Millennium Post

And the winner is... Europe

This 21st edition of the World Cup was marked by more upsets than rejoice. Ultimately though, Latin America was shown the door with Europe claiming the top-four slots.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup is all set for its finale. An all-European affair, lined up for the first time since 2006, will witness France – winner of the 1998 edition, taking on Croatia – who will turn up at the Luzhniki Stadium on the special night in Moscow for the first time ever as they make their maiden appearance in the climax of world's biggest football tournament. Already impregnated with much anticipation and speculation long before commencement, the coveted Championship began virtually a month ago and, in due course, managed to produce a host of unprecedented outcomes before reaching the endgame.

It began with bitter feelings in the form of upsets caused by the minnows in the early stages of the competition to the eventual bowing out of favourites in Spain, Argentina and Portugal along with the premature exit of defending champions Germany. Also, not to forget, with the debatable use of the VAR in between, the ongoing 21st edition still had some scope left for surprises as it entered the quarterfinals stage. The outset of the semis saw none of the Latin American sides making it to the last-four of the tournament reducing it to an unexpected all-European contest.

With Didier Deschamps' side living up to the tag of favourites to lift the cup, the Les Blues embarked on the road to the final by topping Group C thanks to their somewhat uninspiring 2-1 and 1-0 win over Australia and Peru respectively and then playing out a stalemate with Denmark. The French then demonstrated the team's attacking potential when they defeated Argentina 4-3 in a thriller in the Round of 16, where teen sensation Kylian Mbappe rose to the occasion and then followed a 2-0 victory against Uruguay which wasn't as convincing as everyone would have imagined it to be. There have been times when they looked unconvincing but however they managed to compensate that with a composed defensive act against the Uruguayans. Then came the highly-anticipated first semifinal clash against Roberto Martinez's Belgium and its much decorated 'golden generation'. What unfolded was a tight match between the two, with both sides creating chances and Belgium striving hard for a breakthrough. But, it was Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti's 51st-minute header for France from the corner that proved to be the only difference maker in the high-octane match. In the buildup to the match, Belgium had been unbeaten in their last 24 matches in all competitions, winning 19 and drawing five.

The enthralling face-off between the neighbours called for a performance even better than their previous one against Uruguay as 'The Red Devils' boasted of one of the best set of forwards in skipper Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne. Overall, their creativity with movement, ball possession and distribution were commendable. However, Deschamps' men staged an organised and conscientious defensive discipline to keep the Belgians at bay, notably with Raphael Varane being the mainstay at the back and putting in a stellar display against a Belgium side also guilty of lacking the killer instinct they showcased in their previous fixtures to outclass opponents in their run to what was the side's second appearance in the World Cup semifinals. At the end of the day, Les Blues and the whole of France basked in the glory of reaching their third World Cup Final since last appearing in 2006.

Like Belgium, Croatia won every game in Group D, netting seven goals in the process. The Croats, nonetheless, have been consistent in their performances, snapping up nine points from their three games in the group stage with a convincing 3-0 win against Lionel Messi's Argentina which brought to light their in-form captain Luka Modric's class and strength. However, their stride took a hit as goals became harder to come by for 'The Blazers' in their journey to the final as they saw off hosts Russia 4-3 on penalties in the quarterfinals to follow-up their triumph over Denmark in the previous round – also ending in a tie-breaker win. Howsoever, Croatia, in Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic has one of the most admirable and enviable midfields. Besides, the likes of Mario Mandzukic up front, with custodian Danijel Subasic and Dejan Lovren, have contributed greatly to the squad in being a formidable force and have enjoyed a fine tournament so far. The Croats have displayed their steely nerves well in the knockout phases as they overcame their opponents in two successive tiebreakers and then bounced back from a goal behind to dash the young and inexperienced but equally upbeat England side's hopes of landing the Cup home since 1966 with a 2-1 extra time win in the second semi-final clash. 'The Three Lions' also have had a more or less decent run in the campaign scoring 12 goals in total with nine of them coming from set-pieces; latest being Kieran Trippier's sublime free-kick in the seminal encounter against the Croatians which got them off to a flying start. But, as the match advanced to extra-time, the end of the day saw England's Cinderella run come to a halt as Mandzukic scored from close range after Ivan Perisic had levelled the game earlier in the second-half to send 'The Blazers' through to the final for the first time ever to set up an intriguing and much-awaited grand finale against the favourites, France.

As no South American team made it to the last four of the tournament it would be Didier Deschamps' mighty side who will take on Zlatko Dali's determined team, who on the other hand will be looking forward to leave no stone unturned to overcome the pain of 1998 when the Croats came in sniffing distance of their semifinal victory over France – who eventually, went on to win the glorious tournament with a disheartened Croatia finishing third.

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