Europa League – Quarter Finals

Screenshot 2019-04-18 at 23.13.30
Via WikiCommons

Well, what an amazing couple of nights in Europe’s premier competition, the Champions League! As surprising as the semi-final lineup is for some, it’s not for me. After all I managed to somehow predict every result correctly. Usually at this point, most would accept the plaudits and not test their luck. I, on the other hand, am willing to risk it all just a mere day later.

First though, for anyone who missed my Champions League article, can feel free to check it out: Champions League – Quarter Finals

So onto today then!

The UEFA Europa League has been Europe’s second-tier competition since 1971, but has only been known by its current name since the rebranding in 2009. In the 48 years since its creation, this annual competition has changed a lot, both in name and format.

As a football fan, it is a competition I hold dearly because of Galatasaray’s success in 2000. Since 2009, UEFA (Governing body of football in Europe) has tried to make the competition more appealing to the elite teams who feel as though it’s beneath them, which seems to be working when you look at the recent winners list. Holders Atletico Madrid have won three times (2010, 2012 and 2018), which is a feat equalled by Sevilla (2014, 2015, 2016). While  Porto (2011), Chelsea (2013),  and Manchester United (2017) have taken home the trophy on one occasion. All because the winner of the Europa League is guaranteed a place in the Champions League for the following season. Something that is difficult to achieve via the league, especially if you are from England or Spain.

So, let’s take a look at the quarter final games that will be played tonight across Europe.

Napoli (Ita) vs Arsenal (Eng)

Arsenal will be heading to Italy with a two-goal advantage thanks to Aaron Ramsey and an own-goal.

This match is going to be very intriguing, because you have a team like Arsenal who ideally could defend solidly, try to nick a goal at the other end of the field and waltz into the next round. Yet, anybody who understands football knows that Arsenal never make it look as simple as it sounds. Plus, Napoli isn’t some joke team that has no chance. However, drawing a blank in England, in the first leg, is a huge negative against them.

In the end, it will come down to whether or not Arsenal can get the away goal because they are likely to need it. Napoli are a dangerous team at home. They are yet to lose at the atmospheric San Paolo Stadium in Naples, only conceding two goals in five European games – one goal each against Paris St. Germain and Red Star Belgrade. More impressively, earlier on in the season, Napoli kept a clean sheet against Liverpool in a Champions League game which they absolutely dominated.

Impressive, right? However, there is one important factor that needs considering. This is the first time that Napoli are going into a game trailing. Knowing that if Arsenal score a goal at any stage of the game, then they will need FOUR.

Verdict: Napoli 3 Arsenal 1 (Arsenal go through on away goals)

Eintracht Frankfurt (Ger) vs Benfica (Por)

Benfica won the first game 4-2 thanks to a hat-trick from their 19-year-old sensation, Joao Felix.

This has the potential to be a repeat of the first-leg with plenty of goals and drama thanks to Frankfurt’s resilience in Portugal. Despite playing with 10-men for 70+ minutes, they managed to score twice and keep the tie alive.

The biggest problem facing the German team is that they are playing a team that is absolutely lethal in front of goal! Benfica has scored four goals in each of their last three games, and only two months ago won 10-0, yes 10-0, in a Portugal Primeira Liga match against Nacional.

Yet, I have a sneaky suspicion that Frankfurt are going to be the ones laughing come the final whistle, as long as they can keep all 11 men on the field.

Verdict: Eintracht Frankfurt 4 Benfica 1 (Frankfurt go through 6-5 on aggregate)

Chelsea (Eng) vs Slavia Prague (Cze)

Chelsea lead one-nil thanks to a late goal from Marcos Alonso.

This tie, despite being the closest on score, should be the easiest one to predict. Chelsea are better than Slavia Prague in every area of the field but we could have said the same about Prague’s previous two opponents, Genk and Sevilla.

Chelsea will need an early goal to calm the nerves and I expect them to get it through the irreplaceable Eden Hazard. That will give them the confidence to go and get a few more goals and put the tie to bed.

Verdict: Chelsea 3 Slavia Prague 0 (Chelsea win 4-0 on aggregate)

Valencia (Spa) vs Villarreal (Spa)

Valencia hold a somewhat lucky 3-1 advantage after scoring two goals in the 90th minute of the first-leg.

