After 64 games, 169 goals and a smorgasbord of shocks, World Cup 2018 is over.
France are champions, football isn’t coming home (for the 13th time in succession) and Brazil superstar Neymar is presently rolling past the Andromeda Galaxy if the plethora of memes sparked by his infamously-low pain threshold are to be taken literally.
Forget 2014’s golden Copacabana Beach and – slightly – superior goals-per-game average of 2.7. Ignore the fact that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo barely made it past the second week.
Kylian Mbappe, Luka Modric, Eden Hazard and Philippe Coutinho’s sparkling efforts made sure their early exits did not kill the lights.
Same with the commendable granite exhibited by the incomparable Diego Godin, or the confirmation of Raphael Varane’s defensive talents.
This was the tournament when the globe fell back in love with the international game. And you don’t need to refer that call to the Video Assistant Referee.
Croatia became the lowest-ranked finalist on record. They also entered Luzhniki Stadium for the showpiece as the smallest population since Uruguay in 1950.
Belgium’s third place was their best-ever finish. England didn’t end 52 years of hurt, but did prevent their absence from the semi-finals extending into a fourth decade.
Hosts Russia were the lowest-ranked team in November’s draw. They responded with a 5-0 opening destruction of Saudi Arabia that set the cast for what was to come, began the knockouts with a penalty-shootout win against Spain – burned by head coach Julen Lopetegui’s tumultuous defection to Real Madrid on the eve of the event – and went out via the same method to Croatia.
The 2006 and 2010 dour runnings felt like a chore, in comparison.
7 - Eden Hazard has been directly involved in seven goals at the World Cup (three goals, four assists); the joint-most of any Belgium player since 1966 (Jan Ceulemans also with seven). Rocket. #BELENG #BEL #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/Gaz8VqtsSE— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 14, 2018
There was something for everyone. Even holders Germany, egos bruised by finishing last in Group F, will always have that special night in Sochi with Toni Kroos.
So too, the travelling circus of Argentina.
With Diego Maradona cast as ringmaster in the stands and auxiliary head coach Javier Mascherano ossifying in front of our eyes, the incongruous sight of left-footed centre-back Marcos Rojo racing up to plant a decisive 86th-minute, right-footed volley into the Nigeria goal perfectly summed up the bedlam which defined this La Albiceleste.
A false dawn. But one which ended with the highest-scoring game in Russia as their insanity infected staid France – kings of the clean sheet with four and participants in the only 0-0 draw against Denmark – in the round of 16 and a starlet went supernova through two-goal-teenager Kylian Mbappe.
Belgium were the grand entertainers, even outgunning pre-tournament favourites Brazil in the last-eight. Even an unseemly race to finish second with England in Group G could not detract
Rapture wasn’t the sole preserve of the established names. Fans from South and Central America flooded into Russia as Europeans shied away, terrified by scare stories which bore no relation to the reality inside sterilised ‘FIFA-land’.
A carnival erupted at Nizhny Novogorod Stadium when veteran Felipe Baloy became the first Panama international to strike in a World Cup. No matter it was the consolation in a 6-1 thrashing by England.
As has become de rigueur, Mexico exited in the second round – for the seventh-successive occasion. But what memories were created in the process by the tactically bold dispatching of Germany which sent the champions into a tailspin during their opening game.
This set the blueprint for what was to come from so many nations.
Japan were emboldened by April’s removal of the stern Vahid Halilhodzic and boosted by Carlos Sanchez’s red card in the opening Group H-triumph against Colombia.
Pre-event gloom was lifted by the Samurai Blue’s return to their traditional, passing values. A lack of nous and physicality saw a 2-0, round-of-16 lead evaporate against resurgent Belgium.
They will come again.
Regional rivals South Korea went for broke in a mission improbable against Germany when Group F finished. A 2-0 win and shot in the arm for Asian football were earned, no matter that their Russian journey ended on that glorious day in Kazan.
Disappointments came along the way.
This was the first time since 1982 Africa failed to provide any entrants to the knockouts. A continent continues to move in reverse since Pele’s prediction one of their number “will win the World Cup before the year 2000”.
