World Cup 2018: Rankings (4-1)

The tournament is done and dusted, and we have our final four. You can see my other rankings at these links – #32-17, 16-9, 8-5.

4. England (+22)

Well, this was an improvement, huh? Even early on in the first game it was clear the kind of young, quick attacking team that England were, though the physical game Tunisia played almost cost them two points. Panama were put to the sword in clinical fashion, before the second string tamely lost out to their Belgian counterparts. Kane, Lingard, Trippier, Maguire, they were all showing what they were capable of, in attack and in set-pieces.

But job done, and the easier side of the draw beckoned. England should have put a very indisciplined Columbia away far earlier than they did, dominating most of the game before letting slip an equaliser. Arguably lucky to make it through extra time, the banishing of the shoot-out hoodoo was a very important moment for Southgate’s side.

A very pedestrian challenge awaited in the quarter-finals, where a one-dimensional Swedish side were dispatched without too much fuss. England’s strength at set-pieces was obvious, and even if a brief Swedish resurgence in the last half-hour showed some flaws in the system, England had gotten further than they had in 28 years.

Croatia proved too hard a nut to crack. Perhaps they exerted themselves too much in the first half, perhaps Croatian resolve and midfield dominance simply told over the course of 120 minutes. Either way, once Croatia had equalised, England seemed adrift, with Kane ineffective and the defence looking porous. A bare exertion in the 3rd Place Play-Off followed. England over-achieved at this World Cup, and should be proud of an exceptional effort, but they should also be wary of overhype and an inability to recognise flaws.

3. Belgium (+5)

You would presume Belgium will have more chances at glory, but perhaps none better at the biggest stage than here. The First Round was completed in ruthless fashion, with convincing wins over Panama, Tunisia and then a lackadaisical England, as the attacking trio of Lukaku, De Bryne and Hazard showed why they are so potent, while a wealth of solid midfield and defensive players held the line behind.

A serious scare in the Last 16 woke Belgium up, when the Japanese first frustrated that attack, and then pulled a couple of shocks at the other end. The introduction of Fellaini was crucial to a stirring comeback, when Belgium announced themselves as one of the tournaments best sides, capable of over-turning a two-goal deficit in 20 or so minutes.

Brazil could well have been a mini-final, and Belgium excelled, hitting the Brazilians on the break to vicious effect, and containing Neymar and company’s efforts at the other end. Things did fall apart in the last half-hour, and on another day Belgium may well have let it slip. But they didn’t, and that was a testament to Martinez’ risky, but effective, tactics.

Belgium came-up short in the semis, stifled by the so-called “anti-football” of France, that was essentially just a conservative defence-packing master-class, where the French withstood what they could and waited for their chance from a counter or a set-piece. Lukaku’s increasingly poor performances as the tournament went on, combined with De Bryne’s lack of delivery, meant that there was no way back once France scored, not even with Hazard in the form he was in. Victory in the 3rd Place Play-Off was a simple affair. It was a strong tournament for the Belgians, but they need to work on their longevity in such circumstances. 2020 may be the last great chance of this group of players.

2. Croatia (+17)

A summer to remember for a side that has consistently threatened to become one of the worlds very best and has now achieved this after 20 years of under-achievement. It was obvious in the group stage how capable Croatia were, in a straightforward dismantling of Nigeria, in a stunning destruction of Argentina and in another straightforward win over Iceland. Modric was pulling the strings, Perisic was threatening, Mandzukic was dominating the penalty area.

Denmark proved, perhaps, a harder test than expected in the Second Round, thanks largely to Schmeichel’s heroics, but Croatia got through it, again largely thanks to Modric’s dominance of midfield, even with his penalty miss. This was the start of Croatia’s fitness levels proving the difference, and they would need every bit of that trait as the tournament continued.

The hosts weren’t really up to Croatia’s level, as could be seen when Croatian dominated large spells of possession in the Quarter-Finals, coming from behind and looking well-placed to win the game in extra time. Russia’s comeback necessitated another shoot-out, but the end result was not unjust.

England awaited. Going behind early was a terrible blow, and Croatia were lucky to reach half-time just one goal down. But their fitness, mentality and sheer refusal to bow down lead to an excellent equaliser, a leading goal and a dominance of the game thereafter.

In the final Croatia again showed how they could dominate possession for long spells, how they could come back from a goal down, how they could challenge at the top table. But it wasn’t enough. Yes, there was officiating errors for one goal, yes on another occasion that penalty might not have been awarded. But Croatia found themselves exposed past the hour mark, and couldn’t keep up, even with Lloris’ howler. Still, an excellent effort from one of the smallest countries in the tournament, one that marks Croatia national ethos on sport one that should be copied by every other country.

1. France (+6)

The long hard road back to international relevance after 2010 led to a final two years ago, and some regrets that France needed to make good. They showed an uncanny ability to improve in every game, starting in the group stage, when they were fortunate to get past Australia, took care of Peru in clinical fashion and then happily ground out a boring draw with Denmark to top the table.

Argentina provided a hell of a battle in the next round, a scoring free-for-all, though save for the nine minutes when they were behind, you always fancied France to win it. They did so, largely thanks to the attacking skill of Mpabbe, and the fragility of the opposition.

The Last Eight match against Uruguay was another display in competent domination, as France took their chances when they came, and stopped an otherwise flat Uruguayan outfit that were seriously lacking in attack. Despite the lack of flair, it was obvious that France were a more complete package than they had been two years previously. Strong at the back and dangerous up-front, with a strong midfield engine in the middle.

Belgium were similarly dealt with in the semi-final, with their attacking trio largely neutered and France happy to wait for the counter-attacks and the set-pieces at the other end. France’s solidity in all areas of the pitch was obvious throughout, and when they needed something special, they had the start players to provide it.

In the final France at times showed they were pliant, struggling with set-pieces, and allowing Croatia to dictate the temp of the game for large stretches. But, thanks to some officiating luck in part, they got the chances they needed, and that crucial few minutes around the hour mark showed a team full of attacking potential. Lloris made the last twenty minutes more interesting than they had to be, but France were good enough to see the game out. A second star for Les Bleus, worthy winners.

My final predictions stand at 40/64, or 62.5%, with is 12.5 higher than 2014! Hurrah.

A very enjoyable tournament for the most part, especially after a tentative and uninspiring first round of fixtures. The knock-outs were tonnes of fun, UEFA teams excelled, I think VAR has silenced some doubters and it was a tournament with plenty of stories, teams playing above their level and some really tense enthralling matches. Modric was my player of the tournament, with Hazard a close second.

Considering the strength of the European sides, I’m looking forward even more to UEFA 2020 now. I’m sure Spain and Germany will be improved, the Dutch and the Italians should be back, England will be looking to make good on this squad, Russia have improved, Belgium and Croatia will still be teams full of threat and the French will be looking to emulate that 98-00 side. Perhaps the Irish might be there too.

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