What a World Cup it has been.
After an excellent Round of 16, the quarter-finals saw even more drama, with the demise of the final two non-European teams. Sweden and host Russia joined Brazil and Uruguay as losers in the top-eight.
Belgium and England were eliminated in the semifinals, and will play in the third-place game in Saint Petersburg on Saturday at 10 a.m. ET.
For the fourth straight time, a European team will win the World Cup. The only question now is: France or Croatia?
Here are the highs and lows from a thrilling quarter-final and semifinal week.
Croatia’s improbable run
Croatia had a spectacular run at their first World Cup in 1998, losing in the semis and eventually capturing third place.
20 years later, they’ve gone a step further, and extra-time has been a huge part of it.
The 20th ranked team by FIFA at the beginning of the tournament needed more time in all three of its knockout games.
After a thrilling 90 minutes against Russia in their quarter-final, Croatia was able to knock off the hosts, despite giving up a late goal in the extra frame. They scored four of five penalties on route to their first semifinal berth in 20 years.
That game didn’t start off as the nation hoped, as emerging star Kieran Trippier scored a beautiful free kick to give England the lead just five minutes in.
But Croatia didn’t falter, scoring on a cross to Ivan Perisic in the 68th minute. Cue extra time again, and cue a Mario Mandzukic strike in the 109th minute to put the Croatians on the brink of glory.
The only thing standing in the way of a first World Cup title is a strong French team, and if it goes past 90 minutes, you can’t help but like their chances.
Speaking of France, the last time it captured a World Cup was 1998, the year Kylian Mbappe was born, and he’s been a big reason for its success. The Paris Saint-Germain striker has solidified himself as a superstar on the world stage.
But it’s the defence that turned heads in wins over Uruguay and Belgium; the team hasn’t given up a goal since a Round of 16 triumph over Argentina on June 30.
The defence has also turned into offence, as it was centre-back Samuel Umtiti who scored the decisive goal to beat Belgium 1-0 and send France to the final.
The team is composed, can turn defence into offence in seconds, and clearly knows how to keep the ball out of its own net. Goaltender Hugh Lloris was quiet vs. Uruguay, but superb against Belgium, making some key saves, including a beauty diving stop on Kevin De Bruyne.
They’re favourites to dispatch Croatia in the final and win their first World Cup in 20 years, and for good reason; this squad is a well oiled machine at all ends of the pitch.
Kane’s prolific miss
In lieu of calling England’s draw lucky, it was certainly fortunate.
24th ranked Sweden and 20th ranked Croatia were certainly more beatable teams than Brazil (2), Belgium (3) or France (7).
After defeating the Swedes 2-0 in the quarter-finals, and leading 1-0 against Croatia in the semifinal, England only needed one more to put the game away and virtually solidify a spot in its first World Cup in over 50 years.
And Harry Kane had that chance in the 30th minute. A beautiful ball from Jesse Lingard sent Kane in alone against Danijel Subasic. The Croatian keeper made the first save, but the ball came back to Kane, who couldn’t beat the post with a lot of net in front of him.
Yes, it was a tough angle, but that’s a goal Kane should have scored.
Croatia thoroughly dominated the second half, and deserved the win. But if Kane had scored on that chance, it would have been nearly impossible for the Croatians to come back.
There’s been a great deal of post-match criticism during the World Cup, and the quarters and semis were no different.
Belgium’s Thomas Meunier, who was suspended for the teams semifinal match against France, criticized Mbappe’s behaviour in the game, accusing him of wasting time. The two are teammates for Paris Saint-Germain.
And that wasn’t the only piece of negativity post-game, as Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois accused France of doing nothing but defend after scoring the winning goal, calling them an “anti-football team.”
He went to far as to say he would have rather lost against Brazil in the quarter-finals, citing them as a team that “at least wanted to play football.”
Antoine Griezmann on Thibaut Courtois’ criticism of France’s tactics, “Does Courtois think that at Chelsea he plays Barcelona football? I don’t care how, I want a second star to be put on this shirt.” (H/T <a href=”https://twitter.com/brfootball?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@brfootball</a> ) <a href=”https://t.co/XYGgNK7acL”>pic.twitter.com/XYGgNK7acL</a>
Earlier, Croatian captain Luka Modric criticized English media for underestimating them in their semifinal match, calling it “a huge mistake.” He was quoted as saying the media should be more humble and respect more opponents.
Clearly, there’s been a great deal of hostility between nations, notably after games.
Through 62 matches in Russia, soccer fans have been treated to some truly spectacular football. With only two teams left fighting for soccer’s ultimate prize, Sunday’s World Cup final should be no different.