Analysis

The 10 outstanding things we will all remember about World Cup 2018

From a stunning last-16 comeback to ITV’s mighty Champion, Greg Lea on the reasons we’ll all remember Russia 2018 in years to come

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First French success on foreign soil

Two decades on from their maiden World Cup triumph, France won the tournament for the second time in their history with a 4-2 victory over Croatia in the Moscow showpiece. It was a strange final and Les Bleus’ attacking performance was nowhere near as convincing as the scoreline may suggest, but it’s hard to begrudge them their triumph after six wins in seven games in Russia.

France’s squad was widely regarded as one of the most talented in the competition before the big kick-off, but there were considerable doubts over Didier Deschamps’ ability to mould the individuals at his disposal into a well-functioning collective. They haven’t always dazzled going forward and their success was primarily built on their solidity in defence, but Deschamps deserves credit for fashioning a coherent unit which was adept at holding opponents at arm’s length throughout.

Raphael Varane was a rock at the back, N’Golo Kante – an uncharacteristically shaky showing in the final aside – was a bundle of energy, Paul Pogba was both creative and disciplined, Antoine Griezmann worked hard and scored four times, while Kylian Mbappe gave a demonstration of his prodigious ability on the biggest stage of all. France often left viewers wanting more, but it’s hard to argue with an approach which brought the nation a first World Cup trophy on foreign soil.

Modric helps Croatia make history

The last World Cup winner to also scoop the Player of the Tournament award was Romario in 1994. Since then, Ronaldo (1998), Oliver Kahn (2002), Zinedine Zidane (2006), Diego Forlan (2010), Lionel Messi (2014) and now Luka Modric (2018) have all been handed the prize despite failing to win the competition.

Regardless of the outcome on Sunday, the Real Madrid playmaker was a worthy recipient of the Golden Ball. Modric starred in the group stage as Croatia took nine points from a possible nine, before the Vatreni beat Denmark on penalties in the last 16 despite a subdued display from their talisman. Modric was then back to his best in helping his side past Russia and England to set up a first-ever appearance in the final of a major tournament, and he was again one of Croatia’s better performers at the Luzhniki Stadium.

The 32-year-old and his team-mates head home with their heads held high. Reaching a World Cup final is a phenomenal achievement for a country of four million people, and Croatia’s players, staff and fans will cherish this summer despite the fact they couldn’t quite get over the line.

Russia confound doubters on and off pitch

Pre-tournament predictions that Russia would be the worst host nation in history were made redundant after 90 minutes of action, as Stanislav Cherchesov’s charges blew Saudi Arabia away 5-0 in the competition’s curtain-raiser. That handsome victory was followed up by another as Egypt were dismissed 3-1, although Russia were brought back down to earth by a 3-0 loss to Uruguay in their final group game.

A last-16 berth represented the minimum requirement for the hosts, and their journey looked certain to come to an end against Spain – particularly after Sergei Ignashevich turned the ball into his own net in the 11th minute. Yet Russia fought back to level through Artem Dzyuba, before showing some remarkable resilience to take the tie to penalties, where Igor Akinfeev’s saves from Koke and Iago Aspas proved decisive as Cherchesov’s men pulled off arguably the biggest shock of the summer. They may have bowed out in a shootout against Croatia in the quarter-finals, but reaching the last eight was a huge overachievement for this team.

The World Cup was also a success off the field, as FIFA’s festival of football arrived in Eastern Europe for the first time. It’s important to remember that the charges levelled against the political regime Russia haven’t been answered by a month-long football tournament, but the last few weeks have certainly provided a welcome reminder that there’s far more to the planet’s largest country than President Putin and the Kremlin.

Ronaldo's treble denies Spain

The tournament exploded into life on day two, when Egypt 0-1 Uruguay and Morocco 0-1 Iran were followed by a thrilling 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal. La Roja were the better team for much of the match, but a stunning hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo stole the headlines and ensured Fernando Santos’ men didn’t leave the Fisht Olympic Stadium empty-handed.

Ronaldo opened the scoring from the penalty spot after being fouled by Nacho, before later edging Portugal 2-1 in front after an uncharacteristic error from David de Gea. Spain fought back to go 3-2 ahead, but Ronaldo’s sublime 88th-minute free-kick restored parity once more.

It wasn’t just the goals, either: the 33-year-old also impressed with his link-up play and ability to lead counterattacks, particularly in the first half. Ronaldo is unlikely to win the World Cup before he retires, but his tremendous all-round display against Spain won’t be forgotten in a hurry.