Belfast Telegraph

Football is not coming home, it's off to France

By Jackie Fullerton

Take a bow England. Yes, they are out of the World Cup but Gareth Southgate and his players have helped put their country back on the football map.

Football is not coming home after all, but the English nation has been galvanised and united by the team's heroics. Pride has been restored.

The future certainly looks brighter for the classy and articulate Southgate and his team. Their limitations were exposed against Croatia so the manager will know they are far from the finished article.

They will still find it difficult to overcome the cream of world football.

They exceeded all expectations in Russia but still lacked that real quality at the top level.

They are missing that savvy and patience that comes as second nature normally to the Brazilians, Germans and French.

Two incidents stand out in the Croatia game. In extra-time John Stones had a very good header cleared off the line. You can't legislate for being unlucky but 10 minutes later the Manchester City centre-half was asleep as Mario Mandzukic burst past him to hammer in the winner.

As Roy Keane says you have to 'smell danger'. Stones' lapse was costly. Their disappointment and tears at the finish is something the players will not want to experience again.

So near, yet so far but on their return they should be acclaimed by a grateful nation for all the joy and excitement they created over the last four weeks.

Now who will deserve to win football's biggest prize in tomorrow's final in Moscow?

France play in their third World Cup decider against Croatia. It is Croatia's first World Cup final - not bad for a wee country with a population of just over four million people.

France will be strong favourites but let's not write off Luka Modric and co. They have played six and won six in Russia. In the quarter-final bore-fest they were poor but got a penalty shoot-out win over Russia.

In the semi-final against England at times they looked ordinary but they got the equaliser and knew how to win the game.

They will be no pushovers although Croatia have failed to win against France in their five previous encounters.

France still do not totally convince me but to be fair, they have grown in the tournament. They have beaten Argentina and came alive in the last eight against a highly rated Uruguay side, beating them 2-1.

In the semi-final they looked really good against Belgium in the 1-0 win. They kept Eden Hazard at bay most of the time and Kevin de Bruyne was poor by his own standards.

On the plus side for the French the spine of the team impresses me. Hugo Lloris, the captain, must be goalkeeper of the tournament. The defender Raphael Varane has been magnificent and in midfield Kante will make the best 11. You can add in Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann while up front striker Olivier Giroud has yet to have a shot on target, never mind score, but he is assisting the man with the 'wow' factor Kylian Mbappe.

Mbappe has got it all. Move over Messi and Ronaldo, the heir to the throne has arrived. He's got the cheek, the X Factor and the impudence that our own George Best had back in his heyday.

France have all the big guns and they will be the favourites. Pogba has all the flicks but that doesn't make you a great player. He's still learning and sometimes we forget he is only 25.

He's playing with more discipline in Russia and I think the French will have too much for Croatia but Modric and Ivan Rakitic are shrewd operators.

The smart money is on France lifting the trophy for only the second time in their history but do not be surprised if Croatia rip up the script.

I'm looking forward to an intriguing contest, bringing the curtain down on a brilliant World Cup in a country we all worried about, but well done to Russia and the Russian people for hosting this football carnival.

Belfast Telegraph

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