Sadly, the 2018 FIFA World Cup is almost over. 28 of the 32 teams to enter the competition have already been sent home, and the semifinal round is on the horizon. France will take on Belgium in a clash of European titans on Tuesday, while England will take on Croatia in a bout of underdogs the day after that. The 2 teams that survive the semifinals will meet in Moscow to play in the final on Sunday, July 15.
While the ultimate goal for every player is to obviously lift the World Cup trophy itself, there are still a couple of individual honors worth chasing. The race for the Golden Ball, the award handed to the tournament’s best player, is heating up. Ditto for the Golden Glove, which goes to the goalkeeper that puts on the tournament’s most impressive display.
As you may imagine, the players in the running for the Golden Ball are all players still playing. It’s a near lock that the winner of the award will come from France, Belgium, England or Croatia. Ditto for the Golden Glove victor. Let’s break both down.
Perhaps no player at this World Cup has helped his stock more than France’s Kylian Mbappe. Mbappe is a familiar name to those that follow the European game closely, but he’s turning himself into a bona fide superstar with his showing in Russia. Still just 19, Mbappe has a combination of size, speed and strength beyond his years.
He has been the driving force thus far in France’s run to the semifinals. Mbappe almost single-handedly diced the Argentina defense to shreds in the round of 16. The youngster has bagged 3 goals in the World Cup to this point as he looks to make a run at Harry Kane’s presumptive Golden Boot. Mbappe’s 3 goals are the most by a teenager at a World Cup since Pele scored 6 for Brazil back in 1958.
As for Kane, his 6 goals thus far have put him in the driver’s seat for the Golden Boot. FIFA has shown a reluctance to award a Golden Ball and Golden Boot to the same player, so Kane may have to settle for one. The Golden Boot, given to the player that scores the most goals, looks like more of a sure thing at this stage. Sure, 3 of his goals have come on penalties and a lucky deflection, but where would England be without the Spurs striker? Back in England, to be sure.
The problem with Belgium at other major competitions in recent years has been that they haven’t played up to the sum of their parts. Belgium have had an incredibly talented young side since the 2014 World Cup, but the Red Devils routinely failed to live up to expectations. This World Cup has been their coming out party. Eden Hazard, who has been one of the best players in England for the last few years, finally looks right at home as the backbone of his country’s national team.
Hazard and Romelu Lukaku have been instrumental in helping the Belgians set off arguably the most devastating counterattacks we’ve seen in Russia. Belgium thrives in getting the ball out of their end of the field quickly and springing their fast players forward. Both Hazard and Lukaku have been excellent in terms of hold-up play and they’ve played off of each other well enough with smart, darting runs when the other has the ball in space.
Hazard and Lukaku were the best players on the field for Belgium on Friday during the team’s 2-1 triumph over Neymar and Brazil. Given the talent and depth in the Brazilian side, that’s no small feat. Lukaku has already scored 4 times himself, so he is very much within striking range of Kane with potentially a couple of games left to play.
Don’t sleep on another Belgian in Kevin De Bruyne, who has proven crucial in his own right to the team’s success. De Bruyne hasn’t been able to play as high up the pitch for most of the tournament with all of the talent in the side, but his intricate passing has been a key to unlocking Belgium’s immense potential. He also scored a cracker of a goal that proved to be the winner against Brazil.
You can’t overstate the job Luka Modric has done to get Croatia to where they are. Sure, they haven’t exactly had the most difficult road thus far, but they did impressively top a group that included Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria. The 32-year-old Modric, the team’s captain, has been indefatigable despite back-to-back grueling extra time affairs against Denmark and Russia.
Croatia wouldn’t be here were it not for Modric, which makes him a very interesting bet here at +600. If the Croats are able to get past England and into the FInal, his odds would come down considerably. As such, I don’t think it would be insane to take a flier on Modric here at +600. The body of work he has put together gives him a viable claim, to be sure.
Dele Alli scored a header against Sweden in the last round, but the Spurs midfielder has been inconsistent during this tournament for the Three Lions. N’Golo Kante is one of the most influential defensive midfielders in the world, but a player with his qualities isn’t often someone that gets rewarded at a World Cup. Paul Pogba has been fine, but he’s really only listed here because he’s a familiar name.
The winner may hinge largely on which team winds up winning the whole thing. As of now, France are favored, though not by much. Most oddsmakers believe the winner of the France-Belgium game will go on to defeat either Croatia or England in the Final. With France favored, Mbappe is currently in the driver’s seat for the Golden Ball.
I just love the value on these Belgium guys, however. Lukaku at +1400 is an incredible profit potential play. Few that have watched Belgium play would argue Lukaku’s odds should be that low, so this is a punt bet I would jump on instantly. If the Manchester United striker shows up in a big way in helping Belgium get past France, these odds are going to get slashed.
Hazard at +450 followed by De Bruyne at +800 would be my next-best options. Because Kane seems likely for the Golden Boot, I’ll stay away from tabbing him at +350 for the Golden Ball. That feels like a trap.
All 4 remaining goalkeepers in this tournament have had stellar individual runs. Pickford was a human wall against Sweden, while Courtois made arguably the save of the tournament in denying Neymar in the waning seconds of the quarterfinal bout with Brazil.
Once Lloris got rid of that pesky bug, he was dynamite in France’s rather easy win over Uruguay. Subasic battled a couple of leg injuries and what appeared to be cramps to thwart Russia in a penalty shootout in the last round. Subasic helping Croatia survive 2 consecutive shootouts in order to advance shouldn’t go unnoticed. Subasic is only the second player ever to save 4 or more penalty kicks at a single World Cup. Argentina’s Sergio Goycochea is the other, and he accomplished the feat back in 1990.
Pickford is another player who has become a star at this World Cup. The Everton keeper had just a handful of caps under his belt before the tournament, but his performance thus far has shown why Gareth Southgate felt comfortable enough to ride him as the No. 1 option.
I think this one is largely a toss-up. Any of these 4 could win and have a legitimate claim to the award. If forced to choose one, I would side with Subasic. There is plenty of luck involved with a shootout, to be sure, but the Croatian keeper has put forth a couple of Herculean efforts in helping keep his side in the tournament.
Subasic at +275 is a strong value, though I doubt you can go wrong with whichever keeper you side with.
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