Chelsea representatives are believed to be spreading out across Europe at the moment to try and close several transfer deals ahead of the new Premier League season, but one man they had earmarked as someone they would like to bring in has given them the cold shoulder in favour of signing for Ligue 1 outfit Monaco. Aleksandr Golovin has been heavily linked with relocation to Stamford Bridge since starring in Russia’s World Cup campaign on home soil, but the French Principality have won the race to sign the 22-year-old midfielder. Reports indicate that recent Chelsea signing Jorginho may have had an influence on Golovin’s decision to choose Ligue 1 over the Premier League, with game time seemingly becoming increasingly difficult in west London.
With the World Cup now all but done and dusted and in the history books, time to take a look at how things are standing in this year’s Golden Boot race. The Golden Boot is, of course, awarded to the player who has scored the most goals in the tournament proper, and has historically been won by some legendary players in football. Brazilian Ronaldo won it in 2002, for example, while the last English player to do so was Gary Lineker in 1986. This time around another Englishman is in the running – and no prizes for guessing which one! Harry Kane had a wonderful start to the campaign, and has netted six goals on England’s path to the semi-finals where they would eventually bow out to a superior Croatia side.
When Croatia and England were set up to meet in this summer’s second World Cup semi-final, both teams sensed a real opportunity to progress to the final. Either qualifying was always going to be a fantastic achievement, with Croatia having never reached a World Cup final and England having only done so once, 52 years ago. The English media, full of praise for the team for the first tournament in decades, fancied their chances against Zlatko Dalic’s men, while the latter saw a real opportunity to progress to the last match against France. Whatever was going to happen, this was a match being played by two nations incredibly proud of their teams.
When England crashed out of the 2018 World Cup at the semi-final stage, losing 2-1 to Croatia after extra time, a nation was silenced. The England fans, so vociferous in their support for the Three Lions on the shirt and the 11 heroic ones on the pitch, were left gutted. For this one glimmering summer, the optimism seemingly extinguished long ago started to flicker back into existence. Football was coming home, they thought. But it didn’t. However, instead of the usual what-ifs and why-didn’t-theys, this time the team left with their heads held high, falling against a side who, once they grew into the match, were simply the better team on the night.
Not many people predicted France versus Belgium would be one of the lowest scoring matches at the 2018 World Cup, and yet perhaps we should not have been so surprised this was not an end-to-end classic. Didier Deschamps doesn’t do end-to-end, the 4-3 victory over Argentina a strange anomaly that highlighted the South Americans’ hopelessness (and good fortune in front of goal) more than anything else.
Throughout the tournament in Russia France have played with great caution, scoring six goals from their five other matches in a continuation of the cautious, conservative football that defined their Euro 2016 campaign. Two years ago it was Deschamps’ dull football that saw much of the French public turn on him, that meant they lost to Portugal in a final they should have easily won.
History could very well repeat itself on Sunday. France’s 1-0 victory on Tuesday evening was a stoic, professional performance that has drawn as many plaudits as critics, but with so much young talent at his disposal Deschamps remains teetering on the edge of failure. He is finding out that playing defensive football is perfectly acceptable… until you lose.
It is a problem that Jose Mourinho, the master of reactive tactics, knows all too well. His Manchester United team faced a similar dilemma in May of 2017 when the Europa League final against Ajax was billed as an all-or-nothing game for the Portuguese coach. Win and his methods would be forgiven; lose and face serious recriminations, a backlash that questions why the fans should be made to endure such dull football.
Deschamps is facing a similar problem; France fans asking similar questions. Should France win the World Cup then none of this will matter, but should England or Croatia grind their way to victory pundits will rightly question why France haven’t won this tournament at a canter. In a year in which Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and Italy all failed to make the latter stages, it would frankly be a disaster for France to fall short with Nabil Fekir, Ousmane Dembele, Benajmin Mendy, and Thomas Lemar on the bench.
Those four players, plus Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman, would be key players for a coach willing to exploit France’s abundance of young, quick attacking players. There is a sense that Kylian Mbappe has made an impact this summer despite his manager’s tactics, not because of them; if the French fall at the final hurdle fans will wonder what could – what should – have been.