This all-Spanish affair features a couple of teams that are searching for a way back to their glory days. Both Valencia and Villarreal regularly featured in the latter stages of the Champions League, with the prior making it to the final on a couple of occasions. If truth be told, neither have convinced that they will be back competing at the highest level anytime soon.

This is not a game for the neutral, as I expect Valencia to systematically foul the Villarreal players on every occasion in order to stop their flow. There will be plenty of yellow cards, and even a sending off in the game. After all, if the home team can stop Villarreal from scoring three or more goals, then they are guaranteed to progress. There is some hope though for Villarreal – a.k.a. The Yellow Submarine – who have managed to score at least one goal in 13 of the last 15 games they’ve played. In three of those games they hit the back of the net three times, and on one occasion played out a 4-4 draw against…Barcelona!

Verdict: Valencia 1 Villarreal 1 (Valencia to kick their way into the next round. 4-2 on aggregate)

 

 

 

Oi Referee, What Was That For?

For any individual who has played sport, there would have been an instance when they were perplexed by a certain decision made by the match official. With a mixture of feelings – anger and injustice to be the most likely – the player in question would likely have approached the official in charge, only to be dismissed with a shrug and a cold-shoulder. If players aren’t given an explanation, then what chance do the fans have?

Well …

That was until a decision was made by the NBA to allow fans to get in touch with NBA officials over Twitter, to ask them any question they have. NBA fans will be able to send their questions over during two live games this week. The first game will be on Monday (Jan. 21), when Golden State Warriors visit the Los Angeles Lakers. The second game will be on Wednesday (Jan. 23) during the San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers match-up.

How to get in touch?

Via Twitter, fans will be able to tweet at the account @OfficialNBARefs or use the hashtag #RefWatchParty to garner responses from officials who will be following the games in real time.

Is this a good idea?

I’m a fan of the NBA, and all of the extra-curricular activities that the players are obligated to do. I’d say it’s about time that referees were thrown into the mix, too. It’s no secret that most fans of the league question the integrity and impartiality of those officiating. Although such feelings will still be present, the gains from such a publicity act far outweigh the negatives.

So, can the “World’s Game” learn from other sports?

Personally, I can understand why football referees don’t want to slow up the game. But what I can’t understand is that those same officials are never held accountable for decisions they have made incorrectly. Decisions that have clearly affected the outcome of the game and, in turn, have caused disappointment for a huge group of people – or an entire nation.

Moreover, professional referees are forbidden from addressing the media directly until  they retire. Yet the same geniuses who forbade the referees made it compulsory for the manager of a club to attend press conferences.

Seems fair, right?

Surely it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try something in football that would help eliminate the schism created between officials and the rest …

Having said that, I am very much against the concept of contacting referees via Twitter, as Twitter attracts mindless “trolls” who will just hurl about abuse. (Though admittedly, some referees deserve all the abuse that they get.) If this were the case, the governing body of the sport would surely just shut down the account, and never again entertain such a channel for fans and officials to communicate.

Their reasoning: “We tried it, and it didn’t work!”

Yeah, well the Financial Fair Play (FPP) hasn’t worked either, has it?

Twitter is a no. What else?

Another option could be for referees to speak to the media. After all, it would be a safe environment. The questions would be delivered by a professional sport’s journalist, and the majority of what they are to say would help appease angry players or fans who could then try to understand the official’s point of view.

Win, win and win.

Nigel Owens (one of the best Rugby Union referees) dealing with players.

If this is not possible, then why not mic-up the referees, like they do in rugby and the NHL? In cricket, rugby and NBA, they even mic-up the players, which has led to some amazing moments.

NBA players chatting to one another.

Such a change would allow fans to eavesdrop on what is being said and actually understand what is going on. Eventually, (hopefully) you could begin to see change in football culture. Which, truth be told, is a culture based on bias, abuse, distrust and corruption, from top to bottom.

I realise that one issue this presents is that the language footballers use is atrocious. However, with the referee mic’d-up, the players would be held accountable and fined per F-word. That money could even go to a children’s charity. Even the dumbest footballer would eventually make the connection.

“I say F-word, money go down.”

“I talk nice, money stay.”

Whatever way you look at it, the NBA, NFL, NHL, rugby and cricket have shown that allowing the outside world onto the pitch is both doable and effective. Maybe it’s time for football to take some steps towards allowing the true sufferers of the sport – the fans – a chance to be involved. After all, without the fans, the game wouldn’t exist.

Predicting Football Scores: Luck or Knowledge?

