Sport

Fraser Walker-Pearce

By Riverine Herald

WITH FIVE days left until the biggest sporting event of 2018 winds up, there is limited time for reflection.

On Monday morning there is a good chance an entirely new set of hands will grasp the Cup of Life.

A 50 per cent chance that a country which has never lifted the World Cup, in 88 years of competition, will do so.

Croatia and Belgium have never made it to a World Cup final, let alone won it; and England hasn’t won in 52 years.

France is the only 2018 semi-finalist to have won in recent memory. And that was 20 years ago. Les Blues wunderkind Kylian Mbappe wasn’t even born then. Wow.

Only eight teams in 21 editions have ever hoisted the Cup of Life, etching themselves in the history books.

So, with limited time on my hands, I’ll have one last go at some predictions.

They’ve been fairly good until now. And with that commentator’s curse, this is where it all falls apart.

Semi-finals

At the time of publication, the France-Belgium game will have been played merely hours ago.

It is a match that offers up an incredibly difficult task in the prediction department.

Neither side has gone to penalties or even to extra time, but both have demonstrated they are more than capable of dealing with high pressure.

Belgium came back from 0-2 down to dispatch Japan in stoppage time in the round of 16, and France defeated 2014 finalists Argentina 4-3 after being 1-2 down.

But my prediction last month is the one I’m sticking with — France will win the tie, and the Cup.

On the other side of the draw a finely tuned and well drilled English side take on the campaign’s dark horse, Croatia.

For the first time in a World Cup, England won on penalties. It took them to the quarter-finals, where they dispatched Sweden in what I’m now referring to as a ‘Peru-Australia’ style performance (where one side gives a toss and the other doesn’t), and they find themselves here.

England have made it to the semi-finals three times in history: in 1966 where they brought it home; in 1990 where they lost to West Germany and finished fourth; and now.

Harry Kane looks set to claim the golden boot, having bagged a half dozen already, and he must be in top condition if England are to make the last dance.

Croatia has been the biggest of three massive surprise packages this year — along with Russia and Sweden.

Only once before have the Croats progressed this far in a World Cup, finishing third in 1998.

With a place in a semi-final comes huge pressure.

Croatians believe they have already surpassed expectations, however, and will play with freedom and creativity.

With the run of form England have now, I can’t see them losing — even if that means penalties.

God I thought I’d never say that.

The final

That leaves France and England.

A tale of war, conquests and allegiances litters their respective histories.

If both sides are at full strength this will be a game for the ages.

There is no doubt in saying France has had a much tougher run to the final than the English.

And even though the French are yet to go to extra time or penalties in this tournament they do have the advantage of playing harder teams in the lead up.

England lost to Belgium in pool play, so for France to beat the Belgians is a huge indicator as to who will be the happier side.

It’ll be tight, as World Cup finals always are. Four of the last six have gone to extra time or penalties.

But in the end there must be a winner. France 1-0, Antoine Griezmann to break English hearts in extra time.