We have arrived at the final destination - Moscow, home of the World Cup Final, pitting two teams in France and Croatia who both deserve to be in this position. This past month of soccer madness has flown by with heart-stopping turns at every point. It's been a thrilling tournament and one of the best we have seen so far this century. Plenty of drama, stoppage time goals, underdog stories like home nation Russia and the resurgence of England, and the powers like Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany all bowing out before the semi-finals. Now the world holds its breath in anticipation of who lifts the trophy in 2018.
Let’s not beat around the bush here; Croatia is the underdog. When the knockout brackets were first revealed, a Croatian run to the final was something many thought might happen but nobody predicted it in the way that it did. After two back to back penalty shootout wins, Croatia needed extra time again in their semi-final matchup against England, a team with tired legs but the deserved favorites. It usually doesn’t bode well when a team who has played 240 minutes in the past two games has to play catch up, but after England took the early advantage, Croatia slowly but steadily began to inch back into the game with Ivan Perisic's second-half equalizer. England’s back three was solid for much of the tournament but they were prone to mental lapses. While it certainly looked poor on Gareth Southgate’s side to lose focus like that, credit to Croatia for pouncing on them. It sort of felt like the second leg of Juventus vs. Spurs where Tottenham had two defensive lapses and the Italian side punished them. All it took was Kyle Walker to not check who was behind him when trying to defend a cross.
From there the tide shifted as England looked mystified and Croatia was dominating in the midfield, a strategy which always bodes well for them. In extra time again you wondered how Croatia’s legs would feel but they kept pushing on when Mario Mandzukic found the back of the net in the 109th minute for the winner. England's back line lapsed yet again as John Stones didn’t react quick enough to a bouncing ball in the box. It was a bizarre play as everyone on the pitch seemed to stop and watch the ball bounce towards Pickford; everyone except for Mandzukic. It was a nervy final 11 minutes as Croatia hung on to advance to their first World Cup final.
France faced a much tougher opponent in Belgium, but like their final opponents, they did much of the same thing they had done throughout the tournament: Grab a goal and hold steady.
France hasn’t looked too flashy in this tournament and outside of the Argentina game, their offense has looked lackluster. But it doesn’t matter to Didier Deschamps men. They just keep getting the job done and have gotten the results necessary to advance. They did the same thing against Belgium. France let Belgium dictate a lot of the possession this game and pick them off on the counter, a strategy Belgium used against Brazil, but it was a lone goal off a set piece from Barcelona center-back Samuel Umtiti that sent them through.
The game turned from there as France hunkered down and absorbed all the Belgian pressure. Belgium had a lot of chances on goal but couldn’t seem to beat Hugo Lloris and the French defense. To France’s credit, it was a tough backline to beat as Umtiti and Raphael Varane held down Romelu Lukaku and N’Golo Kante did a good job breaking up key passes while neutralizing the dangerous Kevin De Bruyne. It wasn’t the most pretty win or the most aesthetically pleasing win but once again, it’s just about getting the job done. Now France finds themselves one win away from winning a major tournament and can finally exercise the demons that haunted them after Euro 2016.
It’s a similar situation with France face as - like Portugal in 2016 - they face an inferior opponent in a final but they should be ready for this one. Losing at home in a European final doesn’t just wash away easily and it shouldn’t. There is a lot of those guys playing now who were there in Paris that day, watching Portugal go crazy as they snatched a cup winning goal without their best player in Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. One has to be wary about France playing inferior opponents but they should be solid.
The key in this matchup will be the midfield. It’s Modric and Rakitic versus the likely trio of Pogba, Matuidi, and Kante. Simply put, whoever controls the middle wins, but this one is much more crucial for Croatia, especially since their wings will have to defend a lot more with Mbappe and Griezmann able to leak out for counters. Strinic can’t be left alone against Mbappe as we saw what happens when you give the wonderkid any sorts of space. This will force Perisic to track back and at least account for Mbappe presence, so a lot of the offense will come through the middle of the park with the Croatian duo springing passes to unlock the French defense. France has three high motor players of their own with two of them having enough offensive quality to scare Croatia’s backline. If Matuidi and Pogba are able to get up in attack with Giroud being the holdup man and occupying the center-backs, Croatia could be in for a very long night.
