The last time I wrote a piece about the world cup, there were 122 goals from the group stages alone. Fast forward a day before the first semi-final, that tally has increased to 157 goals. That is how far the world cup has gone with just four matches left before the curtain is drawn on what has been a breathtaking and unpredictable tournament in Russia.
Here is a look at the past week and peak of action.
World Cup Hosts Bow Out With Pride
It did have to happen to the hosts at one point unless they were going to pull off something only six teams have managed in the history of the FIFA world cup, France being the last one to do it in 1998; host and win the world cup trophy. Grouped alongside Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, one could have easily predicted that Russia would make it past the group stages but with the possibility of a round of 16 clash looming against Spain or Portugal, who would have thought Stanislav Cherchesov’s charges would make it to the last eight? Well, not until Igor Akinfeev pulled off the save that denied Iago Aspas’ penalty-kick.
Saturday’s clash against another surprise quarter-finalist, Croatia also lingered on to penalties thanks to Russia’s resilience and never-say-die attitude but the Croats had other ideas, booking a date with England in the semis. Russia have managed to win the hearts of sports fans as hosts more so as a soccer team and despite their exit on Saturday, they would walk with their heads held up high after their impressive showing in this year’s world cup. It did have to happen anyways.
Google the name Neymar and the news feed will bring up a host of wordplay with the word ‘roll’ relating to the Brazilian and other stuff like it, Neymar has rolled his way to front pages and headlines.
Brazil’s poster boy, presently their best player, arguably the best on the planet behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo also villain and brat, what is he not? Neymar might have contributed to the Selecao’s quarter-finals finish with his two goals and one assist but that is not all there is to his stats. Per FIFA‘s official website, the PSG record signing lost the ball a total of 53 times and suffered 26 fouls, spending approximately 14 minutes on the floor.
His on-field theatrics have made him a victim of harsh criticism and a pick for memes and headlines while his maturity has come under question in several corners, even Raheem Sterling is more popular amongst the British than Neymar is at the moment. In the game against Mexico, data collected by RTS showed that the Brazilian forward spent a total of 5minutes and 30 seconds rolling over the pitch, take that away from a 90minutes game along with several other stoppages and what do you have?
Neymar for all his potential and trickery has managed to do himself no good with all the play-acting and antics he pulled off during the FIFA world cup and if one person is to be slated for Brazil’s exit, it would be the actor Neymar and not the footballer.
Quite the exact opposite of what Neymar is; well to break it down, in terms of skill set, there doesn’t seem to be much difference except Neymar contributes more goals than the Belgian does but there is a large gulf in attitude and manners. Wonderful footballer with no doubt but Eden Hazard wearing the captain armband for Belgium came as a surprise to me even with Kompany starting most games from the bench, there was the presence of Jan Vertonghen who I feel is an ideal choice for captain.
Roberto Martinez selected Eden Hazard as captain of his Belgium side and of all reasons, one that I think will stand out for me is; maturity. Yes, Hazard has been in the news for some bad reasons too, one that readily comes to mind is him kicking a ball from underneath a ball boy in a game between Swansea and Chelsea but that was when? 2013, five years ago. Fast forward to the world cup, the man has shown great character and bravery to shoulder the burdens of being captain.
In the game against Brazil, he was everywhere doing everything when the Selecao came all over the Red devils. By numbers, the Belgian completed all 10 take-ons he attempted, made 63 touches, won 7 fouls and 4 aerial duels despite only being 5’7.
While his work on the pitch might speak volumes of how phenomenal he really is, his life outside it is pretty low-key. Eden Hazard is a down-to-earth family man, introverted with little desire to attract the spotlights, mind you, he does like to have fun and play pranks but he is the not the sort of guy you would be hating on.
The 42,873 capacity Kazan Arena in Kazan has played host to six exciting contests in the FIFA world cup and will no longer be host in this year’s mundial now that the world cup is in the last four. Looking back on the matches the Kazan Arena played host to, you will notice three of the top teams initially tipped as favourites for the world cup got eliminated in the Tatarstan capital.
First to bow out were defending champions Germany who lost 2-0 to South Korea in their final group game consequently finishing bottom with just three points.
Next up were the Albiceleste of Argentina in their last-16 encounter against France where Kylian Mbappe wrote his name in gold with two well taken goals to secure a 4-3 win for France who were just too much for the Argentines.
Last Friday, another South American side, Brazil exited the competition at the hands of Belgium in a scintillating quarter-final clash with a nail-biting end to it as Brazil tried all possible to get an equaliser after conceding two goals in the first half. It ended two goals to one.
This makes the first world cup without at least one of Argentina, Brazil or Germany in the semi-finals. The Kazan effect.
To be taken lightly
Much has been made of the GOAT debate especially in relation to football’s biggest rivalry; Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo and while opinions differ from person to person, football fans have hilariously over time included certain names into contention. FYI, GOAT means Greatest of All Time.
