So it’s down to two! We now know which two countries will vie for the World Cup on Sunday. I take a look at who they are and how they got there with a review of the two Semi Final splayed over the last two days.
Semi Final 1: France vs Belgium
Belgium started the game like a team possessed, powered mainly by Hazard’s darting runs down the left flank, which the French were finding too hot to handle. The same player flashed a shot wide with 15 minutes gone on the clock. Belgium looked menacing every time they attacked and France were reverting to defensive solidity to keep opponents out, barely able to string a move of their own. Varane managed to get his head on another curler to just tip it over the bar with Lloris scrambling behind his defender. Alderweireld swiveled and shot from near the penalty spot from the ensuing corner, but Lloris made a diving finger-tip stop to denying the Belgians. It was only after the half hour mark that the French started getting into the game. Mbappe played in Pavard inside the penalty box in the 39th minute. The defender had his goal bound shot just deflected by the thighs of Courtois to deny what looked like a sure goal. Just 5 minutes after the restart, France went ahead via a Samuel Umtiti header from a Griezman corner. The French defender got free of his marker and reached the ball before Fellaini who was lining up to clear it. Another five minutes later, Mbappe made probably the pass of the tournament to find Giroud inside the box, but the front-man could not get his shot away quickly enough, was blocked, and Courtois swatted away the rebound. The introduction of Mertens finally saw Belgium getting balls into the opposition box in the second half, via a string of crosses over a five minute period. Fellaini went closest to converting from one such cross, heading slightly wide from 18 yards. Belgium were unlucky not get a free-kick with 10 minutes to go, as Hazard was tackled late on the dge of the penalty area. The referee played advantage, and Witsel’s long range powerful effort saved by Lloris. France did not let Belgium have much of the ball following this, frustrating their opponents with possession, and the latter seemed to capitulate. Tolisso had a chance to put gloss on the result in the final minute of injury time, but his low shot was saved again by Courtois, who barely did anything wrong in the match. That was the last action of the game, and France now make their way to the final. Belgium looked like they could blitz their way through for the first half an hour, but lost momentum and then motivation as the match progressed. They’ve had a good tournament, but this is probably the end of their golden generation. For France, this is the second final in a row in a major tournament, following on from their final appearance at Euro ’16. Their golden generation is flourishing.
Final Score: France 1 – 0 Belgium
Semi Final 2: Croatia vs England
England got off to a dream start, with Kieron Trippier scoring from a free kick just outside the penalty box, leaving Subasic with no chance. England had the better of the play in the opening exchanges, with Croatia only able to get away attempts from distance. Their best chance fell to Rebic, who curled one from just outside the box, after an English defensive clearance, but the shot was straight at the ‘keeper. Kane wasted a golden opportunity to double his country’s lead, when he couldn’t slot into a gaping net, with Subasic on the floor and defenders well beaten. The goalkeeper recovered and got a toe to the English captain’s shot. The ball hit the post following the deflection off Subasic’s toe, and looped out of play. In the second half, England mainly backed and allowed Croatia to take control of the midfield and flanks. The English resorted to long balls and long distance defensive clearances even before an hour was up. Luka Modric, who was nearly invisible for the first hour, sprang into life and started orchestrating the Croatia midfield. In the 68th minute, Perisic got onto the end of a Vrsaljko cross and touched the ball into the net. The Croatian winger shook off his marker before getting in front of Walker, who was stooping to head the ball away. The English defense had perhaps its first shaky moment of the game and they were punished! Perisic nearly gave Croatia the lead just 4 minutes later, as he ran at Walker and fired a low shot on goal. Pickford was beaten but the ball came back off the post. Rebic tapped the rebound straight to Pickford. Mandzukic had a chance 10 minutes later, but his shot was straight at Pickford as well. England had one last chance from a free-kick in injury but Kane headed well wide. The first half of extra-time was mainly uneventful, except for an injury time chance for Mandzukic. The Croatian forward reached an excellent Perisic cross, which had evaded all defenders, but the striker’s touch was excellently saved by the advancing Pickford. There was a collision between the players, and Mandzukic came off worse, leading to an extended delay. The Croatian dusted himself off and got on with it eventually. And he made the telling impact 3 minutes into second half extra time. Perisic headed a ball over Walker into a dangerous area from the left flank. Mandzukic beat the off side trap and shot past Pickford from six yards. The ensuing Croatian celebrations knocked a cameraman off his seat, but he got a kiss from Vida and a kind word from Mandzukic to make up for it. England huffed and puffed for the rest of the game, but the best chances fell to Croatia to extend their lead. A last minute free-kick came to nothing, as the referee blew the whistle as soon as the clearance was made. Croatia were going to a World Cup final for the first time in their history. Football would be coming home, but to an English home. The English had a much better tournament from their recent outings but the lack of a killer instinct was clear for all to see. If they can build on this performance, and grow in the future, then there is hope for them to keep performing at this level in the near future. Gareth Southgate has to be applauded for building a team and not a collection of individuals. As far as Croatia are concerned, this is the biggest moment of their footballing history.
Final Score: Croatia 2 – 1 England