Croatia will have to play a lot of defense while somehow making sure that they have enough time to get Rakitic and Modric going. This opens up Mario Mandzukic as a key man for Croatia as he alone will probably be up in attack unless Andrej Kramaric starts as a CAM with the duo in a double pivot behind him. But you could see Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic in a pivot with Modric up top. There is a lot of shifting which could go on in the Croatian midfield as manager Zlatko Dalic has a lot of options.
Croatia has been fun and like France, they haven’t been flashy but they are effective. This team won’t quit and I see them coming back in this one to equalize some time in the game. But then France is going to get a winner in the second half and hold on. It will be a World Cup to remember for Les Blues.
Belgium v France can arguably be considered the final of the tournament. Belgium has eliminated Brazil and were resilient in their comeback again Japan. France has been dominant with a solid mix of youth and experienced European club-talented players. How do both teams match-up against each other? Let’s preview their chances and see who has the best chance to move forward
What makes Belgium dangerous is their ability to win games They dominated Japan in possession and shots, but needed to come back from down 2-0 to advance. Their resiliency set up a quarterfinal match-up with Brazil. They made changes to their starting XI to counter Brazil, and their strategy paid off in a 2-1 win.
Belgium will have to play a similar style to beat France and advance to Sunday's final. Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba are France’s key threats up top - Belgium needs to keep them at bay and win the battle in the midfield to move on. Belgium also needs to do work offensively. They only had three shots on target against Brazil, although they managed to score twice. The French backline is young and capable of making mistakes; finishing from Lukaku and its other attacking players must be an area of focus.
France has been waiting for this moment since 2006. It's their first semi-final since finishing as the runner-up in the 2006 tournament. Their generational talent is just as important as Belgium’s, and this won't be the last World Cup we see with this youthful squad together.
Olivier Giroud, Griezmann, Mbappe, and Pogba have been pivotal for the French attack. 19-year-old Mbappe has been the darling of the tournament; just think, he'll be in his peak the next two World Cups. His runs have been nightmare for defenders who can’t seem to deal with his speed. Pogba and Griezmann have also demonstrated their leadership, controlling the tempo of the game. They were the more accurate team in terms of passing against Uruguay last round, controlling a large portion of the ball. They didn't score as frequently against a more disciplined Uruguay team than they did against Argentina, but they did show they can beat you on the ground or in the air, with a nice header from Raphael Varane.
Les Bleus seems confident they can contain Hazard in a similar fashion they did to Lionel Messi. This is not the same squad as Argentina however. Belgium has French legend Thierry Henry on its bench creating an intriguing match-up and is highly disciplined and deadly on counters. France will have to be in top form to beat this Belgium side who will seek to reach their first ever final.
Prediction: France 3 - 1 Belgium
The Round of 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup begins today and we have some top-tier matches to kick off the knockout stages. Four powerhouses take center stage Saturday and there will be stars all over the pitch. We have a good ol’ slug out between Uruguay and Portugal on the tail end of the doubleheader, but before that Messi and Argentina meet one of the more complete teams in the tournament in France. It’s arguably the best day in the Round of 16. Get ready.
France vs. Argentina
On paper, this might seem like a close match-up but we might get a completely different result on the pitch. Neither squad has been overly convincing; one of the teams is in shambles right now while the other is still trying to find their identity. It’s one of the best players in the world versus one of the more talented teams in the world.
France qualified at the top of Group C and it was relatively easy 7 points, winning their first two games against Australia and Peru before a scoreless draw against Denmark, arguably the most boring match of the tournament. But wasn’t a dominant French performance overall. They struggled to find goals on Austrailia and it took two wonderful moments from Paul Pogba to generate goals. In the Peru match, they got a deflection which got behind the Peruvian goalkeeper and right to the feet of Kylian Mbappe. France was the stronger side in each game, but you didn’t walk away from those matches thinking they put on a grand show.
Like Brazil, France are not expected to just win. It’s especially evident with all of the young talent they boast at every position. It’s also troubling to see the French attack only score three goals in the group stage. With the likes of Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele up top, France has looked mediocre and have failed to score more than one goal in open play so far.
