Sunday, July 1, 2018

Match Day 17 features the largest collection of world-class midfielders the World Cup has to offer.  Between Croatia, Spain and Christian Eriksen, you’ll hardly miss Lionel What’s-His-Name and that guy with the jacked-up shorts who was outdone by Uruguay's Edinson Cavani.

  • France’s boy wonder
  • #WorldCupS: Celebrate France with Champagne, lament Argentina with Bonarda
  • Be smart: ESP vs. RUS and CRO vs. DEN
  • Putin has won, Russia is still playing
Kylian Mbappe for France. (Associated Press)

Kylian Mbappé's rise

With stunning pace, preternatural poise and two well-finished goals, Mbappé, 19, wowed everyone yesterday in France's thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina. Here's what his coach and others said about Mbappé's performance and his abilities.
I’m very happy he’s French. He understands football very well.
— Diedier Deschamps, France coach
He adores football. He knows everything about clubs and players, and I've always said he's very good. He has a lot of room to make progress but, in such an important match, he's shown all his talent. And even if he was supposed to defend, he still made attacks — and very good ones.
— Deschamps, again
Kylian is a football lover. He breathes, sleeps and eats football. And what makes me happy is that he still has the same passion as when he was 14 or 15 years old.
— Jires Kembo, Mbappé's brother and a pro soccer player
It was an incredible performance from a centre forward who has the lot: blistering pace, goals, touch and technique. At 19, to put in a performance like that, with millions watching and Messi at the other end, it was simply brilliant.
— Alan Shearer, former England forward
Too often, the negative perception of the banlieues acts like a brake for the ambitious youth. Kylian has helped shatter that brake.
Antonio Riccardi, Mbappé's first coach at A.S. Bondy.

Sound smart about Match Day 17


ESP vs. RUS, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow; 10 a.m. ET

RUSSIA put so much into hosting the World Cup, showing its (forcibly imposed) softer side to the world, that Vladimir Putin already accepted his victory. Nobody expected the team to still be playing.

It’s been 32 years since Russia — still competing as the Soviet Union — made the knockout round.

Sound smart by noting how the Russians likely will be able to hang with Spain longer than they did against Uruguay in the final group game. Sound skeptical, too, by wondering whether their endurance isn’t pharmaceutically enabled.

The players will treat the round of 16 match like a final, as it may be the last chance to show their qualities to a grateful country.

"We know that's our responsibility,” said Denis Cheryshev, the Russian midfielder who grew up in Spain and came through the Real Madrid academy with some of the Spanish players. Cheryshev, who has three goals in the World Cup, said the game “needs to be a party."

SPAIN may not want to be invited to this particularly party: the home fans, Putin’s piercing glare from the VIP box, the pressure they put on the referee. Spain will also have to contend with the Russians’ goal-scoring momentum, and its own defensive frailties.

Sound smart by reminding your friends that Spain gave up five goals in the group phase, the most of any teams in the round of 16, along with Argentina. Not since 1954 has a team (West Germany) given up that many goals in the first three games and gone on to win the World Cup.

If any team can do it, it's Spain, with a midfield including the pro, Andres Iniesta; the dynamo, Isco;  the quick-thinking Thiago Alcantara; the combative Marco Asensio; and smooth as silk David Silva.
CRO vs. DEN, Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET

CROATIA has rolled through the tournament and over three very good opponents, led by a dynamic midfield and a stout defense. We know Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić are world class. Modrić is a slightly quicker, more expressive Andrea Pirlo, though nowhere near as mysterious as the Italian World Cup winner.

Also, Milan Badelj has made a name for himself as the Croatian Frank Lampard. Watch his trailing run and confident finish against Iceland.

Sound smart by giving unsung striker Mario Mandžukić credit. Some say he’s not the same caliber as the stellar midfielders lined up behind him, which is why, for all his effort, he hasn’t scored much. But we know he’s one of those forwards whose activity and incisiveness flusters defenses, and creates opportunities for his teammates. Also, when he does finally get his moment, you know it will be memorable.

DENMARK has its own midfield genius in Christian Eriksen, who likened himself favorably to Modrić. That’s what passes as boasting for Eriksen, the humble, reluctant hero for Denmark. He is Denmark’s best player, and among the best creative midfielders in the world right now.

After Eriksen, there’s a steep fall-off in talent. Kasper Schmeichel is a top-notch goalkeeper. Andreas Christensen is an up-and-coming defender. But there’s no one besides Eriksen who can generate much offense. Denmark had fewer shots on goal in the group phase than any team except Iran and Panama. (The Danes were tied with Colombia with 25 shots.)