Many people fancy themselves good at predicting the outcome of a sporting event. They’re always giving it the big one about how they knew that team would win.

Well, in a predictions game that I run with five friends/enemies, there’s no room for hindsight. The original predictions game was on the BBC, but unfortunately, at the start of the 2018/19 season, they stopped providing such a game.

Heart-breaking!

So I, with a little convincing (and a small fee), decided to provide the spreadsheet and scoring for our league as we entered our fourth year.

How does it all work?

I send out the weekly fixtures to the other guys, and state the deadline. They’ll fill it out and send it on back. However, this isn’t as simple as just picking a win, loss or draw. Everybody needs to type a score for each game.

For example, a selection may look something like, Liverpool vs Chelsea 2-1. In that instance, if Liverpool win 2-1, the competitor is rewarded three points. If Liverpool win, but it isn’t 2-1, then the competitor is given one point. If the game is a draw or Chelsea wins, then they receive absolutely nothing.

Over the season, each one of us will have predicted the scores  for a total of 380 games. Come the end of the season, one of the six of us will be able to gloat about winning, and yes, there is a small wager involved. Winner takes all.

All pretty simple, right?

So simple, in fact, that my partner, Alexandra, asked if she could join in to see how well she does. It is important to know that Alexandra has practically no knowledge of some of the teams in the Premier League. I commonly hear her say, “I’ve never even heard of these two teams.” I roll my eyes and a bead of sweat trickles down my temple at the thought of her outscoring me. See, she does have a rough idea of more likely results.

We are in the midst of the 10th week of her participation, but before I share her results, I want to introduce the six “knowledgable” members of the “Bonerleague.”

Don’t ask me why we called it that.

I asked each member, including myself, to answer the following questions:

  1. What is your strategy when making predictions?
  2. What do you think is the most important factor when making predictions?
  3. How would you describe your football knowledge?

(Each person was to also provide a photo of themselves)

screenshot 2019-01-13 at 22.10.10
Current position: 1st. Chance of winning: 8/10.
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Current position: 2nd. Chance of winning: 8/10.
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Current position: 3rd. Chance of winning: 6/10.
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Current position: 4th. Chance of winning: 4/10.
screenshot 2019-01-13 at 22.11.06
Current position: 6th. Chance of winning: 0/10.

(Unfortunately, Bryan, A.K.A Champ & Fav, wasn’t able to respond to the questions. It is partly believed that he is busy after recently becoming a father. However, rumour has it that the media duties that are thrust upon the reigning champion, along with his poor performance this year are the main reasons behind his absence. Current position: 5th. Chances of winning: 2/10)

So, what about Alexandra?

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Chances of winning if in the Bonerleague: Better than Charles

Since Week 13 (we’re currently on Week 22), the table for the seven people mentioned in the article are as follows:

Dean – 70 points
Mehmet – 66 points
Alexandra – 63 points
Ryan – 63 points
Bryan – 61 points
Charles – 58 points
Matt – 53 points

Luck or Knowledge?

So, in conclusion, clearly luck plays a huge part, but knowledge is definitely more important. Football is one of those games that usually goes according to plan, making it easier for someone with knowledge to take the spoils come the end of the season.

After all, football is not like horse-racing, where seasoned punters spend hours reading the form, only to see an old lady pop in, look through the names of the horses, pick one that she likes the sound of and then go home with a nice little win.

Sigh.

The only hope that I have is that eventually luck runs out, and in the game of predictions, as with life, people with knowledge come out on top.

Some Novelties Wear Off, While Others Do Not!

I was going through my usual routine of checking the different sports websites – BBC Sport, SporX.com, SkySports.com – and they were reporting on the same-old topical stories. Apparently some person scored a goal or did something amazing, while another was upset because of a referee’s call. Then, on the BBC, a couple of articles that caught my eye.

Wayne Rooney to play for England again: Does it cheapen an England call-up?

&

Floyd Mayweather: Boxer to fight kick-boxer Tenshin Nasukawa in Japan

Let’s begin with the insanity surrounding Floyd “Money” Mayweather. He has decided to take up mixed martial arts and will fight Tenshin Nasukawa.

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Floyd “Money” Mayweather (Via WikiCommons)

Who? I hear you ask.

In the world of MMA, he is pretty much an unknown. But don’t let that fool you. Nasukawa, 20, is unbeaten in 27 fights. (Four of those fights being in MMA.) He currently fights in the RIZIN Fighting Federation, the organisation that Mayweather also signed with.