Argentina had a much more difficult time making the knockout rounds. In the group of death, Argentina was put through the ringer but somehow escaped. After a disappointing draw against Iceland, Leo Messi and company were thrashed by Croatia 3-0, a result both sides deserved. Argentina was outclassed and Messi was nowhere to be seen in the second half. Behind Luka Modric, Croatia bossed the game and won deservedly. Needing a win against Nigeria, an early Messi goal gave them the spark they needed, but it was canceled out by a dumb penalty by Javier Mascherano, which allowed Nigeria to equalize.
When all hope seems lost, Marcos Rojo volleyed home a shot in the box to give them the lead and send Argentina to the round of 16. They finished second in Group D, which was a result few saw coming. They weren’t one of the best teams to make it to the Round of 16 and the group stage was just pure chaos. Argentina got lucky in order to advance and they will need more of it against France.
France’s offense has been lackluster so far but Argentina’s defense is very shaky. Mascherano has looked his age and the centerbacks are thrown into the fire every time an opposing team gets the ball. If there was a game where France will want to see their attack get revved up, it’s this one. The formula is simple for the underdogs, everything will have to funnel through Messi and Ever Banega. Those two are the players for Argentina that are going to create things for others. It was the duo who combined for their first goal against Nigeria with Banega sending a beautiful ball over the top. With France’s defense centered on stopping Messi, it will likely take a world-class performance from Banega to unlock them.
N’Golo Kante and company are going to make life tough for one of the best players in the world and these are one of those cases where team trumps talent. Messi can’t do it all for Argentina and despite the talent he has around him attacking-wise, it won’t make up for the rest of the field and how good France are. Kante is a one-man destroyer in the midfield and if Messi is kept in check, it will likely be because of him. With Pogba and Blaise Matuidi bossing the midfield, France will control the game and force Argentina to hunker down and play on the break. Argentina can counter attack, but the question is how long can they keep France from smashing the ball into the back of the net? My guess is not long.
Prediction: France are the better side and although Messi will likely produce a wonder goal against them, they will be too much for the Argentine defense to handle.
France wins 2-1.
Portugal vs. Uruguay
If the first game will be attack-minded, this one will be the exact opposite. This game will be an absolute war between two sides who aren’t afraid of making a game mucky and terrible to watch. Both Portugal and Uruguay are content to sit back, defend, and let the talisman up top do their work. There will be a lot of hard tackles and we might even get some tension in this game. This will be good.
Uruguay, as everyone expected, finished first in Group A with nine points. But like France, they weren't as dominating as they could have been, with the exception of the second half against Russia. It took a Gimenez header in the 90th minute to beat Egypt and a Luis Suarez goal off a corner to beat Saudi Arabia. The floodgates opened up in the final game against Russia, but it was thanks to the host nation’s own doing. An own goal and a red card practically sealed Russia’s fate, but it did give Uruguay a boost heading into the knockouts.
It also gave Edison Cavani a goal which might help his confidence in this game against Portugal. They have looked sturdy in defense but the midfield still needs to answer some questions. Youngster Lucas Torreira has looked like a solid player in the midfield and is the only one who can play as the link between the back line and the duo of Suarez/Cavani. What Uruguay has missed for so long is a player who can do it all in the midfield and Torreira has shown some potential to do that. But it seems unlikely he will start for them in this game.
Portugal had an up and down experience during the group stage. They first played a thrilling 3-3 draw against Spain in matchday 1. It was one of the best games of the tournament thus far and include everything from a Nacho volley off the post and in, to a Ronaldo free kick capping off his hat trick. They got past Morocco with an early goal but faced trouble in the final game against Iran. After Ricardo Quaresma scored a wonder goal which only he attempts, a shaky penalty call led to Iran getting a penalty kick, which they converted. It was nervy times for Portugal as another Iran goal would see them crashing out of the group stage. Hearts were in the throats of all those in the stadium when Iran had a one on one chance with Rui Patricio closing down. The shot flew past Patricio but it went on the wrong side of the post and Portugal survived.
