Today with England v Brazil and France v Portugal, we analyze and predict the two semifinal matches of World Cup 2022.
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope, Aaron Ramsdale. Defenders: Harry Maguire, John Stones, Kyle Walker, Luke Shaw, Kieran Trippier, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Eric Dier, Conor Coady, Ben White. Midfielders: Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Kalvin Phillips, James Maddison, Conor Gallagher. Forwards: Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Callum Wilson.
Goalkeepers: Alisson, Ederson, Weverton. Defenders: Dani Alves, Danilo, Alex Sandro, Alex Telles, Bremer, Eder Militao, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva. Midfielders: Bruno Guimaraes, Casemiro, Everton Ribeiro, Fabinho, Fred, Lucas Paqueta. Attackers: Antony, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Neymar, Pedro, Raphinha, Richarlison, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior.
Goalkeepers: Jose Sa, Rui Patricio, Diogo Costa. Defenders: Joao Cancelo, Diogo Dalot, Pepe, Ruben Dias, Danilo Pereira, Antonio Silva, Nuno Mendes, Raphael Guerreiro. Midfielders: William, Ruben Neves, Joao Palhinha, Bruno Fernandes, Vitinha, Otavio, Matheus Nunes, Bernardo Silva, Joao Mario. Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Felix, Rafael Leao, Ricardo Horta, Andre Silva, Goncalo Ramos.
Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola, Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda Defenders: Lucas Hernandez, Theo Hernandez, Axel Disasi, Ibrahima Konate, Jules Kounde, Benjamin Pavard, William Saliba, Dayot Upamecano, Raphael Varane Midfielders: Eduardo Camavinga, Youssouf Fofana, Matteo Guendouzi, Adrien Rabiot, Aurelien Tchouameni, Jordan Veretout Forwards: Karim Benzema, Kingsley Coman, Marcus Thuram, Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Christopher Nkunku
The English have long felt this is where they belonged though, thankfully, they did not project themselves to reach beyond this match. Southgate is enthralled with the prospect of taking down the top dog in the competition and is certain his lads are the ones to do the job. Most importantly, though, he feels he has a settled starting lineup, and the team has coalesced around what to him seems a very successful formation. So, ironically, he finds himself unable to come up with anything new or different to try when facing the one true 800-pound gorilla the lads have had to stare in the face.
The Brazilians are not too thrilled about the match as the English are not as tough a team to play as say, the Spaniards, Germans, or French would have been, or the Belgians were. So, this is a formality, not a challenge. Tite seems to be having a problem rallying the guys around the idea that the game needs to be played let alone won and that either the Portuguese or French will await them in the final, making that match a much more worthy endeavor. “But you need to get over this hump first,” he tells them, eyeing a pouty Neymar.
Though every tournament game is a chance to implement the ideal strategy culled from incessant worrying over the strengths and weaknesses of one’s opponent, this match seems to have an anticlimactic tinge to it. Both teams know they got here doing their thing their way and are predisposed not to take on a new approach for such an important game. Better to go down with the approach that brought you this far than to tinker and blow the accumulated good karma.
England will opt for its traditional lineup using their best players, as fortunately no key performer has been injured. Southgate uses his training time to remind the team about how dangerous their opponent is and how everyone had to pitch in on defense. He believes the opportunities to score will materialize as the Brazilians will be overconfident and not as focused as they might be. He repeatedly asks the lads to keep an eye out for those cues, for the mess-ups that will allow them to score.
Tite’s talk to his team, after picking the starting lineup that has worked all along, is one of getting them to react. He tells them the Brits don’t respect them, that the lads think this is their cup to lose, and that the media is already saying the Brazilians have met their match—but it all falls on deaf ears as nothing seems to be motivating the Selecao this day. As a final, last-ditch, instinctual reaction Tite pulls Alves, Silva, and Casemiro aside and tells them to keep an eye out for Baby Neymar’s appearance. “You know what to do if he shows up.”
The game seems eerily odd as if only the Brits are on, and Brazilians are zombies of sorts. Brazil, like most teams in a tournament, were due a down game and it is, unfortunately for them, at the semifinals. Neymar is not clicking, and the offense seems mired in plays that go nowhere. The English, sensing their opponents are not up to par push them—they press higher than usual forcing Allison to play sweeper, and they keep the pressure on for the better part of 20 minutes. The ploy works as an errant Allison pass is intercepted by Rice who feeds Foden perfectly for the striker to slot one in from close range. It is a shock to the attendees, the television network announcers, and their audiences, and in truth, to both teams on the pitch.
