Belgians Run Out of Ideas, France Books Trip to Moscow

The only certainty, when the teams took the field on Tuesday, was that those of us watching would be in for a treat.

The French were led by teenage phenom, and potential Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo usurper, Kylian Mbappe. Combined a formidable duo controlling the midfield in Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante fireworks were all but certain.

Their opponents, who had essentially run riot through their group competition and previous knockout stage opponents, were living up to a new moniker, one that harkens back to bygone era of American baseball. The Big Red Machine. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku seemed finally destined to break Belgium's title drought. 

And for the first twenty-five minutes, the Red Devils certainly looked like forcing their will on the game. They possessed, they attacked, they prodded the French defense. Hazard launched attacks from the left, De Bruyne from the right while combining with Nacer Chadli who was playing in an unfamiliar outside right back position. 

But no matter how hard they tried, they simply couldn't manage to unlock the French defense. Their best chances came from Hazard in the 15th and 18th minutes. Those failed as the Chelsea midfielder rushed his first shot and had his second pushed over bar via deflection from an unwitting French defender, Raphaël Varane.

A few moments later Toby Alderweireld's quick shot off a poor clearance forced his club teammate, Hugo Lloris, into a reaction save. With a bit more pace, it just might have beaten the French goalkeeper. 

Then as if some random force shifted it's weight snuffing out the fire fueling the Belgian machine, the momentum shifted in favor of France. Olivier Giroud and Benjamin Pavard miss clear chances. The Stuttgart defender, after a brilliant through ball from Mbappe, having his effort blocked by Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' big right foot.

Halftime didn't temper the French ascendency, in fact they came back burning hotter than they had at the end of the first 45. 

The French earned a corner early in the second half. Antoine Greizmann's in-swinging cross was met by Samuel Umtiti, who's darting run to the near post left him free from his mark, Alderwield, rose to head the ball, beating out Maurane Fellani, and steered the ball past Curtios at the near post.

France was up 1-0. And it very likely should have been a two goal lead just a few mins later. Giroud couldn't finish after Mbappe provided yet another sublime distribution. The French center forward, who's had a miserable time finding the back of the net in Russia, should have buried his chance on the first touch. Instead, his attempt to control then finish gave Mousa Dembélé enough time to slide in and block his shot. 

The Big Red Machine was all out of ideas on how to crack the French defense. Hazard and De Bruyne, no matter how hard they worked, couldn't manage to combine with Lukaku. And at times seemed their own worst enemy by over complicating possession, finding themselves in self-imposed defensive cul-de-sacs. 

With the insertion of Dries Mertens, who started on the bench for the second game in a row, replacing Dembélé, who was, outside the sliding block on Giroud to prevent a second goal for France, essentially ineffectual all game, there seemed to be a brief moment of hope. Mertens was initially more effective on the right flank launching a few crosses that seemed to cause the French defense a few problems. Fellani got his head on one, narrowly missing the bottom right corner. But, Lloris looked to have it covered. 

There was a legitimate shout for a free kick after a tackle by Giroud on Hazard. The referee waved it off, unfortunately. It certainly would have been in a dangerous position, but there's no way to know if it would have resulted in a goal. 

Nonetheless, as the referee blew the final whistle, Belgian players, in what has been a tradition across sports for losing teams in these types of games, collapsed to ground in agony. Meanwhile, French players sprinted across the pitch in ecstasy. They're on their way to Moscow.

World Cup Semi-Finalists Reflect Team Spirit

First, I want to apologize. It's been more than a week since my last post. Admittedly, I had every intention of writing through vacation, but then I realized taking a step back would be wise and allow me to fully recharge. But now I'm back and ready to go full force into providing analysis and insights. 

When we take a look at all four semi-finalists (and one could argue some of the quarterfinalists as well), the one thing that emerges is that while each team has a star, none of the teams wait for the star to perform. In short, the success of the final four squads hasn't been balanced precariously on a single player. 

Sure Croatia's talisman, Luca Modric, scored a superb goal against Argentina--one that outshined Messi's performance, except maybe that amazing finish vs Nigeria. But he also missed a penalty kick against Denmark in the waning moments of extra time, one that could have sealed the game and avoided a shootout. His teammates, and really his goalkeeper, rallied behind him to prevail in the shootout. 

