We conclude our review of the best games from the 2018 World Cup by reviewing five encounters that instantly became classics. Here are the five best games from the event:
5. France 4-2 Croatia (Final)
The World Cup final is the most watched sporting match on earth, yet the game often fails to live up to the occasion, as the last two were 0-0 after 90 minutes. This time around, France and Croatia produced the highest-scoring final since 1966.
France entered the game as the favorites, but it was Croatia who got the better start with live-wire winger Ivan Perisic causing France problems down the right. In the 17th minute, Antoine Griezmann won a debatable free kick and his teasing cross found the unfortunate Mario Mandzukic, who tipped his header into his own net.
Croatia kept coming, and a nicely-worked free kick fell to Perisic on the edge of the box, rounding N’golo Kante before hitting a vicious strike beyond Hugo Lloris to make it 1-1 with just 28 minutes gone. The early goals forced both sides to play on the front foot, making the game a more open spectacle. Croatia appeared to be on top with Ivan Rakitic’s incisive passes teasing the French defense, but France managed to win a corner and create a moment of controversy when Perisic appeared to accidentally touch the ball with his hand. After initially waving play on, the referee consulted VAR and changed his mind, awarding France the penalty. The decision was ludicrous, and after FIFA had boasted VAR had got 99.32% of decisions right, it got the biggest one of its short life horribly wrong.
Croatia charged out to the sound of the trumpets for the second half with Ante Rebic going close, but France were a constant threat on the break and on 58 minutes struck the killer blow when Paul Pogba sent Kylian Mbappe powering away. Pogba followed in, hitting a shot straight at Luka Modric but he was able to pick up the rebound to blast home for 3-1.
France were now rampant and on 65 minutes made sure that the World Cup was theirs. Mbappe fired past Subasic and became the first teenager since Pele to score in the final to make it 4-1. Croatia continued to fight and a moment of madness from Lloris let in Mandzukic to tap home and reduce the deficit to 2-4. Rakitic came close to pulling another one back but France weren’t to be denied and they ran out 4-2 winners and worthy World Champions. This final didn’t have the drama of say of England’s extra time win in ’66 (although it provided a similar moment of controversy) or Argentina’s dramatic win in ’86, but it provided a far more open game than we’re used to seeing in the final. One of the great final goals from Perisic and a signature moment of skill to decide from Pogba created a fitting end to a thrilling tournament.
4. Brazil 1-2 Belgium (Quarter Final)
This heavyweight quarter-final looked like a thriller, and it didn’t disappoint. Brazil was looking to end a miserable run of four straight World Cup exits at the hands of top class European opposition, while Belgium’s golden generation was finally looking like a coherent team.
The first clearcut chance fell to Brazil when Thiago Silva bundled onto a Neymar corner, but found the woodwork and then goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. After 13 minutes, Belgium took the lead when Vincent Kompany lost his marker to power a header goalwards which Manchester City teammate Fernandinho could only deflect into his own net. Brazil dominated possession but it was Marcelo raiding down the left who looked the most likely to open up the Belgian back line. Romelu Lukaku looked a constant menace on the break and on 31 minutes he picked up the ball in his own half, powered past 3 defenders and played in De Bruyne who smashed home an exquisite finish for a 2-0 half time lead. It was a sensational team goal, created by the awesome strength of Lukaku and finished by the genius of De Bruyne.
For the second half, Brazil brought on Roberto Firmino. Just 13 minutes later, Douglas Costa added some fizz to their misfiring attack and the team began to push Belgium back, cutting the front three off from the midfield. Clear cut chances were at a premium, and Neymar earned the derision of the referee and crowd with a theatrical dive in the box. Brazil had a legitimate penalty shot turned down when Kompany brought down Gabriel Jesus.
It was just as Brazilian hopes started to fade that another sub, Renato Augusto, bursted into the box to head home Coutinho’s beautiful centre cross to make it 2-1 on 76 minutes. It threatened to be a long 14 minutes for Belgium, but the pressure was relieved by Eden Hazard, who skinned the Brazilian midfield with a series of spins and runs. Although Neymar went close with a dipping shot in the dying minutes, Belgium held on for the win.
