MOSCOW, July 13, 2018 (News Wires) - Croatia have relied on mental strength to defy limited resources and become the smallest nation in 68 years to reach a World Cup final, said defender Dejan Lovren.
Zlatko Dalic's men have taken the long road to a meeting with France in Moscow on Sunday after three lots of extra-time and two penalty shootouts in the knockout phase to squeeze past Denmark, Russia and England.
Born to Croatian parents in the Bosnian city of Zenica, Lovren was forced to flee to Germany at just three years old when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992.
His family eventually settled back in Croatia and the Liverpool defender believes a tough upbringing and fierce desire to make the nation of just over four million people proud are key motivating factors.
"I think it is our mentality. We went through again a lot... wars, all these things, and even now the situation is not the best. But it is unbelievable how many talents we have in sports," Lovren told reporters after Croatia ended England's World Cup dreams with a 2-1 semifinal win.
"We knew we could write history and we did it. Now there is only one game left to make it forever."
Lovren and his teammates have already gone further than Croatia ever have before at a World Cup, but can become legends if they gain revenge for France's semifinal victory in the 1998 World Cup.
French right-back Lilian Thuram scored his only two goals in a storied 142-cap international career in that semifinal 20 years ago.
"I think now in many years people will remember us, not the '98 team. This is what I wanted, this is why I'm proud and I deserve this," added Lovren.
"I was only nine. I remember my mum was screaming and she was crying after the France game. People were talking about Lillian Thuram, where did he come from? Maybe it is our time for revenge."
Having seen off Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium in 90 minutes and had an extra day's rest following their semifinal on Tuesday, France will be heavy favourites to make amends for defeat to Portugal on home soil in the final of Euro 2016 on Sunday.
However, Croatia have grown used to beating the odds, and will relish the role of underdogs once more.
"France are definitely the favourites, there is no hiding from that, but we like that," added Lovren. "We like to be the underdogs from day one.
"Without being arrogant. I think if you are in the final, you are the two best teams in the world."
MOSCOW, July 13, 2018 (News Wires) - A towering physique and range of flashy hairstyles mean Paul Pogba rarely goes unnoticed but he has become emblematic of a French squad willing to sacrifice personal gain for World Cup glory.
France go into Sunday's final against Croatia in Moscow aiming to make amends for the bitter disappointment of losing the Euro 2016 final on home soil to Portugal.
Just weeks before Manchester United paid a then world-record £89 million to sign Pogba from Juventus, that final largely passed him by.
The intervening two years have not always been easy either. Pogba has been criticised in England for failing to dominate big games and was even dropped a number of times last season because his defensive work did not match the standards demanded by Jose Mourinho.
However, it is that aspect of Pogba's game that has been so impressive in Russia as he and N'Golo Kante have laid the perfect foundation for France's array of attacking talent headlined by Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
"I want to win this World Cup and you have to make sacrifices," said Pogba on Thursday.
"Defending isn't my strong point, I'm not N'Golo, but I'll happily do it. I have grown up, matured."
France's back four and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris have earned deserved praise for four clean sheets in six games in getting to the final, but the chalk-and-cheese midfield combination of the quiet Kante and confident Pogba has provided the perfect screen in front of the defence.
In a 1-0 semifinal win over Belgium, Pogba routinely tracked Marouane Fellaini back into his own box to snuff out his club teammate's physical threat from crosses.
"Paul was monstrous," said France boss Didier Deschamps. "He was very efficient in our defensive plan."
Pogba's extroverted nature has also seen him become a leader for a young team on and off the field.
He flew his barber out to Russia from London to give some members of the squad a mid-tournament haircut, while Pogba's social media output is filled with pranks being played on teammates.
But the 25-year-old is also a source of advice for younger players such as Mbappe and semifinal match-winner Samuel Umtiti, having already experienced huge highs and lows in a short career.
"I've known Pogba for a long time. He's always been a leader. He can talk to players and give advice because people really listen to him " said Umtiti.
Pogba's defensive discipline will be fully tested by Croatia's midfield creators Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
But with Croatia having played 90 minutes more after coming through three periods of extra-time – and having a day less to recover than France – Les Bleus are the heavy favourites to win their second World Cup.
