Sunday, 15 July 2018

World Cup 2018: French outwit Croatia in thrilling World Cup final

By Alistair Hendrie

In a World Cup brimming with late drama, unforgettable goals and seismic upsets, would the final between France and Croatia live up to expectations? It certainly did. France emerged from 90 minutes of mayhem to win 4-2, clinching their second World Cup since their inaugural triumph in 1998 on home soil. Didier Deschamps’ men may be more functional than flamboyant, but that doesn’t matter when you have the burly Raphael Varane putting his body on the line in defence, the ice-cool N'Golo Kante anticipating every passage of play in midfield, and Kylian Mbappe sprinting past opponents with ease in attack.

At 2-1 down on the hour, Croatia drove forward with the kind of intensity that helped them overcome England and Russia after extra-time and penalties. Ivan Perisic should have gambled to convert Ivan Rakitic’s cross, while the unflappable Varane intervened when Perisic was through on goal again. Once France bagged a third though, through Paul Pogba’s deft finish, chaos ensued in a period which yielded three goals in ten minutes. The second of those came from France too, Mbappe slamming home to make it 4-1. Still the madness continued. France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris gifted Croatia a lifeline on 68 minutes, when Mario Mandzukic capitalised on the shot-stopper’s indecision to block the ball into the net from six yards.

Although France will savour their fourth trophy in a major tournament, it seems ironic that on a night when Mbappe became the first teenager to score at a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, Lloris on the other hand committed an error which may haunt him for the rest of his career. Individual performances aside, France were deserved champions, fending off the adventure and verve of Belgium in the semi-finals and Croatia in the decider. With that, Deschamps follows Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer in grasping the World Cup as a player and a manager.

Croatia can come again, though. Zlatko Dalic’s men played with a fierce togetherness throughout their stint in Russia, with Perisic and Ante Rebic in particular scampering after lost causes as if their lives depended on it. Judging by that kind of fight and endurance, it’s no surprise Croatia scored four goals in the 90th minute or later on their way to the final. And although the talismanic Luka Modric, 33, may be coming to the end of his international career, Mandzukic, 32, is Croatia’s only other outfield regular who is over 30. A tilt at the 2020 European Championships beckons.

It was the Croatians who started the final the brighter, Perisic and Ivan Strinic sending early balls from the left towards Mandzukic. Ivan Rakitic, the Croatian central midfielder from Barcelona, looped a ball toward the penalty area but Perisic’s lunge was short by perhaps an inch or two.

Against the run of play, France struck first. Varane skipped across Antionne Griezmann’s arcing free kick, coaxing Mandzukic into heading beyond Daniel Subasic and into his own net. Although Perisic equalised with a volley inside the right-hand post, Griezmann’s penalty put France ahead for a second time. VAR had a defining say. After a video review from referee Nestor Pitana, Perisic was adjudged to have handled Griezmann’s corner. Although Perisic was too close to the flight of the ball to be guilty of a deliberate offense, that didn’t bother Griezmann, who showed nerves of steel to send Subasic the wrong way.

Croatia festered with a sense of injustice. Tremors of thunder filled the air. A pair of streakers bounded onto the playing area. Suffice to say, the second half was all a bit barmy. France found themselves 4-1 up in a flash, Pogba and Mbappe each converting from 20 yards out on 58 and 64 minutes. Pogba’s finish was as assured as it gets, the Manchester United midfielder finding the bottom right-hand corner and wrong-footing Subasic. Mbappe’s was a peach. The gifted 19-year-old trapped Varane’s squared delivery, nudged the ball out of his feet and slammed hard and true into the bottom left corner of the net in one swift, graceful movement. The world is at his feet as they say, and comparisons with Thierry Henry are beginning to look more justified with each passing week.

As Croatia ran themselves into the ground looking for a way back, spaces yawned all over the pitch for both sides. Then came Lloris’s howler for 4-2. The French number one shimmied one way and inexplicably turned back towards Mandzukic, who couldn’t believe his luck as the ball ricocheted off his left boot and into an empty net. It was a calamitous piece of play from a veteran in Lloris who should know better.

That error, thankfully enough, didn’t have a bearing on France’s coronation as world champions. Instead it was Mbappe’s incisive runs that we’ll remember – his slalom around the outside of Domagoj Vida was particularly breath-taking. Griezmann’s deliveries were as reliable as ever, as the Atletico Madrid goal-getter continues to cement his reputation as one of the world’s most complete forwards. Elsewhere, Varane mopped up everything in his wake, directing play with optimum composure. Sure, Deschamps side didn’t provide as much entertainment over the last month as Croatia or Belgium – or perhaps even the hosts – but that won’t weigh on the minds of the French as they lift the trophy.

