England’s World Cup semi-finalists are planning a low-key return from Russia on Sunday.
Gareth Southgate’s young squad ripped up the script to reach the tournament’s last four for the first time since 1990, losing to Croatia after extra time in Moscow on Wednesday evening.
But their return will be a much quieter affair than the one that greeted Sir Bobby Robson’s side after their heroics in Italy.
England are due to fly from St Petersburg to Birmingham on Sunday – the day after facing Belgium in the third-place play-off – and the Football Association has confirmed that there will be no public access for fans, given airport security restrictions.
There are also no public celebrations planned despite the Three Lions’ impressive achievements in Russia, which could yet see them become the most successful team since the 1966 champions.
As the World Cup draws to its conclusion there’s another way to get your football fix – by keeping your ear to the ground for the latest transfer stories.
There’s a near competitive-football-free month for most of Europe’s clubs – and beyond – to get deals done, and it could spark a mad scramble with the Premier League’s transfer window slamming shut on August 9.
Here, we look at the latest transfer deals that could happen very soon.
According to the Daily Mail, Real have been suitably impressed by Eden Hazard after the Chelsea star lit up the World Cup with ankle-breaking dribbles for Belgium.
Hazard, 27, has two years left on his contract at Chelsea. But as the club prepares for the Maurizio Sarri era, it could cost the La Liga powerhouse £150 million to grab their Cristiano Ronaldo replacement from London.
Harry Maguire to Manchester United speculation has frequented these pages in the last few months but, now England’s World Cup dreams are over, it is set to gather more pace.
Daily Mail columnist Charlie Sale says the Red Devils are ‘expected’ to stump up £50m for the large-skulled defender who is called ‘Slabhead’ by his Leicester team-mate Jamie Vardy.
With Phil Jones and Chris Smalling consistently injured and inconsistently good, World Cup stand-out Maguire could be moving to Old Trafford just one year on from leaving Hull for £17m.
Digne only mustered 20 appearances for Barca last year, well behind in favour compared to Jordi Alba, and could not even make the France squad ahead of a half-fit Benjamin Mendy.
He’s been offered an escape route by Everton – with a 33-year-old Leighton Baines coming to the end of his career and Celtic’s Kieran Tierney thought too pricey at £25m.
Although the World Cup trophy is the ultimate prize in Sunday’s showdown between France and Croatia, there are two players on opposing sides who will be battling to get their hands on another, individual accolade.
Zinedine Zidane – the 2006 recipient despite his tournament ending in disgrace when he was sent off for a brutal headbutt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the final – may well not be too far from the thoughts of either player this weekend.
Zidane is the only previous Frenchman to win it and played a pivotal role as a maiden World Cup trophy was lifted by Les Bleus on home soil 20 years ago, which will surely spur Mbappe on to want to continue casting his bewitching brilliance over the tournament.
Modric, meanwhile, has been a key figure under Zidane as Real Madrid dominated Europe in recent seasons by claiming three straight Champions League titles.
He has also proven his brilliance after emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to cast his own with Croatia this summer.
Both have taken a firm grip on this World Cup like all elite talents have done previously – Brazilian Ronaldo, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Ferenc Puskas to name but a few.
Mbappe embodies football’s new breed, one that may finally be set to bring Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s duopoly on the global game to an end in 2018 and beyond.
However, while the early exits from World Cup 2018 of Argentina and Portugal may signal a changing of the old guard and have paved the way to glory for Mbappe and France, there remains a small yet mighty obstacle in the Paris Saint-Germain striker’s path towards claiming the Golden Ball – Croatia’s creator in chief.
The 32-year-old Modric has conjured some colossal performances in helping his nation into a first World Cup final in their fledgling history, prodding and probing defences to death as the unfancied Vatreni (The Blazers) fight for the chance to see how World Cup gold fits them this Sunday.
You cannot help but marvel at mainstays Ronaldo and Messi, who have been magnificent for the game. They have shared the last 10 Ballon d’Ors between them – winning five apiece.
But while it must be accepted, their dominance has also been somewhat monotonous as no other players – whether justified or unwarranted – have been able to shine in their considerable shadows.
But with the two heavyweights now watching from afar, Mbappe and Modric have made the stage their own. And the race between them is a close one.
Both have bedazzled.
Mbappe is still just about in with a shout of surpassing Harry Kane as top scorer – though he’ll need to score a hat-trick in the final and hope the Three Lions striker doesn’t roar against Belgium in Saturday’s third-place play-off.
His three goals have come courtesy of only six shots, only one of which failed to find the target. Strike partner Antoine Griezmann also has three goals but has rained 20 shots down on goal.
His 4.7 average dribbles per game leads France as does his 46 total dribbles, staggeringly 36 more than any other French player, with 28 successful. Against Belgium he delivered six key passes, three more than anyone else.
And his blistering pace has caused no end of concern for opposition defences, with Mbappe regularly and gracefully gliding by defenders.
Modric, meanwhile, has manipulated opponents as cunning and courageous Croatia have both blown away and broken down opponents – all three of their knockout stage encounters going to extra-time.
England started brightly in Wednesday’s semi-final, but after failing to build on their one-goal lead, Modric was allowed to exert his excellence on the game after the interval and orchestrated another battling victory.
At 63km, he has covered more distance than any player at this World Cup. He has also played more minutes, 604 to be precise, which is 49 more than anyone else. Unsurprisingly his 2.7 average key passes per game leads Croatia.
Mbappe’s burgeoning brilliance is a clear indicator that sweeping change is imminent. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Griezmann (all 27), Neymar (26), Paul Pogba (25) and Harry Kane (24) have all simmered at some point in the Russian sun.
Of Mbappe’s generation, meanwhile, he has an able support cast in emerging talents Hirving Lozano (22), Ousmane Dembele, Gabriel Jesus (both 21), Marcus Rashford (20) and Achraf Hakimi (19), all of whom might well threaten future Ballon d’Or ballots.
But with the younger generation on the brink of taking over, it has been refreshing to see Modric’s magnificence come to the fore this summer.
The Croatia of 2018 are already assured of outshining the country’s golden generation of 20 years ago, which featured such silky players as Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban.
Modric is the master tailor of this generation and if he can stitch together his side on Sunday and help them become the ninth winners of the World Cup, it will prove his greatest work.
If either messiah can sprinkle their golden touch on Sunday’s final, they may just be taking two trophies home with them.