"I don't have a star. It's on the shirt but I didn't win it. I want one," Pogba said of the star on the French shirt that represents the 1998 World Cup win.
"I know the taste of defeat in a final. It's really not good, very bitter... we really want to finish well, with a smile."
Pogba tends to live life with a smile on his face. But in Russia he has proved how hard he is willing to work for success.
LONDON, July 12, 2018 (News Wires) - Angelique Kerber was in blistering form as she swept past Jelena Ostapenko 6-3 6-3 to reach the final of Wimbledon.
The 11th seed produced a stunning display of power hitting from the back of the court to leave Ostapenko a very frustrated figure.
The German was utterly ruthless in her approach as she broke early and held her advantage, conceding just three games in the opening set.
Ostapenko threw everything at her opponent but was not able to haul herself back into the contest at all.
The second set was quite simply a masterclass in precision groundstrokes from Kerber as she again broke early to seize the advantage.
Ostapenko grew increasingly frustrated as she slipped a second break down and, despite hitting back to deny Kerber as she attempted to serve out for the match at 5-1, could not do enough.
For Kerber it is a second opportunity to win Wimbledon in a final after she reached the showpiece match in 2016.
The 30-year-old will now await the winner of the second semi-final between her compatriot Julia Goerges and seven-time winner Serena Williams.
MOSCOW, July 12, 2018 (News Wires) - Ecstatic Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is confident tiredness will not be an issue for his side when they face France in the World Cup final despite once again coming through extra time to beat England on Wednesday.
Croatia came from behind to win 2-1 in the semifinal clash in Moscow, with Mario Mandzukic claiming the winner in the 109th minute after Ivan Perisic had earlier cancelled out Kieran Trippier's free-kick opener.
Dalic's side were clearly exhausted, but they managed to fight on to the end of two hours of gripping football to take the country of just over four million people into the final for the first time.
However, the biggest concern looking ahead to Sunday's game is bound to be fatigue, with Croatia having also required extra time and penalties to come through ties against Denmark and hosts Russia in the past two weeks.
France will have had 24 hours longer to prepare for the game after edging out Belgium 1-0 in 90 minutes in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.
"This is fantastic. Two players played with half a leg, but it didn't show. In extra-time nobody wanted to be substituted. This shows character and is what makes me proud. Nobody gave up," said Dalic, whose team have played the equivalent of one match more than the French.
"We prepared to get to the final and we want to play it. Going to extra-time might be a problem along with the fact France have had an extra day to recover but there will be no excuses," he added.
"We have to play as if this were the first game in this tournament."
No team has ever made it to the World Cup final after going to extra-time in all three prior knockout rounds – England twice won in extra-time in 1990 before losing on penalties to West Germany in the semifinals.
Dalic was only appointed as Croatia coach towards the end of their qualifying campaign, leading them to Russia via a playoff win against Greece.
He described France as a "top-drawer team with fantastic players", but his own side have earned their place in the final, their victory over England coming after they earlier destroyed Lionel Messi and Argentina with a 3-0 win in the group stage.
Luka Modric has been inspirational throughout their run, yet there were numerous outstanding performances at the Luzhniki Stadium as Croatia recovered from a shaky opening half hour.
Among the best was Marcelo Brozovic, the Inter Milan midfielder brought into the line-up to provide extra steel in front of the defence.
"We were the better team in all aspects of the game," said Dalic.
"We played better than we did against Argentina. I told the players before the game there was no pressure – we have reached the semifinals, enjoy your football and this was exactly what we did."
Croatia now have the chance to take revenge on France after losing 2-1 in Paris when the sides met in the semifinals back in 1998 – Dalic travelled to that World Cup as a fan.
With such a modest population, they are the smallest country to get to a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950, and in the modern game it is a staggering achievement.
"For Croatian football and Croatia as a country this is history being written," said the 51-year-old Dalic.
"We are going to play England in the League of Nations (in October) and we don't have a proper stadium to play that game. But we have our hearts, our pride and our players and that is what is really important to us."
He will just be hoping that all of them are fit enough for one last effort against a fearsome French side.
