As soon as France lifted the World Cup to the sky, silly season went into overdrive.
Some of the brightest sparks in Russia have been linked to big moves and in a series of daily features, we reflect on their time at the tournament – and which teams should be poking around for their services.
WORLD CUP OVERVIEW
We’re hardly likely to forget one of the biggest thrashings dished out at this summer’s World Cup, as Croatia tortured international juggernauts Argentina 3-0.
Ante Rebic’s thunderous volley is the standout moment from that game, but he almost didn’t make the tournament. He wasn’t a favourite of previous coach Ante Cacic, but all that changed when former Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic came in and breathed life into a stuttering qualifying campaign last October.
Rebic was brought in from the cold and he was one of the players to catch fire during the tournament – pretty impressive considering the illustrious team-mates he has around him.
His seemingly ceaseless appetite for work and excellent engine were traits that proved pivotal to Croatia motoring into a first-ever World Cup final.
RATINGS FROM THE ARCHIVE
Croatia 2 Nigeria 0
7 – Worked hard and fashioned goalscoring opportunities for himself but failed to hit the target. Completed two dribbles though somehow managed to avoid getting booked despite committing five fouls.
Croatia 3 Argentina 0
8 – Very fortunate to escape horror first-half challenge on Eduardo Salvio but then popped up with superb winner following horrendous Willy Caballero mistake.
Croatia 2 Iceland 1
N/A – Did not play
Round of 16
Croatia 1 Denmark 1 (Croatia win 3-2 on penalties)
6 – Industrious as ever on that right flank and played a part in the equaliser. Always a willing runner and did well to win the penalty deep into extra-time.
Croatia 2 Russia 2 (Croatia win 4-3 on penalties)
6 – Didn’t quite scale the same heights of previous games in the tournament. His impact here was more as a willing, tireless runner than to produce anything spectacular.
Croatia 2 England 1
5 – Fired in several wild shots and could do nothing with the rebound when Perisic’s second-half shot hit the woodwork.
France 4 Croatia 2
5 – Has been a constant threat this month and jointly led Croatia in dribbles (2), but lacked the incision he has brought to this side.
WORLD CUP STATS
Rebic’s World Cup form mirrors that of his 2017/18 club season with Frankfurt, where he was a vital part of the Eagles’ flight to eighth place, their best finish in five seasons.
They will be playing Europa League football next season for the first time in five years and Rebic is a huge reason for that, scoring a brace as Frankfurt memorably beat Bayern Munich 3-1 to claim a fifth DFB Pokal title.
His 1.5 dribbles per game last term led Frankfurt and was 16th overall in the Bundesliga, which in turn led to him being fouled on average 1.4 times per game. He bagged six league goals, third only behind forwards Sebastien Haller and Luka Jovic, while he was also one of the hardest working, making 1.5 tackles per game.
He’s a menace – As evidenced in Russia, Rebic is a pest with a penchant for scoring. He is tireless, tenacious and will be a nuisance in both attack and defence. He committed more fouls (21) than any other player so he’s probably going to see yellow often, but he doesn’t know when to quit.
That can also be a virtue on the other side of the ball, with Rebic leading Croatia at the World Cup in dribbles (3.2 per game) while only Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic were fouled more times (1.8 per game), so full-backs won’t be getting any respite. Neither, perhaps, will goalkeepers as his 2.5 shots per game was second most.
Passing – Rebic has a lot of plus points for prospective teams eying him up, but they will not be signing him for his passing range and vision. His pass success rate at the World Cup with Croatia was a woeful 59.8 per cent, and that was not an anomaly.
His figure of 56.9 per cent from the Bundesliga last season was even worse. Luckily, with his ability as a counter-attacking, ball-winning winger, he was able to leave the job of keeping and utilising possession to the likes of Perisic and Luka Modric.
Frankfurt are said to value the winger at around £44 million, but after helping the Vatreni (the Blazers) reach the final, that figure could easily rise.
Manchester United are certainly keen to try some Croats on for size with a double swoop for both Rebic and Ivan Perisic for a combined £92m in the offing. If United are prized out of a move for the Inter Milan wideman, Rebic could be a more viable option.
And Red Devils coach Jose Mourinho will definitely value his pace on the counter and industry.
After a 2017 summer of relative inactivity, Tottenham can’t afford to fall behind in 2018. Mauricio Pochettino’s speedy attack is orchestrated by Christian Eriksen and spearheaded by Harry Kane. And Rebic’s boundless energy and incisive running could help create chaos.
