The 2018 FIFA World Cup will forever be known as the World Cup that kept giving and it was true to that maxim to the very last minute of a pulsating Final which France won 4-2.
Croatia dominated the early stages, controlling play with their sharp and efficient movement of the ball but when the first goal came it was, rather harshly, against the run of play. Croatia conceded a free-kick and the side that had conceded four goals from set-pieces in their five goals against made it five from six with a historic own-goal off the head of Mario Mandzukic. It was the first ever World Cup Final own goal and in a World Cup of records it was the 12th own goal of Russia 2018 and it came in the 18th minute. Who would have bet on that happening? Find out here for more information on the chances.
The French led for 10 minutes before a wonderful goal levelled for Croatia and the symmetry of the scoring maintained when Manchester United target Perisic finished a superb move and carved himself space around 18 yards out dragging the ball with his right foot onto his left before crashing the ball past Lloris.
Another 10 minutes passed until the clock showed 38 minutes elapsed when we had more history not to mention controversy and it was the unfortunate Perisic who let France back into the game. He brought his hand to a cross and after appeals by the French players the referee went to VAR. After trotting over to the pitch side monitor Nestor Pintana turned away but went back for his own second opinion before turning back on to the pitch, making the TV sign and pointing to the spot. Antoine Griezmann converted his second VAR penalty kick of the tournament and the first ever in a World Cup Final to send France into the interval 2-1 up.
Just three minutes from the restart Perisic almost made amends but his effort was tipped over by Hugo Lloris and France upped the ante to take control and that control was turned into a two goal advantage by the player reborn at this World Cup, Paul Pogba. The Manchester United midfielder who dominated the semi-final win over Belgium made it 3-1 when he started a flowing move then finished it with a tremendous solo one-two. His first shot, right footed, came back to him and with his unfavoured left Pogba curled home a delightful shot from the edge of the box.
The Final then gifted the viewing billions another record as Kylian Mbappe, on the hour, equalled Pele`s 60 year old record, for a teenager scoring in the World Cup Final to make it 4-1 before a farce of a goal threatened France`s second ever World title.
Hugo Lloris tried a `Karius` when he tried to dribble outside the onrushing Mandzukic but only succeeded in flicking the ball against the centre forward`s boot which sent the ball into the net giving the Croatian striker the distinction of becoming the first player to score for both sides in a World Cup Final. There were still 21 minutes to go but France calmed things down and retained their composure while Croatia, after three consecutive extra-time games finally ran out of legs.
It was a fitting end to a World Cup that gave so much.
2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Overview
Any overview of the 2018 World Cup has to be viewed from two different perspectives; the tournament as a whole and England as part of that whole.
I said, early in the tournament, that this was turning out to be one of the most even World Cup finals ever. By the time Hugo Lloris lifted the trophy, the day after Bastille Day, it had truly become a World Cup.
From the giants of the game; Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain and Portugal failing to live up to their pre-tournament hype, expectation and history to the likes of Mexico, Peru, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and others, raising their game. The resultant gap was just that, a gap, not the chasm as indicated by the FIFA rankings. Russia 2018 quickly became a tournament in which any team could beat any other, Mexico`s well earned and merited success over holders Germany being the best example.
VAR, was a success, full stop; goals, penalty appeals, shenanigans, the Video Assistant Referee weedled them all out, thankfully. The process still needs tweaking and perhaps the most important adjustment required centres on the final arbiter, still the man in the middle who can consult the pitch-side monitor. Football needs to take a leaf out of the Rugby video referee where the man in front of the screen advises the man in the middle. A work well in progress I say.
Perhaps the greatest accolade this World Cup earned was the one where it was universally agreed that Russia 2018 was the best organised and best run World Cup tournament for decades. And the reward for the people of Russia was seeing their team reaching the quarter-finals. Fans from all over the globe mixed so well, in the stadiums and on the street, that to the watching world they could have been at a World Cup in Lima, or Sydney, Sao Paulo or Riyad, Agadir or London. Yes, Russia 2018 was truly a World Cup- follow that Qatar.
Trying to look fairly and objectively at England`s World Cup the overall emotions, and it has to be plural, was a mix of pride and disappointment. Pride because a young group of English footballers took the national team into uncharted territory, excluding 1966 and 1996.
The experience gained cannot be quantified and will only manifest if England win a trophy in 2020 or 2022, with the class of 2018 being at the core. The disappointment is the obvious one and in itself brings a broad spectrum of perspective. The luck of the draw may never be as kind again and ironically I did warn of the threat of Belgium and Croatia, 3rd and runners-up respectively. And, excluding Belgium `B` v England `B`, the semi-final and Final saw England bested by superior opposition,
There are lessons to be learned there, particularly from Croatia, who played poorly for two and a half games ( more counting extra-time); the Round of 16, the quarter-final and the first 45 minutes against England. But they dug deep in the second period of the semi-final, which brings us back to the experience gained by the Young Lions who roared into the last-four but unlike wise old lions they could not complete the `kill` against Croatia when they had the chance.
We should all be pleased at England being the team at the World Cup to finish at the top of the Set Piece goals chart and in Harry Kane`sGolden Boot. But, and Glenn Hoddle summed it up, twice, on the day the Third/Fourth place Bronze medal game meant a tame end to a glorious World Cup run. The former England manager, now probably the best football pundit, stated;
“Harry Kane is not himself.”
And that is worrying because without the cutting edge that only Harry seems able to provide England our chance-creating ratio from open play is poor, inadequate and not international level. One effort on goal in 120 minutes against Croatia is a frightening stat. If Kane was not totally fit to start the semi-final or any game for that matter, he should not have started.
Much has been made of England`s junior sides and their success at recent World Cups and European tournaments but. Go on, name three of England`s Under 17 or Under 19 or Under 21 sides??? Exactly.
And with only 30% of Premier League players being English and the Academies and youth teams of the Premier League chock full of young, foreign talent, only the very few, such as Dele Alli, via MK Dons, will drop down to rise again. Yes, good experience but that takes time. World Cups and European Championships like time and tide wait for no man.
So, if Russia 2018 is not going to end up as merely one glorious page in our football history but a preface to more history something must be done. The Premier League, the FA and the players themselves must do more about English-born players getting Premier League experience. If they don`t then moving abroad or developing careers in other countries, as Eric Dier did, may be the only way.
Juventus and PSG, two not so bad clubs, are already courting Liverpool`s 18 year old striker Rhian Brewster with Arsenal, Spurs, Barcelona and Monaco also monitoring developments, or lack of, at Anfield. It doesn`t take Einstein to work that if Brewster wants to add a senior World Cup winners` medal to the Under 17 one he already has he might need to dig out his passport. The same applies to Phil Foden at Manchester City who picked up the Golden Ball as well as the Under 17 World Cup last year.
England had a missed opportunity in Russia 2018. It must not lead to other missed opportunities we can get from Russia 2018, the World Cup that just kept on giving.