Sound smart by talking about how Denmark has transformed its style of play under coach Age Hareide after a decade and a half under the former coach, Morten Olsen. Hareide’s strategy basically revolves around Eriksen.


#WorldCupS: Celebrate with bubbles; soothe with wine

The world’s most sophisticated drinking game is tanked up, so to speak. We’ve got our picks for the knockout rounds, and we’ll share what we’re drinking for future matches.

For now, we offer France fans something to celebrate victory, and Argentina fans an iconic wine to soothe their pain.


Celebrate with bubbles!

Ruinart Champagne Blanc de Blanc

Nothing more iconic in France than Champagne. They invented sparkling wine. Or was it the Brits?

Either way, France has refined and elevated it to an art. Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house, was founded in 1729, during the high-thinking era of Voltaire, who said, “The pursuit of pleasure must be the goal of every rational person.”

We’re in. And so was the Champagne region.

Champagne rules are draconian, and if you don’t follow them, you don’t get the name on your bottle. But when the name is there, it's a centuries-old contract essentially guaranteeing, “this is good shit.”

In the actual bottle, they use a process called “Méthode Champenoise,” (pronunciation here, for duly impressing your fellow sippers). It’s a complex form of secondary fermentation. You can geek out on the process here.

This Ruinart is blanc de blanc, meaning white wine made using only Chardonnay grapes — many Champagnes are blends. It's big, bold, peaches, pineapple and butter, with awesome counterbalancing acidity, beautifully lightened on the palate by a jillion tiny bubbles.

Ruinart is a swift kick to the pocketbook at around $80 a bottle, but half bottles are not hard to find — not quite half the price but more affordable. Save up in case Kylian Mbappé and France keep it up.

Bubble up! And Santé!


Soothe your pain with a glass of national pride.

Durigutti Bonarda

Selecting the iconic drink of Argentina was simpler than most, as the government declared wine the national drink in 2010. But wait! Which one? They haven't returned our call.

From 1850 to 1940, Italians streamed into Argentina, and according to estimates more than 60 percent of Argentines have some Italian in their DNA. It includes three distinct strands: pasta, sauce and wine, so it makes sense that Argentina has become a New World wine sensation with Old World sensibilities.

We chose Durigutti, not because of its deep roots, but rather its fresh ones. The Durigutti brothers are the next generation of Italian Argentine winemakers. Their vineyards are tucked in the foothills of the Andes, about 4,000 feet up, with cool nights and a long hang time for the grapes — think ripe fruit balanced by good acid.

The Bonarda grape also emigrated from Europe, the Sovoie region in France, though before 1860 it was growing in Italy. The French call the grape Douce Noir (sweet black).

The Durigutti Bonarda brings a lot of value for less than 15 bucks, lush with cherry and plum — and chocolate, oh my, crying out for an equally luscious grilled steak.

What more could you want to ease pain than the embrace of food and wine?

Salud y amor y tiempo para disfrutarlo — health and love and the time to enjoy it!

Run of Play | Great reads and more

Best advertisement for Adidas at the World Cup
Benjamin Pavard's awesome volley in the 57th minute of France's 4-3 victory over Argentina. Watch it, over and over, as I have. Best advertisement for Lille's youth academy, Adidas cleats and the Telstar 18 ball. The science of the ball is fascinating. But that shot was art.

Read more about the Telstar 18 from Popular Science.

Russia and FIFA give the doping all-clear.
Russian and FIFA officials have said don't worry, they've got the doping problem totally under control and the World Cup is completely clean.  The Russian team? All clear.  "This all sounds very reassuring," writes Stefan Szymanski in The Washington Post. "It also lacks any shred of credibility."

Read more from Szymanski, co-author of "Soccernomics."

Can we believe anything we see in Russia?
Is the World Cup fixed? Best answer I can find is "maybe." Match fixing has been a problem in soccer since the advent of money. But in Putin's Russia, it takes on a whole new scope. Ken Bessinger, author of the new book "Red Card," discussed how Putin might have fixed the World Cup on a recent Vanity Fair podcast. And San Diego Union columnist Mark Zeigler wonder's what we'll think after the round of 16 match.

Read more from Zeigler's column.

Putin is winning.
Andrew Roth writes in The Guardian: "It is a case study in effective soft power. For those who may have associated Russia with the Soviet Union or a police state, the World Cup has been a pleasant tour through gleaming cities. It is quite possible that the memories will last a lifetime and create goodwill to offset critical reports about the country’s leadership or rights abuses."

Read more about Russia's World Cup success off the field.
Join The Banter

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

Copyright © 2018 World Cup Banter, All rights reserved.