Napoli ultimately fell short of wrestling the Serie A crown from undisputed kings Juventus last season, but came mighty close. Carlo Ancelotti has replaced Maurizio Sarri and with Dries Mertens possibly off, the relentless Rebic would be a welcome addition to a bustling array of fast forwards that includes Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon.
If the Nerazzurri struggle to keep hold of Perisic, then they would do well to keep it Croatian when looking for a replacement. Perisic has been a tireless up-and-down winger during his time at the San Siro and they would get a like-for-like player in Rebic.
With the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup, we rank all 32 teams with 17-32 in this installment as Egypt hit rock bottom but Morocco are surprise high movers.
Fortune favours the brave and perhaps had Aliou Cisse’s side followed that mantra they would not have needed to rely on the agony of exiting on yellow cards.
A win over Poland was deserved but they lacked discipline beyond bookings to twice surrender an advantage against Japan and then regrettably retreated in the decider with Colombia. They are at the forefront of African football so they were missed in the knockouts.
Morocco were the dark horse tip to emerge from a group of sharks but it was Iran who actually came closest with four points.
Carlos Queiroz sent out of his side to strangle rather than entertain. Their discipline delivered against the Atlas Lions and they battled well against Spain before almost embarrassing Portugal. Sardar Azmoun didn’t score but at 23 impressed with his aerial prowess and protection of the ball as the loneliest frontman in Russia.
Bold to have Morocco so high on the list considering they were bottom of Group B with a point, but context is everything.
Herve Renard’s limited tactics infuriated long before the own goal against Iran yet they battered Portugal. A genuine No9 married to their enterprise would have seen them challenge and the 2-2 draw with Spain – owed only to late VAR controversy – showed what this talented crop is capable of.
Peru didn’t capture a knockout spot but they did conquer our hearts.
Their fervent fans brought plenty of personality to Russia and it was replicated on the pitch through their attacking endeavour. A missed penalty in the 1-0 loss to Denmark was ruinous and by the time they found a finish to their flow against Australia, the damage was done.
The swirling hype created by their vibrant kits was immediately drained away by the colourless opening defeat to Croatia.
However, a shift from 4-2-3-1 into a 3-5-2 for the second half of the Iceland clash saw them burst into life with Ahmed Musa a lethal weapon on the counter. They needed to draw with Argentina but crumbled. However, this is a young exuberant side, one for the future rather than the present.
Few teams frustrated like Serbia. The man mountain Sergej Milinkovic-Savic arrived with a big reputation but failed to build on his eye-catching display against Costa Rica before missed chances cost them dearly against Switzerland.
Brazil caught fire as they cooled off in the final fixture but had they not collapsed against the Swiss in the second game, they’d have gone through.
23) South Korea
A tough group so expectations were understandably kept to a minimum. But while they were impotent against Mexico and Sweden, struggling to create the same attacking atmosphere Son Heung-min enjoys at Spurs, against Germany they got it together in a big way for the shock of the tournament.
Goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo is an emerging star, too.
Iceland were far from the limited side many predicted and while their tower of strength was predictably at the back, they meshed their steel with a cutting counter-attack style.
The high point, of course, was drawing with Argentina. Hannes Thor Halldorsson’s save to deny Lionel Messi will live long in the memory but they could have harvested more from this tournament were it not the second-half capitulation against Nigeria.
The Germany blueprint may not need ripping but it is certainly back to the drawing board after the holders finished bottom of Group F.
Indeed, they unravelled spectacularly against Mexico, were suffocated by Sweden before South Korea embarrassed them. Joachim Low made tactical blunders so their ignominious exit was uncharacteristic rather than systemic. They’ll be back but their dire defence will take some forgetting.
Robert Lewandowski evaporated defenders in qualification and for Bayern Munich so it was a shock to see him disappear in Russia.
Yet blame is apportioned to Adam Nawalk because given the talent at his disposal it was scandalous that they lacked any coherent plan other than to lump hopeless balls from the back.
27) Saudi Arabia
The lowest ranked side in the tournament were set to become the World Cup’s worst ever team after being hammered by the hosts to open the competition.
But they gave a good account of themselves against Uruguay and then grabbed a memorable win over Egypt to ensure a much more rosier outlook for the Green Falcons.