3. Japan 2-3 Belgium (Second Round)
After an uneventful first half, Jan Vertonghen missed a routine clearance, allowing Genki Haraguchi to get in down the left flank and hit a beautiful shot that beat Thibaut Courtois to make it 1-0 for Japan. Belgium almost had an instant response when Eden Hazard hit a fierce shot against the post, but within 4 minutes, Japan had doubled their advantage. Shinji Kagawa intercepted a clearance and played a short pass to Takashi Inui, who then lashed home a stunning 25-yard shot.
Roberto Martinez made a double change by bringing in Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. Belgium was throwing men forward, and Romelu Lukaku missed a simple chance to pull a goal back. Just as it seemed Japan had weathered the storm, Belgium got a fortunate equalizer after a corner forced a defensive header into a goal to cut the deficit to 2-1. With renewed hope, the Belgians starting bombarding the Japanese box with crosses. Just 5 minutes later, Fellaini rose highest to power home another header to level it up at 2-2.
The drama reached fever pitch in the dying seconds as Japan pushed forward. From their own corner, Courtois caught the ball and released Kevin De Bruyne on a surging run through midfield, and his perfect pass found Thomas Meaner down the right side. He sent a ball inside, and Chadli nipped in behind Lukaku to push home with the last kick of the game to secure a stunning victory.
2. Spain 3-3 Portugal (Group B)
At #2, we have possibly the greatest group phase game in World Cup history. Spain arrived in the midst of crisis following the shock sacking of manager Julen Lopetegui, but their star-studded side was confident, including Cristiano Ronaldo.
For all his brilliance, Ronaldo had never quite showed his prime self at the World Cup, until now. He started by cleverly winning a penalty from Real Madrid teammate Nacho and dispatching the resulting spot kick. Spain soon settled into their passing game, while Portugal was countering most attempts. Spain equalized when Diego Costa out-muscled Pepe and brilliantly worked the angle for the equalizer.
In a match that had everything, we then saw something completely unexpected when David De Gea (regarded by many as the world’s best keeper) spilled a speculative Ronaldo shot into his net to make it 2-1.
Spain came out fighting for the second half, and a smart David Silva free kick let in Costa for the equalizer. Moments later, a flowing Spanish move left Nacho in oceans of space on the right side to blast home a stunning strike to make it 3-2.
Spain was dominating possession time, and seemed set to see out the win until Gerard Pique gave away a silly free kick on the edge of the box with 2 minutes to go, which allowed for Ronaldo to execute.
1. France 4-3 Argentina (Second Round)
France had previously been booed by their own fans after a 0-0 ending with Denmark, while Argentina arrived after a wildly inconsistent group phase.
France was almost ahead in the opening minutes after Antione Griezmann cannoned a free kick against the crossbar. France didn’t have to wait long for the breakthrough, as Kylian Mbappe picked up the ball deep in his own half and sprinted 70 yards into Argentina’s box before being clumsily brought down by Marcos Rojo for a penalty. Griezmann then converted and France went on to dominate the first half. Although, France could not add to their lead, but instead, Angel De Maria picked up the ball 25 yards out and smashed home a stunning equalizer.
That goal sparked life into Argentina, and in result, Messi’s shot on the turn was diverted home by Gabriel Mercado to give Argentina a 2-1 lead. That lead only lasted 11 minutes before fullback Benjamin Pavard volleyed home a spectacular equalizer.
Mbappe then took center stage, angling home a goal for a 3-2 lead. With Argentina pressing, a fine French counter attack saw Oliver Giroud execute a pinpoint finish to make it 4-2. The powerful midfield of France in Matuidi and Pogba dominated the closing stages of the match, as France was coasting.
Later on, Messi arrowed a goal through the substitute Sergio Aguero, who headed home 3 minutes into injury time. There was brief panic in the closing minutes, but France held out for a thrilling 4-3 victory in the best game of the 2018 World Cup.
Picture credits: SI.com, Reuters, Getty, Fifa