Learn about another one of the World Cup's star teams - Belgium - with Alistair Hendrie's blog on how the Red Devils taught England a lesson in attacking football

Saturday, 14 July 2018

World Cup 2018: Belgium down inexperienced England side to land third place

By Alistair Hendrie

England aren’t used to flying home from a World Cup this late. Their stay in Russia came to an end on Saturday as they were defeated 2-0 by Belgium in the third place play-off, and although this setback won’t hurt as much as their 2-1 reverse to Croatia in the semi-finals, it will go a long way to show Gareth Southgate how much his side need to improve if they are to advance further at the European Championships in 2020.

This was England’s longest stay at a World Cup since 1990 in Italy, where they also finished fourth, but Belgium’s greater quality of resources underlined the marker that has been set for Southgate and his young, inexperienced and hungry side. Eden Hazard tormented the English defence with pesky dribbling and sudden bursts of pace, the Chelsea winger slotting under Jordan Pickford to wrap up the victory on 81 minutes. Another Premier League gem, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, set teammates free with his range of passing and speed of thought. And although the introduction of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford at half-time provided England with much needed verve and spark, they rarely looked capable of a comeback after Thomas Meunier netted with three minutes gone.

In hindsight, despite the celebratory mood of the last month, it’s easy to forget this Three Lions side still consists largely of young pups. For instance, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are both only 22; Rashford is still just 19. Furthermore, England’s back three in St Petersburg of Harry Maguire, John Stones and Phil Jones had 72 caps between them, whereas Belgium’s defence – Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Meunier – had 297.

That perhaps fails to excuse an insipid performance from England in their farewell outing. Harry Kane was stilted and absent for long periods. Raheem Sterling, so talented yet so frustrating, was indecisive. The underdogs sat back and let Belgium have the ball, Hazard and De Bruyne directing traffic and attempting to slide in Romelu Lukaku. On a more positive note, Kieran Trippier bent and whipped balls across Thibaut Courtois’ goal with malice, while Eric Dier almost equalised with a dink that was hacked off the line at the last moment by Alderweireld.

The Red Devils took the lead when Hazard crossed low for Meunier, who wriggled goalside of Danny Rose to poke in from six yards. It was an untidy finish, but the pace of Hazard’s delivery made the goal. Belgium thrived from thereon in, De Bruyne looking for Lukaku at every chance. After one such move, Lukaku fluffed his first touch when bearing down on goal and the Manchester United man would regret how he allowed Pickford to intervene.

As Jones struggled to track Hazard, and Belgium’s Nacer Chadli left the game injured for Thomas Vermaelen, Belgium settled in a rhythm and knocked the ball around with the confidence and arrogance of future tournament winners. Some would bet heavy money on them to lift the trophy at Euro 2020. Indeed, keep in mind Germany won the 2014 world cup after finishing third in 2010.

After De Bruyne embarrassed Stones with a nutmeg, England created their best chance of the match on 69 minutes. Rashford wrong-footed every yellow-shirted defender on the pitch with a diagonal ball that set Dier through with an unobstructed path to goal. The Tottenham Hotspur man steadied himself with a touch and floated an audacious chip over Courtois, Alderweireld sliding in on the line to prevent a goal that would have swung the tie in England’s favour.

Having scored the decisive penalty against Colombia in the second round, Dier was suddenly a genuine goal threat. He headed wide, and should have done better, after an improvised cross from Lingard. Although Trippier’s deliveries were handing England hope, Belgium took advantage of how the game opened. Meunier pinged Pickford’s fingers back with a volley, while Hazard settled matters on 81 minutes, darting across Jones and side-footing beyond Pickford with a finish of composure and skill under the circumstances.

It might feel patronising to hail this England team as a group of rookies who huffed and puffed against more seasoned opponents. “Didn’t they do well?”, and all that. We should remember that England avoided the likes of Spain, Brazil and Germany – a quirk which to be fair they had no influence over – and these last two defeats will provide Southgate with more conundrums than clarity. How can the team create more from open play? How can Southgate coax the best from Sterling?