Unlucky against the Three Lions with Harry Kane pouncing to secure three points, a draw would have changed the complexion of Group G entirely.
As it was, though, Nabil Maaloul’s anaemic attack was always going to struggle and alongside a porous defence, they were indebted to Panama’s ineptitude for their three points.
29) Costa Rica
Oscar Ramirez opted for cold caution and although they were a little unlucky against Brazil with that style, ultimately they heated up when on the attack, as they did against Switzerland when it was far too late after the group opener defeat to Serbia proved a high-priced result.
The managerial merry-go-round was never going to be conducive of a good tournament but Australian fans would have expected more than the point garnered against Denmark.
Bert van Marwijk’s pragmatic approach and bizarre substitutions blunted any promise and it was shame we didn’t see more from teenage talent Daniel Arzani.
Purely because the expectations were so low anyway, their credible performance in defeat to Tunisia lifts from the bottom. They were shapeless and shocking against Belgium and England but in scoring against the latter and in their final game, they deserve some praise to avoid being this tournament’s worst team.
If the size of support equated to shape of success then Egypt would be inside the top 10.
However, Hector Cuper’s counter-attacking style lost its focal point with Mohamed Salah struggling to shoulder the burden through injury and their tragic campaign ended with appropriate last-minute disaster against Saudi Arabia.
Much more was hoped for from the Pharaohs, even with their Egyptian King struggling and so having scored the same goals with just a point more than Panama, they sit bottom.
You almost feel a little cheated by Les Bleus because even when Hugo Lloris hoisted the World Cup into the Moscow deluge, you were still left with a sense of unfulfillment.
Given their thrilling talent, the fact Didier Deschamps played one way, by sitting back and countering through the piercing pace of Kylian Mbappe, it was almost a disservice to their rich skill.
But they found a way to win at every step and that is the hallmark of an ultimate tournament team. Stylish football is left for the domestic leagues of a weekly schedule but in the international arena, gold is the only currency and the only stars which matter is the one above the badge.
No, you’re not reading this wrong, Belgium are indeed second despite exiting in the semi-finals. The justification is twofold, firstly because of their arduous route and secondly because of their progressive style and entertainment value.
The devil is in the details. The only difference between them and France was a dead ball situation and with a bit more luck in front of goal, they would have been through.
Reputations were enhanced – Martinez was acclaimed as the innovative coach he is, Eden Hazard rose to global superstar status while Kevin De Bruyne confirmed his standing as the world’s best attacking midfielder and Romelu Lukaku as a complete and deadly No9.
They were a level above England and more than a match for the champions. It’s silver from us, but in reality just a bronze for the golden generation after clinching third.
Harsh perhaps to have Croatia at third considering their remarkable run to the final but Belgium just edged it. Zlatko Dalic guided his men through a difficult group through controlled aggression. Their big stars turned up big time, too, the stock of both Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic rose exponentially.
However, take away the mighty effort of coming through three extra-time marathons in the knockouts and their route was far easier than Belgium’s. They can be immensely proud of their effort, though, and for the first-half against France they actually won the midfield battle before running out of steam.
Plenty of tears but once they are wiped, Croatia can wear a face of pure pride.
“An ugly blend of a tepid attack, fragile defence, inconsistent goalkeeping and a dull style”.
This author knows nothing. Indeed, that was the verdict predicted for the hosts pre-tournament and in my defence, no one quite expected what was to transpire. Surviving the ignominy of becoming just the second hosts to exit in the group stage was the minimum aim.
Yet through astute tactical tweaks and a star turn from Denis Cheryshev, they secured six points in the group stage, progressed to shock Spain in the last 16 before falling on penalties to Croatia. For the flip of the script alone, they warrant their place inside the top five.
Alas it did not come home but in uniting a side bursting with promise, Gareth Southgate brought a nation together. Fans back in England sang in hope rather than expectation because in hindsight, the Three Lions overachieved at this World Cup.
It is futile to mount the argument they failed to get past top-level opponents as reason for pessimism because it is the likes of Sweden and Tunisia, England have traditionally struggled to put away in recent years.
The penalty shoot-out success over Colombia felt like the closing of one chapter and the opening of another. There are plenty more words to be scribed about these young and hungry Lions.
Like a fire through a bush, pre-tournament favourites were being burnt by upsets and although Brazil made it through to the quarters, a Neymar-led side was extinguished by Belgium.