But if there was a saying that fits this team's will, it’s “survive and advance”. We saw how Portugal plays during the knockout rounds of Euro 2016. They are willing to make the game ugly and rely on random contributions from the “other guys” if Ronaldo doesn’t show up. Against a strong Uruguay backline, Ronaldo will be the center of attention and guys like Gonçalo Guedes will have to make smart runs into the open spaces vacated by Uruguay defenders. Portugal has shown at times that they can step up when Ronaldo can’t.
This will come down to whose talisman are more lethal and can finish more chances. Uruguay has two world-class strikers in Cavani and Suarez but Portugal has a Ronaldo. It will be an all out war and it won’t be pretty, but aesthetic is what neither team is good at nor are they trying to achieve an eye appealing playing style, especially Uruguay. They play very similar to Atletico Madrid on a club level and have become a mainstay in world football by doing so.
Prediction: What Uruguay is better than Portugal at is making this game murky and hard to watch. Uruguay wins in an absolute slugfest of a game. Suarez likely bags the winner.
Much like Group A, we find ourselves having one clear favorite to finish at the top of the group (France) while we see second place being a fight between the remaining teams, particularly two have a real shot. France should comfortably advance but Denmark and Peru both have a shout of making the knockout rounds via a second place finish while Australia are trying to play spoilers once again.
As one would expect, France are the presumed favorites of this group and with good reason. They are one of the deepest squads in the entire tournament and are some people’s pick to win it all. France cruised through UEFA qualifying, losing only one game in a group which included Sweden and the Netherlands. The campaign was impressive despite drawing against the likes of Belarus and Luxembourg during it. France will need to be on their A game from the start in this World Cup. Especially if they want to advance deep into the tournament. Last time around, they lost to eventual winners Germany with a Mats Hummels header being the difference.
France boast one of the top squads and have quality on all three levels of the pitch. Starting with attack, where they have Atletico Madrid strike Antoine Griezmann at striker, who scored 4 goals during qualifying. He will likely be flanked by starlets Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, both have impressed at the club level and are expected to get a lot of minutes in Russia. More questions will be asked of Dembele cause of his rocky first season with Barcelona where he suffered from injury. Mbappe can also play as a striker and his movement to find gaps in the defense will be key. He’s a great all around playmaker and will get everyone involved. They just need to get him the ball. Defense will be strong with Hugo Lloris at the back, who despite the occasional keeping error, is still a top goalie. Samuel Umtiti was a top five defender in Europe for FC Barcelona and will be flanked by Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane. Both are under 26 years and represent the new age of defense with Laurent Koscielny out of the tournament with an injury.
In the midfield Didier Deschamps will have numerous options to choose from. There are a bunch of combinations he could roll out. An ideal midfield would be one of Steven N’Zonzi, N’Golo Kante, and Paul Pogba. N’Zonzi is a great passer, as shown when he plays for Sevilla, and along with Kante can protect the backline by playing the role of destroying an opposing counterattacks. Both N’Zonzi and Kante can get back on defense and eat up space in a hurry. This will allow Pogba to go forward, where he is the most useful. Using Pogba in a holding role would be a grave mistake and would limit his creativity offensively. France gets a lot better when Pogba is up the pitch for offensive support.
The France are the best team in this group and should advance easily. It will take them some major slip ups to finish anything lower than first place.
While France’s UEFA qualifying campaign was quite smooth sailing, the same can’t be said about Denmark’s. They finished second in Group E behind Poland and thanks to a draw against Romania, were able to hold off Montenegro in third place. From there Denmark advanced to the playoff-off round where they faced off against the Republic of Ireland in a two-leg tie. After a tense 0-0 draw in Copenhagen, Denmark was facing some pressure as they went to Dublin for the return leg. The pressure was short lived as Denmark beat the brakes off Ireland in the second leg, beating them 5-1 with Christian Eriksen scoring a hattrick.
