France defeated Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday night in a match that failed to consistently scale the hoped-for heights while Croatia bounced back after conceding a fifth-minute goal to top England 2-1 in Extra Time, the third consecutive match to go beyond the normally alloted 90 minutes for the indefatigable Croats.
France 1-0 vs. Belgium
France and Belgium emerged from the tougher side of the draw with the Belgians Golden Generation riding high following a defend a counter master class against Brazil in the quarterfinal.
France handled Uruguay 2-0, and the sense was that Les Blues had yet to scale the heights that they are capable of.
That France punched its ticket to the World Cup Final with this feeling still in the air gives an indication of just how talented a group manager Didier Deschamps, who captained France to the 1998 World Cup title, has at his disposal.
Not to say that France did not play well on the day, they did with 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe tormenting the Belgian defense all match.
For Belgian boss Roberto Martinez some of the magic of his Brazil game plan seemed stale against France. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli failed to replicate big performances as subs in the epic comeback versus Japan and as starters against Brazil. For Fellaini that can be taken quite literally given that the big Manchester United man was beaten by Samuel Umtiti for the game-winning header.
Chadli had a nightmare, with even a decent corner kick too much to ask- why did he continue to take them?- while Moussa Dembele was a turnover machine in the center of the pitch for Belgium.
Of course, France deserves huge credit for forcing this lesser effort from Belgium. With talents like Mbappe augmenting speed with vision and trickery, see those sublime backheels, N’Golo Kante disrupting play after play, and players like Antoine Griezmann, and Paul Pogba, this France side is loaded and go into Sunday’s final as firm favorites.
Croatia 2 England 1
While France are deserved favorites, Deschamps men would do well to avoid overconfidence against Croatia, whose 2-1 victory over England was a testament to the skill, the fitness, and the mentality of Sunday’s underdogs.
All of those traits were put to the test when England jumped out to an early lead via a fine free-kick from Kieran Trippier. England would dominate much of the first half but were unable to add that crucial second goal, with Harry Kane somehow missing on a glorious double effort from Danijel Subasic’s doorstep.
Having survived the opening 45′ Croatia took the game to England on the resumption. Croatia’s vaunted midfield, Luca Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and in particular Man of the Match Ivan Perisic, led the way.
It was Perisic that knotted the score in the 68th minute, getting his foot to a dangerous cross from fullback Sime Vrsaljko. With over 20 minutes to play Croatia seemed the likelier of the two sides to find a winner inside the 90 scheduled minutes but it was not to be, and extra time loomed.
Much pregame chatter had focused on England’s supposed fitness advantage, given the demands made on Croatia’s stamina by consecutive penalty kick “wins.” Instead, it was Croatia that found a winner with Mario Mandzukic finishing after ghosting in behind statuesque England defender John Stones to finish from Perisic’s flicked header in the 109th minute.
After the victory, Croatia’s captain Luca Modric called out the English media for doubting his team’s ability to last the pace, saying “All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired.’ As I said, they should be more humble, and respect opponents more. That’s it.”
Favored or not, France would do well to heed Modric’s words.