Oakland, June 1, 2018 (News Wires) - LeBron James gave it everything he had, repeatedly willing the Cleveland Cavaliers back into the game and even putting them in position to win in regulation, but the Golden State Warriors found their offense in overtime and walked away with an unsettling 124-114 victory in Game 1 of the N.B.A. finals on Thursday.
All the talk coming into the game had been about this being one of the largest mismatches in finals history. The Warriors would be running out a lineup full of All-Stars against a Cavaliers team that relied far too heavily on James. But proving that the games are played for a reason, the Warriors barely survived at home despite getting 29 points from Stephen Curry, 26 points from Kevin Durant and 24 points from Klay Thompson.
Each of the Warriors stars had their moments, but none could compare to the incredible performance by James, who had a personal-postseason-best 51 points in 48 minutes.
James, who used an enormous physical advantage to dominate on both ends of the court, contributed eight assists and eight rebounds to go with his eighth game of this postseason scoring 40 or more points. He endured a vicious poke to the eye from Draymond Green, and there was seemingly nothing Golden State could do to slow him down as he repeatedly brought his team back from what seemed like the brink of disaster.
Unfortunately for James, not all of his teammates were quite as locked in as him. In the final seconds of regulation, with the score tied, J.R. Smith was able to get an offensive rebound of a missed free-throw by George Hill, but seemingly unaware of the score he dribbled into space, effectively running out the clock.
“He thought we were up one,” a frustrated Coach Tyronn Lue said at his postgame news conference.
Smith, though, claimed Lue’s assertion was incorrect.
“No, I knew it was tied,” he said. “I thought we were going to take a timeout because I got the rebound. I’m pretty sure everybody didn’t think I was going to shoot it over KD right there.”
Regardless of his knowledge of the score, the enormous mistake wasted what looked like a plum opportunity to steal a road win from a team that has been accused of ruining the game with its sheer dominance since Durant came in as a free agent. It also left James with nothing to show for one of the best games of his career.
Asked what adjustments the Warriors could make to slow down James going forward, Coach Steve Kerr, as he often does, made light of the situation.
“We held back a lot of strategy tonight,” he said to a chorus of laughs. “We’ve got so many things up our sleeves. We’re going to shut them down next game.”
But even with James doing anything he wanted, and Kevin Love looking like a worthy second fiddle as he contributed 21 points and 14 rebounds in his first game since being cleared from the concussion protocol, it still seemed as if the talent-deep Warriors would run away with the game after making their typical second-half adjustments.
Curry tied the game with a buzzer-beating 38-footer at the end of the first half — one of three shots he hit from 29 or more feet away in the half — and a 10-3 run to start the third quarter had the game following a familiar script. Nearly all the hallmarks of a Warriors win were there, including a stat-stuffing line from Green of 13 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks, but James just kept willing his team back, proving that he was not susceptible to the exhaustion that seems to plague so many Golden State opponents in the second half.
The Cavaliers, though, were clearly frustrated after an overturned call in the fourth quarter helped swing the momentum toward Golden State and Smith’s horrible mistake at the end of regulation appeared to cost Cleveland what seemed like near-certain victory.
The overturned call came on what was initially ruled a charge against Durant. After a review, it was determined that James had committed a foul, and Durant’s two free-throws tied the game at 104-104.
James protested the change, and Lue, in his postgame remarks, claimed such a decision had never been made in the history of the game on a play outside the restricted area.
The overtime reset let the Warriors take a breath and calm down, at which point the defending champions were off to the races.
Durant hit a pair of free throws to start the scoring, Thompson hit a 3-pointer, and Shaun Livingston connected on a midrange jumper and a dunk in what would be a 9-0 run, and the Warriors closed the extra period having outscored the Cavaliers, 17-7.
While now in a 1-0 hole in the best-of-seven series, Cleveland could be revitalized by the close game, and has a chance to even things up, and steal home court advantage, if they can get a win in Game 2 on Sunday in Oakland. To prevent that, the Warriors must slow down James, which would be much easier if Golden State could get Andre Iguodala back from a bone bruise that has kept him out since Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. He’s slowed down some with age, but Iguodala won the 2015 Finals M.V.P. largely for his work in defending James.