This might seem like an odd time to be criticising the manager, but the performance against Belgium suggests Deschamps has no interest in building an exciting team – either in this World Cup or the next. They held just 36% possession in the semi-final, with the entire team camped 40 yards from goal with the sole intention of limiting space for Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Granted, they won the game, but it could easily have swung the other way. Belgium had the better chances and, had it not been for poor defending from one of France’s four corners, the narrative could be decisively different today.
For two years pundits in France and around the world have struggled to understand exactly what Deschamps is trying to achieve. There has been nothing like a coherent plan, and certainly no interest in bringing through their most talented youngsters. A troubled group stage could easily have been followed by defeat to Uruguay (had Edinson Cavani been available) and, if anything, their performance was even more flat in the semi-final.
The story of how the World Cup is won is invariably rewritten after the tournament has ended. The apparent destiny of Spain and Germany winning the last two seemed far less so at the time, with both nations struggling up until the semi-final stage. Should France narrowly win on Sunday, they will be remembered as a professional-but-cautious team that calmly won the World Cup. That would be a false narrative.
France still stand for little; their performances still fail to convince. Deschamps is the Mourinho of this World Cup, and just like the Man Utd manager this leaves his caged team in an all-or-nothing situation. Win, and all will be forgotten. Lose, and the team’s performances over the last two years will be rightly seen as an unforgivable failure.
France have booked their place in the first World Cup final in 12 years at this summer’s tournament. They overcame a talented Belgium side 1-0 to move to within 90 minutes of regaining the status of world champions. In Sunday’s Final they will come up against the winner of the other semi-final, contested between England and Croatia, and whichever side gets through to the biggest match in world football the French will go in as favourites – but needing star striker Antoine Griezmann to be on top form. Griezmann’s World Cup campaign so far has of course been decent – he has bagged three goals for himself while partnering arguably one of the stars of the show, Kylian Mbappe, through the youngster’s first senior international tournament.
As you will probably already know, Juventus have confirmed one of their biggest transfer deals since the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Pavel Nedved signed for the Turin club back in 2001. They confirmed that Real Madrid’s Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo would be wearing the black and white stripes of the Old Lady next season, signing a four-year contract for a fee of around €105M. The deal ends his nine-year stay at the Bernabeu, where he moved from Manchester United in 2009 for a then-world record transfer fee of €94M. His time at Real was laden with glory, though he surprisingly only managed two La Liga titles. 15 trophies were won in total though, including four Champions League crowns, and now he turns the page on a new chapter in his career.
When thinking about everything that has taken place during the Russian World Cup, one simply has to step back and give a round of applause to Belgium. Having been fancied ahead of the tournament kickoff, they secured their qualification from the group stages after just two games, before beating England – who had also qualified – to get into the knockout stages as group winners. While that all sounds great, things could have been more comfortable as that result meant that they entered the knockouts in the half bracket which included a host of former world champions such as Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and France. Somehow, Roberto Martinez’s side have brushed off the pressure and breezed through to the semi-final, matching their best-ever finish at a World Cup.
With the World Cup now having whittled itself down to its final four teams, it is now time to take a look at which midfielders have impressed the most over the past few days. This was a close-run thing this time, as the players played their hearts out in order to help the nation book a place in the World Cup semi-finals. Belgium were arguably the most impressive side in the last eight, overcoming tournament favourites Brazil. Their 2-0 win means they now face a date with destiny against neighbours France in the semi-final this week, with the French having also advanced past South American opposition when they disposed of Uruguay. With both sides now just two wins away from becoming world champions, much is at stake.
When England secured a place in their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, the nation celebrated – naturally. The Three Lions are a team capable of ramping up the patriotism and yet disappointing when a major tournament rolls around. During this World Cup, however, they have done exactly what has been expected of them, and now only Croatia stand between them and a first World Cup final in 52 years. Social media has been abuzz for the last few weeks, fans all over the world claiming that football is indeed finally coming home, 22 years after it was predicted to do so by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Lightning Seeds. That hasn’t been the only internet meme to go viral though, as a string of tweets about a certain player has excited the nation once again.