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Of losers and hopeful champions

England and Belgium won people’s hearts, but missed the bus to the final. Who will take the cup home? Old favourites France, or first-timers Croatia?

MOSCOW: Finally, here we are — France will meet a determined Croatia in the World Cup final here at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.

The tournament has been an interesting one, with several of the former and defending champions being shown the door at the group stage or Round of 16.

Still, the European teams dominated, with all the first four slots occupied by them.

England has surprised everyone in the tournament with a very young side, who almost made their second final after 1966.
“Don’t look back in anger,” the fans sang to heartbroken players who stood drained and defeated in front of them on Wednesday night.

Different sides: France’s Samuel Umtiti celebrates; England’s players react after their defeat photos: AFP

Kieran Trippier had given them a lead fifth minute after start, but goals from Ivan Perisic (61st) and Mario Mandzukic (extra-time) handed them a 2-1 defeat.

England won hearts

Still, Gareth Southgate should be credited for guiding a young bunch of motivated players to the semis. They’re the cream of English football including their inspirational captain Harry Kane, who tops the scoring chart with six goals.
But the Tottenham Hotspur forward wasn’t able to find his scoring touch and missed a couple of chances including one header which went wide in stoppage time against Croatia.

The past English sides have been mocked and jeered not by their fans but by the pundits, who felt that the Three Lions are simply over-rated. It has been true at all the World Cups barring the 1990 edition (in Italy) where they had reached the last four.

A country which boasts of the best and richest leagues in the world has never been able to garner respect and awe from their opponents and football-lovers.

But Russia 2018 may change all that and with a positive road map, Rashfords, Allis and Trippiers stand to gain a lot.
Southgate, who was associated with his country’s junior development programmes, should be credited for inculcating a sense of discipline and confidence in the players.

“With experiences, they’re going to become only better in the next two years. There’s a lot of positives to take from this tournament,” said Southgate, one of the youngest managers at the World Cup.

If his side wins against Belgium in the third-match play-off in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, it will be a consolation prize but good enough to bolster English football.

Modric is ‘real’ star

Football is a cruel game where strikers and forwards steal the limelight and headlines. Croatia’s talismanic captain Luka Modric is one star player, who never took off his shirt or grinned in front of a camera. He doesn’t need to do all that rhetoric because the Real Madrid midfielder believes in a fine art which has painted a positive picture of his country’s football pedigree.
He was his usual, sensational self in midfield — doing the simple things well and seeing the game quicker than almost anyone else.

As one of the smallest nations to reach a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950, Croatia deserved every bit of that electrifying moment at Luzhniki, as the golden generation led by Modric stepped closer to glory.

With a population of 40 lakh people, it’s an incredible achievement for Zlatko Dalic and his boys. No wonder, the Croatians danced and celebrated their win over England which earned them a passport to their maiden final.

While the players received most of the plaudits, a word of praise for Dalic — an utter fairy tale for him.

He was hired for his country’s final two qualifying games, and now he’s taken them from narrowly avoiding missing the tournament to the final.

If Croatia can sustain the exhaustion on July 15 (they played 240 minutes in the last six days before the semis), they can even challenge France’s tactical brilliance.

Tactical superiority

France, guided and motivated by their manager and former World Cup-winning captain Didier Deschamps, marched into the third final since 1998.

The Les Bleus, who defeated Belgium 1-0 in a tight semi-final in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, would also want to repeat their 1998 performance.

After a rather slow start in the tournament, they emerged as one of the top teams, both in terms of solidity and approach.

Belgium, who were so good in the previous matches, found it difficult to cut through their backline even though Eden Hazard was in the thick of action.

“We don’t do everything right but of course there is a progression,” said Deschamps, who is on the threshold of winning the title as captain and coach, a feat achieved by Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer (1974 & 1990).

In fact, Deschamps’ tactical superiority has been the talk of the town after France came through some of the difficult games including their impressive wins over Argentina and Uruguay in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively.

“With our state of mind, we can climb mountains and that’s what we’ve done so far,” he added.

The Les Bleues had last won the title in 1998, at home, by beating Brazil 3-0 in the final. They are at the corridor of yet another glorious moment but before that Antoine Griezmann, Matuidi Blaise, Giroud or Kylian Mbappe will have to get past the likes of Modric, Mandzukic and Perisic.

If the teams play to their potential, it’s going to be one hell of a final. But let’s hope, it doesn’t end at the penalty shootouts like the Italy-Brazil one in 1994 because it isn’t the right kind of result on a grand occasion.

Umtiti ends Belgium campaign

There’s always a luck factor and this time too Belgium got stuck at the last four after Samuel Umtiti’s strong header knocked them out at the semi-final stage.

“The difference between the defeat or winning was down to one dead-ball situation. That’s how close the game was,” said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez.

It was a frustrating night for Eden Hazard and his team-mates, who couldn’t show the kind of form they did in the previous matches. They couldn’t unlock resolute French back-line.

But still Belgium, which boasts some exceptionally gifted players, won the hearts. Irrespective of the third-place result, Hazard and company will return home with their heads high.