Still, the likes of Maguire and Trippier look tailor-made for international football, while Kane can always be relied upon to score goals. Added to that, Jack Wilshere’s transfer to West Ham could revitalise his career and offer Southgate another option. Youngsters such as Ademola Lookman and Ryan Sessegnon should also be on the radar soon. Perhaps in 2020 we’ll be looking at a team of proven class rather than simmering promise.

To take in more of Alistair Hendrie's insight into the world of British sport, buy his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Who is the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world?

By Alistair Hendrie

To determine the best fighter in the world, you need to take into account plenty of factors: form, skill, opposition and dominance, for example. So, if a champion defends his or her crown via a string of finishes, does that equal or better a run of decisions? Should Conor McGregor top the list despite his inactivity, or should Tyron Woodley set the pace regardless of a couple of boring fights?

It’s a debate which rings around gyms, television studios, offices and of course pubs all over the world, and that’s exactly why Alistair Hendrie Sport will be releasing its pound-for-pound list at the start of every month.

To qualify for the list, a fighter should be considered active, so although Georges St-Pierre, for instance, is one of the most skilled and dominant fighters on the planet, he vacated his middleweight title, leaving him dormant for the moment.

Now that you know the criteria we’re looking for and pre-requisites for entry, take a look at the pound-for-pound best mixed martial artists in the world.

July 2018 - Men

1 – Demetrious Johnson (USA) (125lbs)
2 – Max Holloway (USA) (145lbs)
3 – Daniel Cormier (USA) (205lbs)
4 – Stipe Miocic (USA) (265lbs)
5 – Robert Whittaker (AUS) (185lbs) (+2)
6 – Tyron Woodley (USA) (170lbs)
7 – Khabib Nurmagomedov (RUS) (155lbs) (+1)
8 – Tony Ferguson (USA) (155lbs) (+1)
9 – TJ Dillashaw (USA) (135lbs) (+1)
10 – Jose Aldo (BRA) (145lbs) (+1)
11 – Cody Garbrandt (USA) (135lbs) (+1)
12 – Rafael dos Anjos (BRA) (170lbs) (+1)
13 – Yoel Romero (CUB) (185lbs) (+1)
14 – Francis Ngannou (FRA) (265lbs) (+1)
15 – Robbie Lawler (USA) (170lbs) (+1)
16 – Dominic Cruz (USA) (135lbs) (+1)
17 – Dustin Poirier (USA) (155lbs) (+1)
18 – Brian Ortega (USA) (145lbs) (+1)
19 – Stephen Thompson (USA) (170lbs) (+1)
20 – Frankie Edgar (USA) (145lbs) (+1)
21 – Kevin Lee (USA) (155lbs) (+1)
22 – Kamaru Usman (NIG) (170lbs) (+1)
23 – Marlon Moraes (BRA) (135lbs) (+1)
24 – Darren Till (GBR) (170lbs) (+1)
25 – Colby Covington (USA) (170lbs) (NE)

July 2018 - Women

1 – Amanda Nunes (BRA) (135lbs)
2 – Rose Namajunas (USA) (115lbs)
3 – Joanna Jedrzejczyk (POL) (115lbs)
4 – Cris Cyborg (BRA) (145lbs)
5 – Valentina Shevchenko (KYR) (125lbs)
6 – Jessica Andrade (BRA) (115lbs)
7 – Tecia Torres (USA) (115lbs)
8 – Holly Holm (USA) (145lbs) (+1)
9 – Raquel Pennington (USA) (135lbs) (-1)
10 – Claudia Gadhela (BRA) (115lbs)
11 – Nicco Montano (USA) (125lbs)
12 – Karolina Kowalkiewicz (POL) (115lbs)
16 – Carla Esparza (USA) (115lbs) (+3)
13 – Tonya Evinger (USA) (135lbs) (-1)
14 – Megan Anderson (USA) (135lbs) (-1)
15 – Barb Honchak (USA) (125lbs) (-1)
17 – Felice Herrig (USA) (115lbs)
18 – Cynthia Calvillo (USA) (115lbs)
19 – Germaine de Randamie (NED) (145lbs)
20 – Alexis Davis (CAN) (125lbs)
21 – Julliana Pena (USA) (135lbs)
22 – Angela Lee (CAN) (105lbs)
23 – Sara McMann (USA) (135lbs)
24 – Jennifer Maia (BRA) (125lbs)
25 – Marion Reneau (USA) (135lbs)

Whether you agree or disagree with our standings, join in the discussion and let us know your pound-for-pound lists on Twitter.