He is no mug!

Mayweather is double Nasukawa’s age, and a retired boxer, albeit an exceptional one.

This fight has already been confirmed for December 31, but the rules and weight class are yet to be decided. Everything is due to be ironed out over the next few days. And you know, Mayweather isn’t going to be allowing his “money-maker” to become too disfigured going into 2019.

Expect a hell of a lot of rules, one of which will be, “No fighting on the ground,” (which immediately disqualifies this from being an MMA fight). So, we are looking at a kick-boxing match, with extra rules. What those rules will be, I’m not really sure. Maybe a limitation on the number of kicks being allowed. Even with a limitation, I am confident that Nasukawa will be knocking Mayweather out, as long as those yet-to-be-decided “rules” allow for it.

This fight is basically the equivalent of someone asking you if you want a fight, but then following it up with, “Okay, but no hitting me in the face.”

Which, for me, makes the contest a waste of time, and one that I will not watch. Not even to see Floyd’s eyes widen once that first blow lands on his melon, and he realises that the fight was not a good idea.


What about Wayne Rooney’s inclusion to the England national team?

People have argued that it’s a ridiculous decision, and it takes away an opportunity from a youngster who could become an England star in the future. Especially as England coach, Gareth Southgate, has been complaining about his main stars having to play too many competitive games, and that he doesn’t have enough opportunities to give youngsters an opportunity.

As a result, many people are adamant that Wayne Rooney’s appearance prior to the game would have sufficed, instead of taking up a position in the team. That way, he could have got the send-off that he deserves.

Wayne Rooney (left) and England coach Gareth Southgate. 

Yeah, maybe.

But it’s important to know that such a procedure (Introducing a legend before a game and giving them a ceremonial round of applause) is more common for retired players who haven’t kicked a ball in months, or a player who is playing at a very low level, and hanging onto a career because they’re not ready to call it a day yet.

Rooney doesn’t fit that description.

So, is it ok to give him the call-up?

Absolutely!

He is clearly still a great player!

Still skeptical?

Let’s look at the facts here:

  • It’s not a competitive game.
  • Rooney is playing competitively against international players (Plays for DC United in the American MLS).
  • He has scored 12 goals in 21 games.
  • He is the second-highest-capped player in England history (119 caps).
  • Highest number of England goals (53 goals).
  • Always fulfilled his England duty with pride.

Rooney is an England legend and deserves the correct send-off. This will be exactly that. A friendly game, against America, with the revenue from ticket sales going to the Wayne Rooney Foundation. Most importantly, his name will be chanted by the fans at the iconic home of football, Wembley Stadium.

Wembley Stadium, London (Via WikiCommons)

So, what about the youngsters?

Their time will come.

The funniest part of it all is that on the BBC, Rooney’s selection is being questioned, yet, Mayweather’s announcement is reported like it’s just normal behaviour.

What has the world of sport come to?

Who Next For Real Madrid?

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Photo by Vienna Reyes on Unsplash

As mentioned several days ago, Julen Lopetegui has been relieved of his duties at Real Madrid. So now, the question on every football fan’s lips is: Who will be the next permanent manager?

As it stands, ex-player Santiago Solari has taken the role as caretaker-manager. This basically means, “You are the manager until we find someone who is actually worthy of the position.” Now, that doesn’t mean that Solari has no chance of being named the permanent manager. Historically, many clubs use caretaker-managers to give themselves a chance to make the right appointment, and then end up giving that individual a full-time position, especially if those in power see a rejuvenated team start to perform.

It is also very important to know that a club like Real Madrid prefers to appoint managers who have grown up with, played for, or been involved with the club in the past. They need people at the club who understand the Madrid way, so they can eliminate the need for a honeymoon period. Solari fits the bill in this instance, as he was the manager of Real Madrid Castilla (Real’s reserve team) and, prior to that, was in charge of the youth team at the club. He also played over 130 games for the club between 2000 and 2005.

When you put these aspects together, Santiago Solari is rightfully the bookies’ favourite to be given the permanent manager role, especially if he can get the team playing well. He will be following in the footsteps of Zinedine Zidane, who was promoted to Real Madrid manager whilst being in charge of the reserve team.

Unfortunately for Solari, I don’t think he has the technical nous or knowledge to be successful at the top of the game, meaning that Perez will need to look elsewhere.