There’s Lionel Messi who had a photo shoot with plenty of goats before the world cup, there is Cristiano Ronaldo who spotted a goatee during the world cup, Paulinho who entered the fray last season with Barelona and Marouane Fellaini who always manages to stand out, height or hair. Honorable mention; Jesse Lingard.
If considering their FIFA world cup performance and progress so far, there will be only one winner; Marouane Fellaini. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo the real contenders for the GOAT status did not even get beyond the first knockout round, whereas Fellaini has been part of this Belgium unit that is tearing every nation apart en route the semi finals. In the match against Japan, the Manchester United midfielder came off the bench to rescue Belgium from a two-goal deficit while on Friday against Brazil, he was executing his duties to perfection.
He might be abilities away from the Argentine maestro or the Portuguese goal-scoring machine, but Marouane Fellaini has risen to the occasion when called upon by the Red Devils. The GOAT.
“It’s Coming Home”
This might appear as a statement carrying enough conviction but in true sense it all began as the irony of it. The phrase drawn from the 1996 song “Three lions” by The Lightning Seeds, a song originally recorded for the 1996 European Championships intending to make fun of the heartbreaking experience of being an English football fan.
Twenty-two years since then, it has resurfaced amongst the British, as chants, memes or whatever from tabloids to social media to stadiums in Russia at the FIFA world cup. It all began as a joke of “The Three lions” returning with the FIFA world cup to the place where football’s modern evolution took place, their last success coming in the 1966 World Cup which it hosted.
Weeks into the world cup and a spot in the semi-finals, football really looks like it is coming home for the British and the euphoria seems to have spread like wild fire. What started as a hopeless means of catching fun has transformed to a statement of real hope and only two hurdles stand between hope transforming to success for England or they go home.
Superheroes Wear Gloves, not Capes
The round of 16 as well as the quarter-finals saw some games go beyond extra-time to be decided on penalties. Of eight games featured in the round of 16, three were decided on penalties, while the game between Croatia and Russia in the quarter-finals was the only match that stretched into spot-kicks.
In all sincerity, credit has to be given to the players who kept their cool to dispatch their penalty kicks past the goalkeepers; Ivan Rakitic deserves enormous credit for his deciding spot-kicks in the game against Denmark and the quarter-final encounter against hosts, Russia on Saturday. The goalkeepers that came up clutch for their national side are also deserving of high praise; Igor Akinfeev saved two penalties against Spain to lead his side to the quarter final, Danijel Subasic rose to the occasion against Denmark and Russia to steer Croatia to a place in the semi-finals, Kasper Schmeichel who might have lost on the night alongside Denmark is another hero saving Luka Modric’s extra-time penalty before pulling out two wonderful saves during penalties and there is England’s Jordan Pickford who has been pulling out save after save.
They might not be afforded the sort of superhero recognition on-field players get for their performances maybe because they wear gloves instead of capes but I’m convinced that the guys between the sticks deserve loads of credit.
Semi Finals: Draw, Schedule and Venue
France vs Belgium
Probably will be the more exciting of both semi-final games and it’s really easy to see why. Both teams have twenty-three goals between them, Belgium holding the advantage in this contest with 14 goals. Looking at both sides it promises to be a goalfest considering the attacking impetus at the disposal of Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez and further down, both sides possess solid midfield and defensive manpower.
France on their part have knocked out two South American teams in the knockout stages on their way to the semis. Les Blues held on to a 4-3 win against Lionel Messi’s Argentina before putting two unreplied goals past Fernando Muslera in their win against Uruguay.
Belgium showed real character to come from being two goals down to defeat Japan 3-2 in the last-16 then triumphed over Brazil by two goals to one in the quarter finals.
The France vs Belgium game will hold at the 64,468 capacity Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday night where Uruguayan referee Andres Cunha will take control of proceedings.
Croatia vs England
It is difficult to choose which will be more entertaining between this game and the other semi-final between France and Belgium. Regardless, this encounter promises excitement and hopefully it does not disappoint.
Croatia reached this stage after going 120minutes plus penalties in their last-16 and last-8 clashes against Denmark and hosts, Russia respectively. Obviously, a bit of fatigue will have set in going by the minutes they have had to play but if they can replicate the form they have shown in the tournament so far and nullify the threat of Harry Kane as well, a place in the luzhniki stadium might be theirs for the taking.
England as well have been impressive all tournament, losing once against Belgium in the group stages and needing penalties to get past Colombia in the round of 16. The Three Lions put the ghosts of previous tournaments behind them as they sailed into the semis after a two-nil win over Sweden in the last eight to the excitement of fans in Russia and at home. They will benefit from Croatia being overworked and look to create other attacking outlets while hoping top scorer, Harry Kane is not kept quiet on Wednesday night.
Just in case the game goes into penalties, England might have cause to worry, having only secured their first shootout win in world cup history against Colombia with Croatia already needing two to get to the semi-finals.
The match will played on 11, July, Wednesday night at the Luzhniki stadium, Moscow. The Luzhniki stadium will also play host to the world cup final on 15th July.
That’s a wrap up on this recap.