When looking at this squad, it’s clear that Eriksen will be running the show for them in Russia. Everything offensively will go through the Spurs midfielder, just like it did in qualifying. Along with the hattrick in the second round, Eriksen scored 8 goals in qualifying for his country. A very creative player in the final third, he will be the perfect set up man for Denmark and you will see a majority of their chances generated by him. At striker however, Denmark don’t have a target man as Nicklas Bendtner is out of the squad due to injury. It’s a roll of the dice in terms of who will start up for the Danish. Martin Braithwaite, Andreas Cornelius, Yuusuf Polsen, Nicolai Jorgensen, and even Ajax youngster Kasper Dolberg will be options for manager Age Hareide. It will be great to see Eriksen be used to his best offensively but it means nothing for Denmark if they can’t score goals and by looking at their strike force, it’s going to be a fight to put the ball in the back of the net.
At the back goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel will be the leader. The Leicester City goalkeeper had another solid year in the Premier League and will not be an issue for them. The real problem for Denmark will be in front of him. Sevilla centre back Simon Kjaer will likely be captaining the side and leads a defense which only gave up 8 goals in qualifying, the least total in their group.
Denmark are stingy at the back and rely a fat chunk of their offensive potential on the shoulders of Eriksen. They will be hard to break down but there are numerous questions about their attack. It really comes down to the game against Peru which will decide their fate. If they can knock them off, they have a solid shot at second place in Group C.
Like Denmark, Peru had a stressful journey to the World Cup as they had some nervy moments during their qualification process. They finished 5th in the CONMEBOL qualifying on goal difference and were able to hold off Chile as both nations were tied on 26 points each. It was much thanks to a draw against Colombia combined with a Chile loss to Brazil which sent Peru to a playoff round. In the playoff round, Peru faced off against New Zealand and were able to cruise to a 2-0 aggregate victory with both goals coming in the away leg. Now they are looking to play as an upset team looking to capture the attention of the world.
Peru has some experienced players, with 5 members of their WC squad having played 60 or more caps for them. Luckily for Peru, it’s spread all over the pitch. Christian Ramos and Luis Advincula provide stability at the back while Orlando City’s Yoshimar Yotun and Watford’s Andre Carrillo could be useful options in the midfield. But Peru’s strong point is in their attack.
While Jefferson Farfan and Raul Ruidiaz are also options up top, a big boost for Peru came last week when it was announced that striker Paolo Guerrero’s ban for drugs had been lifted, allowing the player to be selected for the final 23-man squad. Being the country’s leading goalscorer in their entire history, getting Guerrero back instantly makes Peru a dangerous side in Group C. All of the attack relies on Guerrero and he’s completely fine with being the focal point of it all. He instantly made his presence known by coming back from the suspension and scoring a brace against Saudi Arabia in a recent friendly. It seems he is picking up where he left off.
Like Denmark, there is a path for Peru to qualify through the knockout stages in this group. But it will all depend on how they play the Danish. Picking up points against Australia will be crucial as well. They rely a lot on Guerrero’s smarts and instincts to get them goals but they will need a step up from everyone all over the pitch if they want to make noise in the first World Cup they’ve been to in 36 years.
It seems to be a trend here in Group C but like the two previous teams before them, Australia also had to go through a playoff-round to get here. They finished third in Group B of AFC qualifying, finishing third to Saudi Arabia on goal difference as both sides were tied on 19 points and despite Australia beating Thailand 2-1 on the final matchday. Australia then had to play the 3rd team in Group A, Syria, in a two-leg playoff. After drawing 1-1 in the first leg the two teams headed to Sydney for an all-important second leg. There it finished 1-1 as well and off we went to extra time. There, Australian legend Tim Cahill scored the game winning goal in 109th minute to send Australia to another playoff round. This time it was against Honduras with the winner going to the World Cup. Again the first leg didn’t break the deadlock with the score being 0-0 but once again the Aussies came back to life when the tie switched to Sydney for the second leg. Captain Mile Jedinak scored a hattrick to send them to the World Cup on a 3-1 aggregate scoreline.
Although this is only Australia's 4th World Cup in their history, they do have some players who have a lot of experience at this level. Particularly when it comes to Cahill and Jedinak. Those two are the anchors of the Socceroos and will provide leadership wherever needed. Cahill is the greatest ever Australian goalscorer, and scored an absolute stunner against the Netherlands in the 2014 group stage, but at age 38 who knows how much impact he will have in attack. But luckily for him, some of the younger guys stepped up in qualifying. Tomi Juric scored 5 and Herta Berlin’s Mathew Leckie scored 3 for the Socceroos during qualifying. Those two are going to be the top selections if former Dutch boss Bert Van Marwijk decides to not start Cahill, which is a likely scenario.