Over the next quarter hour, Baby Neymar comes out of the shell so many have worked so hard to keep him in and it takes numerous of his teammates to get him to quit arguing with the ref on every call that goes against Brazil. Harder still, they have to keep him from retaliating when he over-dribbles and gets clocked. But Marquinhos and Silva come to the rescue. As the half comes to a close a set piece allows the PSG center back to head the side even.
The second half is just as lackluster for the South Americans who simply do not have it on the day. Sterling latches onto a ricochet from a Casemiro clearance and with the Brazilian defense caught too far up, the speedy striker races into the box where Allison blocks the Englishman’s shot. But that second ricochet also goes the Brits’ way and this time it is Kane who poaches England’s second lead.
Somehow that energizes the Brazilians who wrest control of the match from that moment on. But as they are not playing well it takes another set play and this time their Chelsea center back heads the teams even. The English, who have been on the front foot most of the game feel they need to get possession back and they repeat the level of pressing that worked in the first half. Only this time the boys in yellow are ready for the gear change and Fred, Paqueta, and Casemiro seem to be everywhere stopping any British build-up.
That eerie feeling returns to the stadium, something is amiss, but this time it is a radical momentum change that is almost palpable. In what seems a prolonged earthquake rumble, the field is tilted, and the ball seems to always roll toward a Brazilian. There also seems to be an incessant buildup, like a classical music piece building to a crescendo, but it is hard to tell what is being built up to.
As the game nears regulation time the ref announces only three minutes will be added. And incredibly it is that news that seems to ignite the Brazilians. Just then, Neymar has his one good play of the game, eluding three defenders and breaking into the box only to get tripped, pushed, and landed on by Maguire in a clear penalty reminiscent of Argentine Marcos Rojo’s foul on Frenchman Mbappe in the 2018 World Cup semifinal.
Neymar scores the awarded penalty and runs to the corner flag to emotionally celebrate his one big contribution to the match. He is mobbed by his teammates for what seems an excessive period and when the ref tells the players to get back to their side of the field Ney’s exuberance gets the better of him and his remonstration earns him his first yellow of the tourney.
But his teammates pull and push him toward the center circle so the game can resume. Before the Brits are able to complete their third pass from kickoff the ref blows the whistle for the end of the match. The close score allows the British fans to dream about “what ifs,” the mainstream English-language media bemoans what will be inaccurately called, and repeatedly so by copycat secondary media, the “questionable penalty, so late in the game,” and the lesser pundits will feel the groundswell gives them license to trash the Brits’ opponent as unworthy of the final those impostors robbed from their heroes. Meanwhile, the Brazilians, in Qatar and in Rio, and most football fans everywhere for that matter, exhale a sigh of relief shared and heard around the globe.
Portugal v France
These two teams know each other well and have played memorable matches against one another before. Somehow, they match up well. It is intriguing that the French, Spaniards, and Italians should all have won World Cups, but not the Portuguese, a fact that annoys and drives The Navigators. For France, the match to come is tricky but by no means unwinnable. They face it like they did the semifinal against Argentina in 2014, with confidence born of the knowledge the Portuguese have never been on this stage and breathed this rarefied air before while the South Americans they handily defeated in the last cup had.
Deschamps is ecstatic to be a step away from the final he has all along felt was his team’s destiny. He fancies himself the French coach to make history by winning the cup back-to-back, a feat done only twice before by Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962. He will be the only French coach to win two cups and do so just ahead of teammate Zinedine Zidane’s upcoming tenure. Just in time not to be outshone again by his countryman.
The French coach knows the defensive flanks are the Portuguese’s major weakness and he plans to deploy both Benzema and Mbappe out wider than usual for this match. Otherwise, the lineup and formation, the tactics, and the pre-game speech, (given at their hotel instead of their training facility) are all the same—“this is our game to win, they are not at our level, play at yours and we will be victorious.”
Santos is a mess. He is playing the biggest game of his career and knows that if he wins it will simply usher in the really, biggest game of his career. The French and Brazilians were the pre-tourney favorites and here Santos is knowing those South Americans await in the final, having to beat the European favorites to get there. He is again worried about playing the mostly static Ronaldo who of course wants to start but as the Final gets nearer it is hard to tell one of the most clutch players in the history of the sport to sit on the bench. He decides to start him.
