With less than a week to go before finding out if either of the two Chelsea players still involved in Qatar will be coming home a World Cup winner, Pat Nevin reports from the tournament with his quarter-final views and why he has fallen in love with one of the sides…
Everywhere you looked during the quarter-finals of the World Cup there was a big Chelsea influence. I was at two of the four games - first Croatia v Brazil and then Morocco v Portugal. For some reason this Scotsman wasn’t trusted to do his initial job, that of standing behind the goal on the grass, being pitch-side reporter at the England v France game. What did they expect me to do, run on the pitch and celebrate if by some weird fluke, Olivier Giroud scored the winner?
Before you get any ideas, I wasn’t supporting France or indeed England. I was neutral and hoped the best team would win. After watching the game, I am not sure there was a best team on the day however.
It is so close to call between England and France now that if you played that game tomorrow, I reckon England would be just as likely to win this time. On the day however Olivier Giroud, the still much-loved former Chelsea Blue, popped up with the crucial goal for Les Bleus.
It says something huge about his attitude that most real Chelsea and England fans do not have a bad word to say about him, even after he has knocked the country out of the World Cup. To manage that and also to play for Arsenal and still make so few, if any, enemies in England says volumes about Olivier as a person and as a player. He is a selfless credit to himself and the game in an era when self-indulgence is never far away.
I wonder how N’Golo Kante celebrated the win. Of course, he would want the best for his country but missing out on playing must be painful as his team are strong favourites now to win the trophy. I suppose if you already have a winner’s medal in your back pocket it helps soften the blow a little. As for the French, they were my favourites to win from the start and nothing has happened to change my mind on that, including the list of big-name injuries they have had to deal with.
Karim Benzema would be a huge gap to fill, but if you have Olivier Giroud and his record scoring exploits to fall back on then its less of a problem. I found myself on a broadcast with former Chelsea striker Chris Sutton and we agreed totally on this. There is a first time for everything! Only kidding Chris!
Thoughts also have to go out to our lads representing England. Mason Mount worked hard when given the chance as he always does and did win ‘that’ penalty kick with his driving run that Theo Hernandez could cope with, but we all know what happened next.
Raheem Sterling had his cameo too but couldn’t budge the French defence. I just wonder what it would have been like had Reece James been there and faced up to Kylian Mbappe, as well as delivering those devastating crosses for Harry Kane to score with in open play. It is gone now however, the show has moved on and the world is looking elsewhere. There will be a next time for that group of players.
Croatia and Brazil will have interested Chelsea fans even if they had limited interest in either country. Having said that, few football fans aren’t interested in Brazil. It was a fine atmosphere when I turned up at the Education City Stadium to watch among others Mateo Kovacic battle it out with Thiago Silva. Both Chelsea boys had superb displays, but it was those who didn’t play quite so well that made the difference.
Brazil were a shadow of the side that had sparkled against South Korea. There was a tiredness and a suggestion of injury to Richarlison and Neymar, even if the latter did score a classic in injury time.
It was one of the highlights of the tournament for me when the Croatians got the late equaliser against Brazil through Bruno Petkovic followed by the tension of the penalties, but that was totally blown away by the other quarter-final I was at between Morocco and Portugal. At every World Cup I have been to I tend to find a team, or they find me, that I fall in love with. Well it has been Morocco for me, just about from the first game but certainly by the team they beat Belgium. To see them here and still standing, still not having lost a goal apart from one own goal v Canada, having played Croatia, Spain and Portugal as well, is astonishing.
In the Al Thumama Stadium felt like it was the best place to be on the planet at that precise time, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s team were beaten in an extraordinary show of belief, fitness, skill and glorious underdog enthusiasm. Hakim Ziyech and his team could well have provided the true highlights of this World Cup for me, even if they are very likely to be well beaten in the semi-final against France. They have hardly any fit defenders left, are running on fumes after the efforts up until now and yes, France are, as I have said all along, quite good.
On the field their keeper Bono was exceptional, particularly with the ball at his feet. He is happy to take it with men on him the way Jorginho does, but he does it in his own six-yard box and he is a goalkeeper! He will get caught out at some point but it hasn’t happened yet and he has been superb to watch.
Their midfielder Azzedine Ounahi has been among the most elegant players in the competition in terms of beating top-quality players with consummate ease using a plethora of flicks, tricks, dummies and sways with the balance of a cat. Even if Sofyan Amrabat has caught the eye for most and understandable so, this guy Ounahi is a class act. With the greatest of respect, why does he play for Angers and not PSG! Watching fans celebrate wildly, the players dancing with their mums on the pitch, and Bono’s kid and him playing football afterwards were among a multitude of magical moments I will never forget.
Hakim Ziyech has been incredible in his work rate too. I just hope he is fit for the France game and this tournament lift helps his Chelsea career take off again. It is hard to call, which if any of the Chelsea players is now going to come back to the Bridge with that precious World Cup winner’s medal, ready to show it off to everyone else. Will it be Hakim or Mateo, or maybe it will be our old boy Olivier sending a WhatsApp pic to the Chelsea players’ group? I don’t know but it will be great finding out over the next week.