As per usual, Australia will look to generate a lot of their goals on the counter as they are one of the weaker teams in this group. But their midfield has some quality players who can funnel the ball to wingers or even start a counter themselves. Jedinak is a steady presence sitting back in front of the back four while Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy is also someone to look for in the midfield. QPR’s Massimo Luongo is also worth a look at well. It’s a good mix of talent in the Australian midfield but as always, it’s how the defend which will see if they can hold their own in this group.
Matty Ryan is a quality goalie at the back and his experience playing for teams such as Valencia, Genk, and Brighton should help. There are questions ahead of him with only one Australian defender on this team having more than 30 caps, which would be Trent Sainsbury, who spent 2017 on loan at Inter. The Australian defense can’t afford to give up an easy goals like they did in qualifying as they are already going to be under a lot of pressure defensively.
Australia is the real underdog in this group but it isn’t as bad as they had it in 2014 when they were slotted with Spain, Chile, and the Netherlands. This time it’s a lot more easier with the teams they are grouped with. They will likely need to snatch wins against both Denmark and Peru back to back. The first mountain to climb is against France. They can’t afford to get blown out, mostly due to goal difference. If they can somehow get a draw it could go a long way in the Aussies making a shock run to the knockout rounds.
Like Group A, we already know who is finishing first in this group, it’s France. Second place is once again up for grabs, mostly between Denmark and Peru. It’s a very tough call and cases are strong for both sides but Denmark has a real playmaker in Eriksen and he will be the difference. The first matchday, which pits the two sides against each other will likely decide the way the group will tilt
France, Denmark, Peru, Australia
It’s halfway through May which means we have arrived at cup final season. As the match days in Europe’s respective leagues wind down, we begin to get ready for some cup final fixtures. Not just domestically, but across Europe as well.
This week features the Europa League final, the little brother of the Champions League final. While it isn’t as hyped as the Champions League, the Europa League final does offer some fun matchups in recent fixtures. This year’s fixture features two teams with differing styles. It’s Atletico Madrid vs. Olympique Marseille who will clash in Lyon for the Europa League title and a spot in the Champions League next season. Let’s take a look at the two squads and what we can expect from both of them.
It has been an OK season for French club Olympique Marseille in terms of their Ligue 1 standing, and they have a chance to get some silverware which would certainly put an exclamation point on their season. In fact, Marseille still could finish as high as 2nd in Ligue 1 pending on how the results go on the final matchday this weekend. Currently Marseille are one point away from 3rd place Lyon and 3 points away from 2nd place Monaco. If Marseille are able to get three points against Amiens on the final day, along with some help, they could jump up in the standings. This could be huge for Marseille as 2nd in Ligue 1 is automatic Champions League qualification while 3rd means you have to go through the playoff stage first.
In terms of the Europa League, Marseille had a rough beginning as they narrowly escaped the group stages. Finishing second behind RB Salzburg, Marseille were able to advance to the round of 32 thanks to a draw on the final day with the table leaders. Combine that with a draw by Turkish club Konyaspor and Marseille were through. They were then able to dispatch both Braga and Athletic Bilbao in the knockout stages pretty easily, winning both legs. But against RB Leipzig, they faced some trouble when they suffered a 1-0 first leg defeat against the upstart German club. The second leg was a much different story as Marseille put five goals past Leipzig to walk away the victors on aggregate, 5-3. Again they faced a Red Bull team in the semi-final, this time being Salzburg. After a 2-0 victory in the first leg it looked like Marseille were in cruise control but two quick goals in Salzburg for the home team changed all that. The game then headed to extra time where some controversy took place. A shot by Marseille in the 116th minute was for sure a goal kick yet the referees ruled it to be a corner, claiming it to go off a Salzburg player despite replay showing otherwise. That led to a corner which was put home by Rolando and Marseille survived a poor performance on the road.