Neymar’s stock plummeted in Russia. The leading man he was, but fit for a movie screen rather than the pitch such was his propensity to dive to the deck. Philippe Coutinho had a far more positive impact and if he had the arrogance of Neymar, perhaps Brazil would have gone deeper.
Still, they were one of the best balanced sides, were a touch unlucky against Belgium and with Tite at the helm are sure to be challengers in 2022.
Were it not for the devastating injury to Edinson Cavani in the last-16 clash with Portugal, the South Americans could have been looking at the final.
The iron heart of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez led a backline which didn’t concede once in the group stages and they did a job on Portugal through Cavani’s deadly double. They lost their zip and energy when he failed to return against France and a Fernando Muslera howler hardly helped their cause.
However, a golden era is has ended and one wonders whether Uruguay will stand a better chance than this in years to come.
Sweden were without a superstar but they gained a team in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Indeed, who needs a lion when you’ve got a warrior as the rugged and tough Andreas Granqvist who was a star at centre-half. Firepower from the forward ranks was always going to be a big concern, Marcus Berg was particularly gun shy, but their blend of strength and power took them to the quarters before falling to England.
The Swedes embodied the trend of smaller nations arriving well-disciplined and in great physical condition.
El Tri pulled up trees when they eviscerated Germany with their lightning tempo and technical talents.
Then they struggled to get through South Korea and were ripped apart by Sweden. Had they have continued their aggressive style into the last-16, perhaps they could have finally rid themselves of their knockout curse but Brazil sliced through with ease and cut them out of the tournament.
Oh the pain of Spain. Tipped by many, including this humbled author, to add a second star, the acrimonious defection of manager Julen Lopetegui to Real Madrid on the eve of the tournament did indeed throw them off the rails.
They just about kept it together for the group stages but then La Furia Roja created fury with their pointless possession as they struggled to find an inroad through a resolute Russia in the last-16 before exiting on penalties. Had Lopetegui remained in charge, things may have been different but as it is, this was a tournament to forget.
Lucky colours are embellished in Japanese culture and they came to hallmark their tournament. The red card for Colombia in their opener aided them greatly, the yellow card rule saw them progress from Group H but then they were undone, albeit in heroic circumstances, by the Red Devils.
Their inventive 4-2-3-1, which morphed into a 3-3-1-3 in attack, lent well to their fast and technical players with Takashi Inui a real gem of a forward. A lot of people’s second team and justifiably so.
Only once did Colombia really produce their effervescent best and it was one of the tournament’s most outstanding performances as they ripped apart Poland.
But without James Rodriguez, a creative black hole emerged and Los Cafeteros did well to make the last-16. Without their key man, they struggled for ideas against England and save for Yerry Mina’s intervention deservedly went out. It could have been a different story if James was fit.
Initially it seemed Fernando Santos could fester another grim but effective tournament team. Cristiano Ronaldo was in fine fettle and appeared a man possessed in pursuit of another trophy, but outside of the captain, they were pretty poor. Goncalo Guedes promised much failed to deliver as he struggled as Ronaldo’s sidekick.
They were fast and furious against Spain but then barely held on against both Morocco and Iran before running into a clinical Cavani in the last 16 to bow out.
An attack stuck in neutral was the assessment of Switzerland before the World Cup but Vladimir Petkovic released the breaks and a slick outfit steered from nowhere and into the last-16.
They impressively swept aside Serbia and held a brilliant Brazil but did lose momentum to draw with Costa Rica. Yet in the end it was a shock they went out to Sweden but their displays beforehand were pleasantly surprising.
The fact you will struggle to commit a single memory of Denmark’s campaign is indicative of their tournament.
They were solid, as you’d expect, but far from spectacular with Christian Eriksen a central figure not helped by his support cast.
The win over Peru was a real snatch and grab while they drew with a poor Australia team and an already-qualified France. Kasper Schmeichel was excellent against Croatia and it’s that game alone which places them at 15.
Jorge Sampaoli lost the plot, lost control and then inevitably lost his job as La Albiceleste stumbled into the last-16 and were then wiped out by France. It is beyond belief Sampaoli was not able to mesh them into challengers with the tools of talent at his disposal but they were an utter mess.
Shapeless in midfield, his stubbornness to play from the back was suicidal while the cowardice of some players to cede all pressure to Lionel Messi was appalling.