Favourites Brazil were short on the expected entertainment, while Neymar’s gamesmanship left a sour taste.
The way his antics were treated evidences this World Cup’s great gift for the future.
Beyond the empty vessels provided by the usual Luddites, the introduction of VAR provided plenty more positives than negatives.
It came up with the correct call to deny Neymar’s histrionics against penalty, for starters. When mistakes were made, such as Cedric Soares’ handball against Iran, they could usually be boiled down to human error.
Whether through Mbappe et al’s ascension or technology’s inspection, a brave new World awaits. In all aspects.
After 63 matches across a month of enhtralling action, the World Cup 2018 final is almost upon us.
Here, we pick out the key battles before France and Croatia meet on Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium:
KYLIAN MBAPPE v LUKA MODRIC
The dawn of a new era seemingly awaits for football.
With Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi gone by the round of 16, not since Kaka in 2007 has the identity of the Ballon D’or winner been so open. France teenager Kylian Mbappe represents the electric face of the future after his displays in Russia.
The 19-year-old’s brace against Argentina stands as the highlight. This was history in the making, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward becoming the youngest player to score twice in a World Cup game since the incomparable Pele in 1958.
Defences have been terrorised in patches since. A state of affairs that isn’t helped by boss Didier Deschamps’ safety-first tactics.
Steal the show on Sunday and he could steal the Ballon d’Or.
An outstanding career has been building up to this point.
Modric, 32, has been a centre midfielder par excellence in Russia and is a top contender for the Golden Ball. By the completion of the semi-finals, he led the way in the tournament for: distance covered (63 kilometres), minutes played (604) and the most accurate set-pieces taken (30).
This number is added to by the fact that his two goals makes him Croatia’s joint-leading scorer, plus he’d created the fourth-most chances at the event with 16.
France midfielders Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kante will be tasked with keeping Modric quiet. A task no team has managed to complete in Russia during the last month.
PAUL POGBA v IVAN RAKITIC
Accommodating the free-wheeling talents of Paul Pogba has been a demanding task, for club and country.
The former holder of the world’s-most-expensive-player tag underwhelmed at Euro 2016 in a deep role and in a number of stations for Manchester United. But at last in Russia, the utilisation of anchor man Kante and ubiquitous marker Matuidi has freed him up to perform a box-to-box role.
Pogba’s average per game of 1.6 key passes is the best among the established XI, plus he’s been fouled a leading 2.8 times per match. These are traits necessary to defeat Croatia.
Ivan Rakitic has selflessly performed a support role in midfield, despite his exalted standing at Barcelona.
He’s either sat deep with the peerless Modric, or moved slightly further up when defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic has been present.
Of most interest to boss Zlatko Dalic will be Rakitic’s big-game poise. His pedigree at Barca has been exemplified by calmly dispatching the winning penalty in shootouts against Denmark and Russia.
OLIVIER GIROUD v MARIO MANDZUKIC
Mario Mandzukic remains the marathon man for Croatia.
His warrior instincts up top for his nation were on show, once again, in the semi-final against England. After being bravely crocked in a collision with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford during extra time, the Juventus man dusted himself off and was awake to John Stones’ error to lash in the winner.
At 32-years old, he’s toiled during three-successive added periods. But a tally of two goals and one assists points to his continued value.
France’s Olivier Giroud would love such statistics.
The centre forward currently sits on zero shots on target from 465 minutes of action in Russia. He’s even embraced comparisons with infamously goalless centre forward Stephen Guivarc’h when Les Bleus lifted the trophy back in 1998.
Giroud’s propensity to hold up the ball is cherished by Deschamps. This means it will be a huge shock if he is dropped in Moscow, no matter his inability to trouble the scorers.
Here are the talking points ahead of football’s grandest fixture, at Moscow’s 78,011-capacity Luzhniki Stadium.
HEAVYWEIGHT AGAINST UNDERDOG
The contrast between the nations is stark.
Croatia declared independence in 1991 and are bidding to claim their first major international trophy. Their only previous trip to the World Cup’s knockouts came 20 years ago, when a double from legendary right-back Lilian Thuram – his 142 caps contain no more goals – earned hosts France a 2-1, come-from-behind semi-final triumph.