But anyways, on to the Europa League final, which should be the only thing on the minds of Rudi Garcia and his men. This will be a tough test for the French club as they face an Atletico Madrid team who are super compact defensively. Atletico won’t give Marseille any favors in this game and Garcia’s players will have to be on their games to break them down. In terms of Marseille’s attack, it mainly runs through the duo of Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet. Thauvin has had an amazing season, scoring 26 goals for Marseille in all competitions. Payet hasn’t been as lethal in front of goals as his teammate but he has been a key set up man for OM. He has recorded 24 assists in all competitions this season with 7 of them coming in the Europa League. If OM even want a chance of winning this game, they are going to need both Thauvin and Payet to step up. They are the main chance creators and everything run throughs them. Other than that, they aren’t a lot of the guys on the pitch who will be able to create their own chances. Against a brick wall of a defense like Atletico Madrid, Marseille are going to need to be super creative and pick their spots offensively. They can’t be overly aggressive and take dumb risks, otherwise they will be picked apart by Atletico’s counter attack.
It’s been an interesting year for Atleti. Like Manchester United, finishing second in one of Europe’s biggest football leagues is quite an achievement. But given the point gap and how Barcelona ran away with La Liga, it almost doesn’t feel like an accomplishment at all. But once again they have a chance to do something which has slipped through their hands twice before, winning a European cup trophy.
This will be Atletico’s fifth European final since 2009-10 and hopefully for them, it won’t end in heartbreak. While the Europa League trophy doesn’t hold the same bearing as a Champions League one, it's still a good ending to the season for an Atletico Madrid team who are seeing their prime players fade out of the limelight. We are seeing a new wave of Atletico players come through the ranks and play minutes for Diego Simeone’s squad as players like Juanfran, Gabi, and others will slowly be moved out. For sentiment sake, it would be nice to see a group who has gone through watching Real Madrid snatch the trophy from their hands twice to get to lift one after all they have been through.
With La Liga basically settled, this is all Atletico Madrid have to play for. They entered the Europa League in the round of 32 after crashing out in the Champions League group stage. Simeone’s squad suffered defeats against Chelsea, Roma, and even drew with last place Qarabag FC. It certainly was the group of death in the Champions League and Atletico Madrid just didn’t seem up to the task.
But things turned around in the Europa League thanks to some fortunate draws. They cruised past the likes of Lokomotiv Moscow and Kobenhavn before facing against Sporting. It was a shaky tie as Sporting pegged a goal back from Atletico to make it 2-1 in the second leg. But in typical Atletico fashion they bunkered down and finished it off. Then came the semi-final against Arsenal. It was a tough away leg at the Emirates thanks to an early red card. After nearly 50 minutes of Atletico resistance, Arsenal broke through with a goal and it felt as if Atletico were setting themselves up for a comeback in the second leg. But then came a huge slice of luck as a ball off the face of Laurent Koscielny landed right in front of Antoine Griezmann who slotted it into the top right corner. It gave Atletico their away goal and flipped the tie on its head. In the home leg, it was a typical Atletico Madrid game until a through ball send Diego Costa through and he didn’t miss. In what was Arsene Wenger’s final European game at Arsenal, Diego Simeone got the best of him as Atletico advanced to another final.
For Atletico, expect them to approach this the same way they have in finals before. Sit back and absorb pressure but aren’t afraid to counter attack. As typical with most French/Ligue 1 teams, Marseille’s back line is shaky. The likes of Griezmann and Costa could take advantage of it and strike on the counter attack. Gabi and company will be tasked with keeping Payet and Thauvin out of the danger areas. If they are able to that and stymie Marseille, then Griezmann and Costa can do work. In all honesty, those two are the only ones who pose and constant attacking threat for Atletico and if they don’t produce, neither do Atletico. But they’ve been so good it’s rarely been the case.
This game is going to produce very few chances and Atletico strike quickly but only to have Marseille square it all up right before halftime. Then either Costa or Griezmann are sent in via a ball by Koke or Saul, get past the Marseille defenders and fire it past Steve Mandanda for the second goal. It turns out to be the game winning goal for Atletico who then close up shop and see out the victory. Simeone and his group finally get to lift up their first European trophy in six years.