The World Cup has ended, but I shall smile because it happened.
Sixty-four matches later and we have a new world champion. It is France, doubted by many (including yours truly) when the tournament started but never written off due to their ridiculously talented players. Didier Deschamps’ men trailed for nine minutes across seven matches in the 2018 World Cup and eventually blew away the side — Argentina — that dared to go 2-1 up.
Despite drawing derision for his tactics and setup, Deschamps oversaw a France side that found its rhythm as the competition progressed and ended it as a unit that could play really any style. Craved chaotic, thunderous counterattacking football? Their 4-3 win over Lionel Messi and co. sated the appetite. Those who desired a more methodical, assured, possession-heavy performance saw les Bleus sweep aside Uruguay in arguably their most focused 90 minutes at the World Cup. And for those who wanted a more rojiblanco flavor to their football, there was the eerily Atlético Madrid-like win over Belgium in the semifinals — 36 percent possession, organized defending, a set piece goal, some time wasting and a 1-0 win.
I didn’t have many expectations going in — other than France winning a game that hopefully would be more entertaining than the 2014 final — but Sunday evening’s contest in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium was riveting, a chunk played at a pace resembling France’s dismantling of Argentina in Kazan. Croatia were superior in a first half where they held France to one shot on target but trailed 2-1. Antoine Griezmann was responsible for that deficit — former Atlético teammate Mario Mandžukić turned an 18th minute free kick into his own net, and Griezmann converted an Ivan Perišić handball into an ice-cool penalty (Fortnite celebration included). Even as Croatia continued to control the match through its midfield, the French put the game to bed with second half strikes from Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé (the latter set up by Lucas Hernández).
At last, Hrvatska’s gas tankread “empty.” The extra 90 minutes they played through extra time in the knockouts caught up with them — while France’s pace, creativity and overall talent tore up Zlatko Dalić’s defense and his carefully drawn-up game plan in the second half. The 4-2 scoreline was somewhat harsh on the tournament’s darlings, but there could be no doubt upon full time that the better team won it all.
Thus commences the Era of Griezmann.
Atlético’s superstar forward enhanced the legend he has crafted for himself in 2018 by showing out on the biggest stage in world football. His goal and assist won him Man of the Match honors, and he ended the World Cup with four goals and three assists — the 27-year-old notched one or the other in each knockout stage fixture. He won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player in Russia, two years after he took home the Golden Ball at Euro 2016.
But this Griezmann was more decisive than the one who disappeared from view against Portugal two summers back. Sure, he still got his goals and he will always get his goals, but in this tournament he scored from three (admittedly perfect) penalties and a Fernando Muslera howler. Behind Diego Costa for club and Olivier Giroud for country, Griezmann has become free to dictate play as necessary. As neither Atlético or France have a Luka Modrić in midfield — Pogba is the closest analogue, and pigeonholing him into one role does him and his abilities a disservice — it’s often up to Grizi to drop deep into midfield to use his clever lay off passing or an acceleration burst to initiate an attack.
The guy at the World Cup was the player Diego Simeone has helped mold into a box-to-box forward, the tempo-setter, the trequartista, the guy who would stick a foot in around his own net when those of a similar quality would be 30 yards up the pitch. He was whatever the team needed, when they needed it.
Again. When things actually happened for the World Champions, largely this is where they came from https://t.co/E3KPlIWGmS— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) July 15, 2018
Fully engaged at this World Cup, Griezmann’s profile is at a level it has never before reached — especially as he now possesses the most coveted trophy in the sport, a trophy neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo are ever likely to win. He’s quite possibly a Ballon d’Or contender at this point, as he’s added the World Cup to May’s Europa League crown and a dominant spring in LaLiga.
Atlético’s #7 is the second-most marketable asset the Spanish league has — especially as Real Madrid’s #7 has gone to Juventus. And Sunday’s victory in Moscow could be a sign of further triumphs to come.
- Lucas Hernández was uncapped in February. Five months later, he is his nation’s starting left back and a World Cup winner. His performances in Russia — often very, very good — make it unlikely Atlético purchase a more natural left-sided defender in this window and simply keep him as Filipe Luís’ primary competition. Either that, or he joins José Giménez and Diego Godín in a retooled 3-5-2. The 22-year-old was arguably the best left back in the entire tournament, and from Atleti’s perspective it’s hard to see why they would buy someone to supplant him, even as he’s a natural center back. He’s just that ridiculously talented.
- Earlier this summer, I was told that Atleti have no plans to sell any first-team regulars unless a major offer arrives. They may receive such an offer for Šime Vrsaljko after the World Cup he had, and I think there is a distinct possibility they will accept something in the region of €30-€40 million if it comes in. The club has spent over €90 million this summer and has yet to make any sales official. With the UEFA Super Cup a month away, talks will heat up for players like Vrsaljko and Stefan Savić — the former’s stock is eminently higher after a consistent tournament which saw him soldier on through a knee injury sustained in the quarterfinal round.
- Griezmann, Lucas and new arrival Thomas Lemar are not expected to partake in any preseason fixtures, and right now their status for the August 15 derby is up in the air — the three world champions will be wrapping up their vacations around that time. That match and its accompanying trophy is pretty important, though, and we’ll see who decides to cut their well-earned holiday a little short.
- Finally, this:
They are the first Atlético players to win the World Cup while repping the club. Enjoy it, fellas.