That leads us nicely onto the most obvious candidate … Antonio Conte.

Conte is currently available, which makes him a fantastic target. As Real Madrid will not need to pay any compensation to another club for stealing their manager from them. After forking out a fortune to sack Lopetegui, this might be the best option for them. Plus, it’s not like Conte is a terrible manager. He brings with him a fantastic record, winning five trophies in his three years in charge of Juventus (3x Serie A, 2x Supercoppa Italiana), receiving plaudits as Italy manager, and picking up a couple of trophies in England with Chelsea (Premier League and FA Cup). Conte is a winner, and Real Madrid need to find a way to win.

Yet, Perez will be tentative to go knocking on Conte’s door just yet. Last thing anybody at Real Madrid wants is a manager who will happily criticise the board members in front of the media, or sulk at not getting what he wants (both of which were things that Conte was happy to do regularly before getting the boot from Chelsea chairman Roman Abramovich).

My Italian isn’t up to scratch, so, I can’t verify what he is saying … but going on his facial expressions, he isn’t being very nice…

Other alternatives may include Roberto Martinez (Belgium’s coach), Joachim Lowe (Germany’s coach), or Jose Mourinho (with Manchester United). Unfortunately, those options wouldn’t be of any use to Real Madrid, as they are all tied up in well-paying jobs elsewhere.

So, it comes down to one of two options, as I see it:

Mauricio Pochettino (left) and Arsene Wenger (right)

Perez’s first choice is likely to be Mauricio Pochettino, who would be an exceptional fit for Real Madrid. Pochettino is a manager who has won plaudits wherever he has gone, despite not having any trophies to his name as a manager. Unfortunately for Perez, he is unlikely to get his wishes right now, and would have to wait until the end of the season before finalising any deal for Pochettino. The added bonus for waiting would be that Pochettino would probably be able to convince star striker Harry Kane to come along with him.

The only other possibility for Real could be to hire Arsene Wenger. Wenger has been out of work, by choice, since he resigned as Arsenal’s manager at the end of last season, after 22 years in charge. This opportunity with Real Madrid may be the one that brings Wenger back into management, as it’s a club that has the right tools for him to be successful.

It is important to know that Real Madrid do have time to make the right decision for them, as neither Mauricio Pochettino or Arsene Wenger are likely to be signing a contract anytime soon. Pochettino will not leave halfway through a season; he has clarified that on many an occasion. As for Wenger, he is only likely to join a top team from a top league, and that list is not very expansive. Especially if you rule out that he would unlikely go to Arsenal’s rival team, and all the other major teams are pretty happy with their managers, as it stands.

What will happen then?

For me, one of the following two possibilities will materialise, but it all depends on how Solari gets the team playing.

Option No. 1: Hire Solari until the end of the season and then approach Pochettino. He will very likely take the job. This option would be perfect, knowing that Wenger could be a very likely back-up.

Option No. 2: Approach Wenger now, knowing that he will definitely want a long-term contract. As a result, approaching Pochettino would be out of the question come the end of the season.

Whatever way you look at it, there will be a quality manager at the helm next year. Teams like Real Madrid don’t stay in a slump for too long.

Not a “Real” Shock to See Julen Go

“I’m from the future and it doesn’t work out very well for you!”
(So says the wise comment below a YouTube video)

I understand that this could be said to many: Donald Trump; Prince Salman; Theresa May; the list goes on and on. On this occasion, it’s Julen Lopetegui who has been the unlucky recipient. In fact, it turned out to be very true a mere three days after the humiliating 5-1 defeat at the hands of their biggest rivals, Barcelona, when Lopetegui was sacked.

Let’s wind back five months or so …

Spain are being classed as one of the favourites for the 2018 World Cup after a magnificent qualifying campaign, and their coach, Julen Lopetegui, is being hailed as one of the best in the world. It was hard to argue with the claim.

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 15.26.16
2018 World Cup qualification – UEFA Group G (Via Wikipedia)

Unbeaten in 10 games, winning 9 of them. They only conceded 3 goals and scored a whopping 36! For many people, Spain was back and ready to get their hands on the title they had given up to Germany four years prior.