Les Bleus have been in three of the last six global showpieces, gaining glory at Stade de France in 1998. They also surprisingly lost Euro 2016’s decider 1-0 on home soil to a Portugal side who missed injured superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo after the 25-minute mark.
This disparity continues to the dugout, where France’s Didier Deschamps is bidding to become just the third person to win the World Cup as a player and head coach.
Unifying Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic has been in charge for the past nine months, his last job coming at Al Ain from March 2014-January 2017. He successfully gained qualification via the play-offs after he inherited a fragmented squad from the divisive Ante Cacic.
Real Madrid conductor Luka Modric, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus warrior Mario Mandzukic stand-up to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain starlet Kylian Mbappe, Manchester United No6 Paul Pogba and Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann.
But the CIES Football Observatory handed France’s squad a leading valuation of €1.4 billion, way ahead of Croatia’s €416 million in 10th place.
Vatreni (The Blazers) are the lowest-ranked country on record to make the final.
They are the first team since England in 1990 whose three knockout matches have gone to extra time. No other side at World Cups has recovered from 1-0 down to advance from the round of 16, quarter-final and semi-final.
France’s squad averages 283 minutes-per-man in Russia. For their opponents, this figure rises to 331. With a population of four million, Croatia are also the smallest nation to make the decider since Uruguay in 1950.
However, not all hope of an upset is lost. Propitiously, Uruguay then inflicted the ‘Maracanazo’ on organisers Brazil and prevailed.
This running has seen holders Germany defeated by Mexico and South Korea, exiting ignominiously in last place from Group F. The 2010 champions Spain lost on penalties to lowly ranked hosts Russia in the round of 16, plus unfancied England made the last-four.
Croatia were not even tipped to proceed that far. Now, they must seize this shot at history.
IT’S NOT JUST THE MBAPPE V MODRIC SHOW
A major narrative coming into this grandstand event is the battle between rising PSG superstar Mbappe and Madrid metronome Modric.
It’s one which could decide the destiny of the World Cup, plus break the decade-long duopoly Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have held on the Ballon d’Or.
But the aforementioned pair will be the first to acknowledge that key members of each support cast will provide the foundations for them to prosper.
In Juventus’ Blaise Matuidi and Internazionale’s Marcelo Brozovic, two of the globe’s premier defensive-minded midfielders will be on show.
Matuidi was introduced to the France XI for the 1-0 win against Peru, their second commitment in Group C. His tireless drive as the man marker has added necessary balance.
It’s allowed Pogba the security to flourish as a box-to-box midfielder, plus aid the team’s transition in and out of possession from a defensive 4-2-3-1 to an offensive 4-4-2 formation.
Croatia have lacked fluidity whenever Brozovic has started from the bench, such as the opening 2-0 win against Nigeria and quarter-final against Russia.
His presence absolves Modric of most defensive duties and Rakitic of some.
WHERE IT WILL BE WON AND LOST
The themes of this final are easy to spot.
France’s four clean sheets is the most in the competition. The opening/only goal in both the quarter-final – versus Uruguay – and semi-final – versus Belgium – were scored from a set-piece by a centre-back.
Griezmann has three strikes, but sporadically sparkled. Centre forward Olivier Giroud has yet to register a shot on target from 465 minutes of action.
Only when 2-1 down against ramshackle Argentina in the round of 16 have France moved into top gear. Then, three goals followed in nine minutes.
As witnessed when checking Belgium’s momentum in the last-four, Deschamps minimises risk and does the minimum to win.
Croatia exert control in midfield through Brozovic, Rakitic and Modric. Right-back Sime Vrsaljko is tasked with advancing from deep, coming up with major plays in the previous two rounds.
Wide men Ivan Perisic – who got a goal and assist on Wednesday versus England – and Ante Rebic are told to attack the penalty box. Their stature and pace will worry France’s full-backs.
Croatia average more possession (54.5/51.3 per cent) and shots per game (16.5/12.3) in Russia. Disciplined France hold the edge in tackles per game (16.7/14.7) and pass accuracy (82.9/80.8 per cent).
In boxing, styles make fights. This box-office bout at the Luzhniki should be worthy of the occasion.