On paper, the teams have little to recommend one over the other. They are both solid on defense, strong in midfield, and super in offense. Perhaps the man-for-man edge goes to the Portuguese given the absences of Kimpembe, Pogba, and Kante on the French side. But the Iberians have never gotten beyond this stage in a World Cup before, falling to France 0-1 in 2006 and 1-2 to England in 1966. They believe they have the guns to make the final.
The French settle for 3-4-4 with Hugo Lloris in goal, Varane, Kounde, and Saliba in defense, Rabiot, Tchouameni, Guendouzi, and Camavinga in midfield, and Benzema, Mbappe and Griezmann in attack. The Portuguese counter with a 4-4-2 with Diogo Costa in goal, Dalot, Cancelo, Dias, and Mendes on defense, Carvalho, Fernandes, Silva, and Neves in midfield, and Ronaldo and Leao in attack.
The match begins with the Portuguese attempting to establish control of midfield and possession and the French fighting in midfield but conceding possession in exchange for quick counters on the interception. The first twenty minutes fly by because though neither team worries the other’s keeper the plays are what the fans expect with Mbappe and Benzema making great runs only to be stopped by great defensive plays and Leao and Ronaldo having a couple of chances smothered by the likes of Varane and Guendouzi.
Just past the halfway mark of the first half, a midfield slipup by Camavinga a few yards from the French box gives Silva an opening and he gets into the penalty area and past Saliba before Varane has to slide in and just catches the Portuguese on the ankle, a clear foul and a penalty. Ronaldo takes and scores the penalty kick, and the Iberians take the lead.
For the next twenty minutes, the French go all out on attack and Mbappe and Benzema are unlucky trying to score, one hitting the post and the other getting one of the saves of the tourney out of Costa. Finally, a pretty Rabiot play concludes with an attempted cross which hits Cancelo on the arm. The ref does not see or call the hand-ball but VAR shows Cancelo’s arm did make contact with the ball and he was just on the penalty box line. France’s penalty is converted by Griezmann, and the teams go into the locker rooms at 1-1.
The second half becomes the type of match we all dream about when the quadrennial event comes around. The type of game we record on our television and watch over and over. In the first few minutes, Ronaldo is somehow allowed to tee up a long-range shot off the run of play and he nails it, hitting side-netting from about 35-yards out leaving Lloris flat-footed. Ten minutes later Mbappe skips around two markers and slots low and to the far post leaving Costa sprawling and grasping at air. Ten minutes after that Benzema cuts into the far corner of the top of the Portuguese penalty area and latches onto a great Tchouameni chip pass. The striker’s volley hits the underside of the crossbar, bounces off the goal line, and explodes into the roof of the net.
As the half reaches the 75th minute Santos substitutes Vitinha for Fernandes, Joao Felix for Leao, and Pahlinha for Neves. Deschamps counters with Giroud for Griezmann and Coman for Camavinga. The Portuguese subs have the first impact as Felix is still hot and he dribbles by two markers before crossing to Pahlinha who lays off for Vitinha at the top of the penalty box, near the right side where the half-moon and the box meet, and the small midfielder blasts a low rocket under Rabiot’s attempt to slide-block the shot and past Lloris for the 3-3 draw. The sides remain tied until the regulation time whistle blows and extra time is declared.
In the first half of extra time, a Ronaldo free kick puts The Navigators ahead. This time CR7 hits a curler around the wall and the ball dips suddenly, which forces Lloris into a miscalculation, and as he steps right, he watches the ball skip early and in front of him and bounce sideways left, as if with topspin, and into the back of the net. Thereafter, the French are unable to mount a credible attack and the half ends. Neither coach has used all of his substitutions, so they make them now almost as if to assuage the fates—assuring the ladies that all possible efforts have been expended in going after victory.
In the second half of extra time none of the substitutes play much of a protagonist role, but Mbappe, who has all but sealed his Golden Boot award, hits the woodwork with a pretty curving shot to the far post from just outside the left side of the box. It becomes the closest the French get to a score. In the end, Ronaldo and Santos made the 2022 World Cup final while Deschamps cannot figure out how his sure thing did not come to pass. He rues the opportunity Zidane will have in 2026 and 2030 to do what has now become impossible for Deschamps himself to do.
Photo: Vitinha, Shutterstock ID 2222008621, by sbonsi.