With a week left to the start of the highly anticipated tournament in Russia, Zinedine Zidane decided to step down as Real Madrid’s coach. And there are no surprises in guessing who Florentino Perez, Real Madrid’s president, eventually wanted at the helm. Yep, you got it: Lopetegui accepted the job, giving up his chance to take charge of Spain at the World Cup as a result. (His decision to take the Real Madrid job was seen as disrespectful by the Spanish football association (RFEF), and so they relieved him of his duties.)

From Day 1, Lopetegui was thrown in at the deep end.

Task 1: Try to keep the club’s talisman and star, Cristiano Ronaldo, at the club.

Failed.

Ronaldo_in_2018
Cristiano Ronaldo – Joined Juventus (Via Wikicommons)

Task 2: Find replacements who can provide the goals that Ronaldo provided.

Failed.

Task 3: Have a good start to the season.

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Spanish La Liga 2018/19 Season (Screenshot from Google)

… Failed!

Most football fans know that a seven-point gap in football is not that big. However, that idea can be thrown out the window in some countries. At seven points ahead, teams like Barcelona in Spain, Bayern Munich in Germany, and PSG in France are practically uncatchable.

Not only were the results not going well, but the team was performing very poorly. During Julen Lopetegui’s short reign as coach, Real Madrid won only six of 16 games, scored a mere 21 goals, and conceded 20. These are figures that are unheard of for the “best” club in the world, (termed so in terms of financial clout, trophies and an international fan base). After defeats against Sevilla, Alaves, and Levante in the league, a draw against Madrid rivals Atletico and a somewhat unlucky defeat against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, everyone knew that a defeat in the El Clasico (the term for Barcelona vs Real Madrid games) could be the final straw for Florentino Perez. And so it proved to be.

Left: Julen Lopetegui. Right: Florentino Perez.

So, what next for Lopetegui?

Let’s get one thing straight. He is financially in very good stead. As his contract has been terminated by the club, he is due to receive a good compensation package.

Have a guess how much.

A reported €18 million (£15.9 million).

For that sort of money, you can sack me any day. I would happily sack myself. However, once we look past the money, it is important to understand that Lopetegui is unlikely to get another opportunity at one of Europe’s major clubs. So, he will more than likely return to international football. Spanish national team selectors are unlikely to take him back, and most of the major footballing countries prefer their own countrymen. This leaves the only viable option as a Middle Eastern national team, especially as they seem to love a foreign coach.

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

Come to think of it, I bet Julen Lopetegui would have appreciated the aforementioned YouTuber’s help five months prior. After all, it would have saved his reputation, and helped him avoid two sackings in quick succession.

FIFA World Cup 2018 | The Final

Welcome to the World Cup final!

We started with thirty-two nations competing for the World Cup, and only France and Croatia remain. There wouldn’t have been many people predicting this, not even Croatians. No Brazil, who were knocked out by Belgium in the quarters, despite having dominated the game. No Spain, who suffered at the hands of their own lack of ambition. No Germany, who joined the list of reigning world champions that fell at the first hurdle.

As this is likely to be my final World Cup piece – no need for the tears or the patronizing slow clap – I thought it best to wrap up the tournament with a brief look at: the final; who I believe is deserving of the Golden Glove (given to the best goalkeeper) and the Golden Ball (given to the player of the tournament); and my favorite three moments from the tournament.

The Final

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Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow: the World Cup Final stadium.

My heart says Croatia.

My head says France.

My heart’s vote isn’t because I like Croatia, necessarily, but more that I’m not one to root for the French team. (Being English and Turkish, I remember that, on their way to the World Cup final, Croatia did eliminate Turkey during the qualifying groups. I can forgive that, though. For now.)

France have an exceptional team, and Didier Deschamps, who won the tournament as a player in 1998, is a great coach, even though he looks confused most of the time. They have many world-class players who could win the game, whereas, Croatia will be heavily reliant on 32-year-old Luka Modric. One other important piece of information: Many of the current French players were part of the squad that lost to Portugal in the European Championships Final two years ago. They were favorites in that game, too, but ended up losing to a goal from Eder. They will be reluctant to let that happen again.

So, let’s say that Croatian team outperforms France. How long could they do that for? The Croats’ energy level will definitely come into question. During the knockout rounds, Croatia has played 120 minutes of football against each of their three opponents, whereas France cruised past Argentina and Uruguay, before a good win against Belgium.