England relied heavily on Harry Kane in their first two games, he even scored in the Round of 16 match up against Colombia. But it was Harry Maguire and Deli Alli (and some would argue Raheem Sterling's work rate in the attacking third) that carried England into the semis.

For France, it's been more of a combination of Antoine Greizmann and Kylian Mbappe upfront along with solid efforts from N'golo Kante and the defensive backline. A sum of its parts rather than a singular focus on a super star.

And the Red Devils of Belgium have done it while employing multiple formations and multiple roles for its most special players. Having started the first two games and the Round of 16 match up as a central striker, Romelu Lukaku was forced out wide against Brazil in favor of a Kevin De Bruyne playing a false 9. De Bruyne himself had been forced to drop deeper in previous matches. Eden Hazard, too, was moved from a central position, one that was more raumdeuter than anything else, to a position out on the right flank.  

It's a little cliche to say, but teams win World Cups. Which is why Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil never stood a chance. All three teams relied heavily on a single player. Every possession, tactical adjustment, and even failure was centered around the performance of their star. Once could reasonably argue, they'd probably lose the debate, but it is still worth discussing, all those teams could have fared better without Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. 

Portugal won a European Championship without Ronaldo on the pitch. And to be fair, they didn't perform well during that competition, narrowly escaping the group phase and their first two games in the knockout rounds. 

Argentina looked lost with Messi on the pitch. They probably would have looked lost with him off the pitch, too. But the clear deference at nearly every venture, every rough patch made the likes of Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero look shadows of their usually on form selves. 

And for the Brazilians, Neymar's desire to be the director of all things Seleção prevented other stars from shining brightly. Gabriel Jesus looked lost as he tried in vain to partner with the mercurial Brazilian talisman. Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho had an impact early in the group stage, but seemed to be left out of forward movements as the tournament progressed. All things Brazil had to go through Neymar.

It's telling that the sides with arguably the three best players in the tournament never really threatened for a shot at the title. In a tournament as grueling as this, it's the team that matters. And even in the World Cups where single players dominated, they allowed their teammates to shine as well. Brazil had the talent to pursue a title,  and if Neymar's self-centered flare and infatuation with the limelight had allowed it, we might be talking about the possibilities of a sixth World Cup title. Portugal and Argentina, unfortunately, never seemed to have the quality required--even with their superstar.

Alas, it is the sides with the best team chemistry, the ones most willing to sacrifice for each other, that have made it to the final four. One of them will win and the glory will go to the team spirit embodied by every player on the roster. 

That should be the lesson from this World Cup.


Messi Didn't Crash Out After All

Five days ago, I wrote about the possibility of Messi not making it to the knockout stage. The pressure was on the Albicelestes captain after leading Argentina to a measly one point in the first two games.

Fast forward to today's final game against a surging Nigeria side and there was a real chance Messi and Company could be headed home far too early. 

Would the Barcelona star find a way to rescue his teammates, just like he did against Ecuador on the last night of qualifying? Or would he further speculation that he just didn't care about playing for Argentina?

Less than a quarter of an hour in to the game and Messi told us exactly what his intentions were. Controlling a pin point driven ball from just inside Argentina's attacking half off the boot of Ever Banega, Messi's first touch with his left thigh beat his mark. And before the ball could even hit the ground his right foot nestled the ball perfectly out in front of his stride, setting up a perfect finish with his weaker right foot. Argentina 1, Nigeria 0.

Fifteen minutes later, Messi nearly struck again. His freekick from just outside the box on the left side of the D was tipped on to the post by the young Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho. 

The half ended 1-0 and Argentina looked likely to advance. But, five minutes into the 2nd act, Mascherano pulled down a Nigerian player in the box during a corner kick. The Turkish referee had no choice, but award a penalty kick. Victor Moses stepped up to bury it in the back of the net. 

Argentina was in panic mode for the next 35 minutes, even being saved by VAR of possible second penalty scare. But in the 86th minute, Marcos Rojo latched on to a cross from Gabriel Mercado and side footed the ball into the bottom right hand corner past a diving Uzoho. 

Messi and his merry band of underperforming teammates had salvaged their World Cup. Next up is a strong France side, who fielded a weakened team in their final match against Denmark earlier in the day. But there's a chance Messi and Ronaldo could meet in the Quarterfinals, if both of their teams win their first knockout game. 

Let's not hold our collective breaths, however. Both sides could end their Russian adventure on Saturday.