Now that we have to wait 4 and a half years for the next World Cup jamboree, I thought I should rate what I've seen & experienced out in Russia by way of a few categories;
BEST GAME - Portugal 3-3 Spain. I got lucky with my first commentary match of the tournament at the Fisht Stadium. We had all sensed that these Iberian neighbours would serve up something far better than they would had it been the 3rd game of the group stage rather than their Group B opener (see England/Belgium in Group G) but what we actually witnessed was far beyond that. An early goal always helps, duly supplied in this instance by Ronaldo from 12 yards for Portugal, but after that Spain played some delightful stuff utilising one-touch passing between Alba, Isco and Iniesta that you'd be hard pressed to better at any point in the rest of the matches that followed. Nacho's spanking right-foot strike is somehow only a footnote in goals of the tournament, De Gea showed a fallibility and an uncertainty hitherto unseen on any stage, but even so his team were seconds away from a vital 3-2 win, only for that man CR7 to dispatch a free kick the likes of which I may never see live again. I'll even forgive him that whole 'hitching up of the shorts' thing as he addressed the ball. Not for the last time, our team walked back to our hotel barely able to comprehend what we'd spent the last few hours describing.
BEST GOAL - That Ronaldo free-kick described above is obviously up there, Modric's crashing 25-yard drive to sink Argentina in Nizhny was pretty special, as was Cheryshev's against Croatia, Cavani's right footed finish against Portugal, Coutinho's roundhouse right vs Switz...oh bloody hell, I'll be here all night contemplating. Actually, do you know what? I'll go for Inui's thunderous hit to put Japan 2-0 up against Belgium in Rostov for the sheer unexpected nature of the scoreline it gave us and the quality of the strike - the sort of hit that is so true, the ball simply doesn't rotate in the air, rather staying stock still on its axis as it roared past Courtois into the corner. It looked for all the world as though that would give us THE shock of the Round of 16, but...
BEST MOMENT - ...Belgium's dramatic winner in that same tie in Rostov was a truly unforgettable climax. A true team goal, with Courtois starting a counter from a Japanese corner bowling the ball out to De Bruyne who was on his bike the moment the ball was in his 'keeper's hands. From there it was suddenly 4 on 3, but the weight of his pass to Meunier on the right followed by the calmness with which Meunier passed it across the 6 yard box for Lukaku to dummy so exquisitely for Chadli to sweep it home and send Japan home. Nishino, the Japanese coach, looked in truth to have lost all control of game management even before sub Fellaini had levelled matters at 2-2, but extra time still looked nailed on. It was a jaw-dropping was to end the game...I will say that Kroos' winning free kick in the last seconds against Sweden runs it fairly close, but Belgium/Japan was such a great game in itself that the final denouement elevated it to greater status.
BEST SAVE - Easy. Pickford in the penalty shootout against Bacca of Columbia. Or even his save just before Columbia's equaliser. Perhaps the one he made from Meunier in the play-off match yesterday...let's just say Pickford and have done with it.
WORST MOMENT - Aside from any errant train journeys our crew might have undertaken (see previous blogs) the worst moment was undoubtedly France/Denmark, a truly awful pact-of-non-agression football match where only Griezmann looked vaguely interested in trying a leg whilst Denmark, aware during the 2nd half that rivals Australia were losing to already-eliminated Peru and thus in with a chance of winning the group, did the square root of bugger all about it. They shouldn't have been fearful of facing Argentina if that's what was bothering them...pathetic.
BEST EMERGING PLAYER - Kieran Trippier is the pick of English players to have advanced his reputation in a huge way this past month. The quality of his crossing struck me back in his Burnley days when I saw him dominate a match at Nottingham Forest from right back, and his progress and importance to the national side now is a joy to behold. Elsewhere I still don't quite get how Ochoa the Mexican goalie isn't at a more elite side than Standard Liege. Somebody should take a punt on him, even if he isn't the tallest - he's certainly one of the bravest and sharpest. Laxalt the Uruguayan left back looked very tidy indeed and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic of Serbia looks destined to eclipse Nemanja Matic for his country as its most influential midfielder. And lest we forget Denis Cheryshev of Russia who only came on after Dzagoev's customary limp off the field in the opening match to score some crackers and look totally at home on the biggest of stages.
BEST 'MARQUEE' PLAYER - Not many of the established 'greats' held our adoring gaze for too long at this World Cup. Perhaps if Cavani had been fit to face France, both he and Suarez could have continued to dovetail as beautifully as they had for Uruguay against Portugal. Instead we were left to marvel at teenage sensation Mbappe of France, who looked unflappable throughout, made Marcos Rojo look like he was running through treacle in the Round of 16 and scored a deserved goal to cap France's triumph in Moscow. Perhaps Neymar might have passed to him a tad more last season...ah yes, Neymar...
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT - He was nowhere near, was he really? Nor Messi, save for the quality goal against Nigeria - even Ronaldo's stardust seemed to fade after that brightest of starts. Germany were collectively a massive let down as yet another team looking to retain the trophy waved ta-ra after 3 games and had seemingly no identity to their play. I queried Neuer's selection before the tournament, feeling that Ter Stegen deserved his chance, and the whole spine of that team (Neuer, Boateng, Ozil, Werner) were woefully below par. Peru seemed more unlucky than disappointing to have 0 points from their 1st 2 games, whilst the African nations couldn't get deep into the business end of things yet again. Senegal can count themselves unfortunate to go out on not being as nice as Japan, but Nigeria really shouldn't have let a rag-tag Argentina get past them on that final group stage game. And Panama were a right dirty bunch of kickers eh?
BIGGEST SURPRISE - Russia as hosts surprised us all by getting within a shootout of the semi-finals. It's always hard to gauge how a host nation will fare after 2 years without competitive football, and whilst their friendly results looked horrid, the quality of that opposition seemed to help them understand how to step up their game. It made for an even better tournament to see them progress and you could argue they were just as deserving of a last-4 spot as Croatia were on yet another barmy/balmy night in Sochi.
BEST/WORST THING ABOUT RUSSIA - The country itself was a constant delight; from the decorative, ornate underground Metro network in Moscow, the extraordinary quality of all stadia that I visited (especially Nizhny Novgorod) the people, the Chicken Caesar salads, and the general happy tolerance towards prats like me whose command of the Russian language amounted to repeated use of their work for 'thank you' and precious little else! The worst thing was my prejudiced view prior to flying out as to what I was going to experience. More fool me for flapping as much as I was made to.