I can even picture the tactics boards prior to the game:

Match Tactics: Croatia

1. Don’t let Paul Pogba control the game.
2. Keep an eye on Giroud, as he likes to run behind the defense.
3. Don’t let Griezman receive the ball between midfield and defense.
4. Watch out for Matuidi’s late runs from deep.
5. Pavard and Hernandez like to go forward. Our wingers need to track them.
6. Make sure you double up on Mbappe, as he is too quick for us.

vs.

Match Tactics: France

1. Stop Luka Modric.
2. Allez Les Bleu! Allez! Allez! (Come on the blues! Come on! Come on!

France will definitely go into the game as favorites. They have world-class players all over the pitch. Players that have improved as the tournament has gone on. On the other side, Croatia is a nation that has always been decent but has never really expected to reach the latter stages of a tournament. The best previous performance was a World Cup semi-final in 1998, which was (ironically) held in France.

A World Cup final. It doesn’t get any bigger than this, especially for players from the Croatian side, who may never experience this again. Some of the older players, like Modric and Corluka might even call it a day after this game, knowing that it would be a great way to end an amazing international career. Obviously they would love to win the tournament, but this game, against a strong and experienced French side, may be one game too far for them.

Prediction:
France 3 – Croatia 0

Golden Glove

I would give it to Hugo Lloris (France), but only just over Jordan Pickford (England). He has been exceptional throughout the entire tournament. Some of his saves have been incredible, and he has lead by example. His save in the semi-final from Toby Alderweireld’s shot was incredible.

Golden Ball

It’s very close for me between Kylian Mbappe and Luka Modric. I would definitely give it to the latter, though. As good as Mbappe has been, he didn’t really do much in the group stages, mainly because he didn’t really have to. Modric, on the other hand, has been the catalyst and mastermind behind Croatia’s success. Without Mbappe, France could still have made it to the final, but without Modric, Croatia wouldn’t have gotten out of the group stages.  I’m confident FIFA will award it to Mbappe, because they like to give it to whoever they like instead of who played well. The 2014 cup was proof of that, when Arjen Robben deserved the Golden Ball, yet Lionel Messi was given it. Shocking …

The Top Three Moments

No. 3

This moment came pretty early on in the tournament. It was the match between Portugal and Spain. This game was my favorite from the entire tournament. There were huge players on show, plenty of goals being scored, and a hat-trick from one Cristiano Ronaldo. This game signaled the start of a fantastic tournament after the dross that we had witnessed on the previous day – and to some extent, the previous two World Cups.

No. 2

England!

They played well, got to the semi-finals and even won a penalty shootout (the latter being something of a rare occurrence. Don’t believe me? Ask any England fan or the England coach, who missed in the 1996 Euro’s semi-final. The same fate followed the national team in the 1998 World Cup, when England was eliminated by Argentina). Unfortunately, as per usual, some England fans, both back home and abroad, took celebrations to a destructive level. I just don’t understand why. I, for one, actually wanted England to do well for a change. The main reason: The memes!

(A few of my favorites)

I have especially loved the “It’s Coming Home!” memes. England fans were using any excuse to tell the whole world that “Football is coming home!” The origin of the statement comes from a song by Lightning Seeds, and featured David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. The original song was created before the 1996 European Championships, and was then re-released with a few alterations before the 1998 World Cup.

This song has just reached Number 1 in the U.K. music charts for the 4th time. Baddiel and Skinner will be financially rewarded again, and probably keep being rewarded every two years, when a major tournament is being played.

Of course, leave it to folks to then take it to a new level:

[Editor’s Note: The memes following England’s defeat have been just as delightful, if a bit of a sore spot. Memes … such a delightful waste of time.]

No. 1:

Sit back, relax, watch and burst into laughter!

Thanks for that, mate!

What a tournament it has been. Full of goals, drama, upsets and VAR. I have seen every tournament since 1998, and this one ranks up there as my second-favorite of all time, after the 2002 World Cup.

For any first-time viewers, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Thank you Russia, for being a great host, contrary to what was expected, and I hope to see you guys again in four years when the tournament is in … wait, what? Qatar? I guess the Brexit vote isn’t the only decision that needs to be revised …


Manfriend has been a hell of a … let’s say, World Cup correspondent for this otherwise sports-less blog. To revisit all his thoughts, predictions and informative breakdowns from this year’s World Cup, read on:

Round of 16
The End of Round 1
Sports Chat: FIFA World Cup 2018

Thanks so much for your insights and incredible hard work. I, for one, am so thankful, if only because I could join football conversations and sound like I knew something about sports.

You’re the best.