal which swerved at the last second and spun out of Muslera’s hands before bouncing into the net.

It was an uncharacteristic mistake from the usually reliant goalkeeper, and Uruguay seemed down and out having been left with a mountain to climb.

Griezmann awkwardly celebrated in a muted fashion, but France were well on their way.

Tolisso had impressed on his return to the side and could have added a third with less than 20 minutes to go after being afforded space on the edge of the area, but his strike failed to trouble Muslera this time and curled over the bar.

Both sides struggled to create anything after that with the game up, and as the clock ticked towards 90, it got too much for some. 23-year-old defender Jose Gimenez was left in tears whilst lining up in the wall to defend a late France free-kick.

ITV’s Gary Neville labelled the Atletico man as ‘embarrassing’, but it was an emotion reciprocated among the Uruguayans in the Nizhny Novgorod stands and back home, as their dreams of adding a third star to the Sky Blues crest were left shattered in what will more than likely be Oscar Tabarez’ final World Cup game as coach.

All in all it was a comfortable win for France. It may not have been the free-flowing, electric attacking performance that we witnessed in their round of sixteen success against Argentina, but Didier Deschamps’ men did enough and will be full of confidence having coasted through the tournament thus far.

Brilliant Belgium have reason to believe as they topple the mighty Brazil

The bookies favourites before a ball were kicked, Brazil, were dumped out of the World Cup by a Belgium side who answered many of the questions that were asked of them heading into the tournament with a memorable team performance.

Fernandinho deflected the ball into his own goal before a thunderous strike from Kevin De Bruyne saw The Red Devils to a two goal cushion at half time.

A late strike from Renato Augusto was not enough for Brazil, who become the third previous World Cup winner to be knocked out at The Kazan Arena, following Argentina and Germany.

Although Belgium were by far the better team over the course of the game, Brazil enjoyed decent control throughout many phases, especially the beginning.

In the sixth minute, Thiago Silva failed to connect well with a cross at the front post and fluffed a massive chance for the Brazilians. When the ball was played in, it looked certain the PSG man would score from a similar position to his goal against Serbia.

From not taking their chances from their own corner, to being incredibly unlucky defending one – at the other end, Belgium were helped into the lead.

The corner was drifted in to the front post which Vincent Kompany attacked. The Manchester City defender failed to get enough on the ball but did enough to put off his club colleagues Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. The latter ultimately inadvertently turned the ball into his own goal to give Belgium a precious lead in a game they entered as the underdog.

The Red Devils added to their joys on the half hour mark, when De Bruyne hit a bullet of an effort past Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker.

​Romelu Lukaku, who was excellent all night on and off the ball, started the move. He sprinted down the middle of the pitch following a neat turn, before slipping in De Bruyne. Thomas Meunier made a decoy run off the ball which distracted the defender, but in reality there was only one thing on De Bruyne’s mind – shoot.

If you are a fan of the Premier League, you will be well aware that Kevin De Bruyne is more than competent of striking a ball from this area. That is exactly what the Belgian man did. He took a touch, before striking the ball into the back of the net. The ball hardly moved due to the shear power, neither did Alisson.

Roberto Martinez made a tactical switch heading into this one to move De Bruyne into a more advanced role, relieving him of his defensive duties by bringing Marouane Fellaini into the lineup on the back of a good substitute showing against Japan. The decision proved to be a masterstroke, as De Bruyne ran the show from start to finish, as he did so often in Manchester City’s 17/18 title win.

From the second goal, Belgium saw out the first half in style, with Brazil looking bereft of ideas, unable to lay a punch on their opponents.

Heading into the World Cup, questions were being asked of Belgium. Yes, they have some of the best attacking talents in the world in De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku. Yes, they have some brilliant defenders. But, can they play together as a unit?

These questions were answered in style in the second half.

Belgium have always possessed attacking quality in abundance, but now they have shown they have the ability to defend and see out matches too – a frightening feat for other World Cup challengers.

Brazil did pull one back late in the day via a great Renato Augusto goal assisted by a deft Coutinho dink, but Belgium looked a steely side that would not give up.

Much of that was thanks to the experienced trio of ​Kompany, Alderweireld and Vertonghen.

With minutes remaining, Courtois denied Neymar with a stretching save to deny the worlds most expensive player from the edge of the box.

Brazil certainly threw questions at the Belgian defence, but Martinez’s side answered all of them.

As the final whistle blew, Brazil players fell to the ground. The squad that was meant to be the favourites looked mentally defeated, evidently still psychologically scarred from that 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte four years ago. Marcelo, Thiago Silva and Neymar, three of the core group of this side, closed their eyes as if they could not believe it has happened again.

Make no mistake about it, Brazil were not poor, Belgium were just too good. Vincent Kompany gathered his players into a tightly knit circle and issued his battle cry. It felt like a coming of age for Belgium, who celebrated like they won the whole thing.

Next up for Belgium is France on Tuesday in St Petersburg. After that performance, they will believe. Rightly so, this little country believe they can go all the way.

Player of the Day – Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)

Before a ball was kicked, the headlines were about one man: Neymar Jr. The PSG attacker was supposed to turn up on the biggest stage and perform. He didn’t. De Bruyne, and his brilliant Belgian teammates did.

De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku – a terrifying trident, tested for the first time this evening by Roberto Martinez, who relieved De Bruyne of his defensive duties by handing a start to Marouane Fellaini, giving De Bruyne the freedom to roam and dominate.

Whether it be in defensive midfield, the ‘el pivote’ role he plays at City, the second striker position he occupied at Wolfsburg, or now in the front three, De Bruyne is proving to be one of the most all-rounded players in world football.

Kevin De Bruyne was the best player in an era defining victory for Belgium. His goal was exceptional, a strike from the edge of the box that left Alisson Becker with no chance, whilst his overall play was just as good.

He helped to link up attacks with tidy little touches, whilst dictating the tempo of the play with his forward passes. The City man was on the half turn ready to launch counter attacks at every opportunity, which were ultimately Belgium’s best weapon to beat Brazil.

Entering the peak of his career, De Bruyne has the world at his feet as one of the worlds best ‘big game players’.

Should Belgium win the World Cup, De Bruyne will be as crucial as anyone else, with his eyes firmly on not just the World Cup trophy, but individual awards such as the Golden Ball and a spot on the podium of the Balon d’Or.