MOSCOW — Here’s a look at what’s coming up at the World Cup, which is down to its last two matches: the third-place game Saturday in St. Petersburg between Belgium and England, and the final the following day in Moscow between France and Croatia:
ELATION AND EXHAUSTION
The Croats are headed to their first World Cup final ever, if they can just stay on their feet for a few more days. Croatia’s 2-1 win over England in extra time Wednesday night in Moscow made it the first team ever to go extra time in three straight World Cup matches. Factor in injury time and successive shootout wins over Denmark and Russia, and Croatia has just played the equivalent of 4½ matches in 11 days.
They’ll have a little less than four days to rest up for the final against France, which has finished all of its games in regulation and has an extra day to prepare, having beaten Belgium on Tuesday . Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is already refusing to use his team’s weariness as an excuse, but just as it was against England, the condition of the players is bound to be a central question in the biggest game Croatia has ever played.
As if the Croats didn’t have enough challenges, now they have to worry about playing again in front of an openly hostile crowd in the 81,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium. Or at least one of them does. Dalic’s insistence after the England match that “the whole of the stadium chanted ‘Croatia, Croatia’” was belied by the fact that a huge chunk of the Russians in the building loudly jeered fullback Domagoj Vida almost every time he touched the ball.
Vida and a team official, both of whom used to play for Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev, appeared in a pro-Ukraine video posted shortly after Croatia knocked Russia out of the tournament. FIFA let Vida off with a warning , but the Russian fans weren’t so forgiving. Given that booing him is now a thing in Moscow, he can expect another rough reception come Sunday.
MISFIT MATCH, REVISITED
England and Belgium have already played each other once in this tournament — a lackluster 1-0 Belgium win in a game both coaches stuffed with reserve players since they’d already qualified for the knockout stage. England coach Gareth Southgate all but conceded he wanted to lose that one so as to avoid a harder route to the semifinal, and his strategy worked, right up until Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic beat England ‘keeper Jordan Pickford in the 109th minute Wednesday night.
Now England and Belgium meet again in the match no one wants to play in. That’s exactly what Southgate and England captain Harry Kane called it immediately after losing to Croatia, using terms that losers of past World Cup semifinals have tossed around too.
“It’s not the game we wanted to be in. I’m sure Belgium didn’t want to be in it,” Kane said. “But it’s a game that’s part of the World Cup. … so we’ll put in that performance and give it the best we can.”
Conventional wisdom holds that Belgium and England will send out the second string again, play a minimum of defense and try to avoid getting any of their high-priced players hurt right before their club seasons begin.
But the third-place match can hold some surprises: The record for the fastest goal in World Cup history still belongs to Turkey’s Hakan Sukur, who buried one 11 seconds into the third-place game against South Korea in 2002.
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