For the 30 days that the tournament lasts, the attention of millions of football lovers across the world will be focused on Russia, where 32 countries featuring in the World Cup will trade tackles for the utmost prize. Indeed, it is going to be battle royal between favourites, underdogs and dark horses
By Olu Ojewale
THE countdown has started. In another few days, the World Cup 2018 tournament will begin. Thirty-two teams from the five continents of the world will slug it out in Russia from June 14, through to July 15, in contest for the most coveted prize of the tournament, the World Cup.
As in previous tournaments, there are favourites, underdogs and dark horses. The 2018 World Cup might be missing some big nations such as Italy, a four-time World Cup champion; the Netherlands, a former European champion and three-time World Cup finalist as well as Chile, current Copa America champion, but that itself will make it intriguing. Based on the current forms and analysis of experts, it is safe to say favourites for the cup are Brazil, Spain, Belgium, France, Argentina and Portugal, the current European champion, who hopes to dethrone Germany, the defending World Cup champion.
For a start, all the favourites seven are expected to qualify from their various groups to the knockout stages.
Germany, as the current World Cup holder, appears to be capable of retaining the cup. It posted 100 percent record in its qualifying matches for the Russia 2018. It beat Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino at home and away. Joachim Low’s men conceded only four goals and scored 43, the highest total in all European groups alongside Belgium.
The German team, once again, is in the competition without a star player. In fact, Germany’s biggest strength has always been the team spirit, the idea that a strong group of players will always be superior to individual talents. The squad also has the depth to leave certain such as Leroy Sane of Manchester City behind.
The players have also been together for a long time to form good understanding. Backed by one of the most advanced data systems in world football, the team will not only develop strategies for both attack and defence but also continue to improve its set-piece tactics. At the 2014 World Cup, Germany scored five goals from set pieces – more than any other nation.
Although the Germans are not overly reliant on individuals, the possible loss of Manuel Neuer, the team’s captain and goalkeeper, could be a problem. For now, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, a Barcelona goalkeeper, has been deputising and doing a good job of it, but Neuer still ranks above him. Nevertheless, Neuer who has not played a minute of football since September last year, hopes to be fit in time for the opening match.
One of the stars that is expected to be on top of his game is Toni Kroos, who has been the unsung hero of the Germany team for many years now. The Real Madrid player has played in seven consecutive Champions League semi-finals for Bayern Munich and the Spanish club, which he joined in 2014.
According to analysts Kroos dominates midfield, and his calm distribution dictates the pace of Germany’s game. His ability to get himself into dangerous positions near the box makes him one of the most complete midfielders in world football.
“If there are no major upsets, and the favourites reach the last four, this will be where Germany blow out. Like many of my peers, I believe the squad is more balanced than in 2014. But the competitors have caught up. France, Brazil, Belgium, England: one of them will beat Germany,” Peter Ahrens, Spiegel Online journalist, said.
Indeed, Brazil is one of the major contenders for the cup. The country hopes to bounce back from its dismal showing in the 2014 tournament, which it hosted. The question in many quarters before the tournament gets underway is whether Brazil can jettison the 2014 disappointment to be the champion in Russia. Yes has been the answer. Does it have the team for that? Again, Yes.
If those questions were asked exactly two years ago before Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri aka Dunga was sacked as the Brazilian coach, the answer would have different. In fact, qualification matches started when Dunga was coach, and Brazil was not playing good soccer. When the coach was sacked, the team was in sixth place and at risk of not qualifying for the Russia 2018.
The arrival of Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, commonly known as Tite, has completely changed the scenario. Since then, players have recovered their form, rivals started to fear them again and the good results poured in. Perhaps, surprisingly Brazil became the first national team (after the hosts) to secure its place in the World Cup, finishing top of the South American qualifiers.
Just like Germany, Brazil does not need to rely on Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, simply called Neymar, as heavily as in the 2014 World Cup, when its game depended on the player’s individual moves.
Although Neymar is a major key player, the team now depends on the entire squad to perform. The change started the moment Tite took over the national team. With a new coach and a new game, Neymar was given more freedom to play and the team became a unit. The team now looks balanced, knowing how to pass the ball, attack and also defend.
That notwithstanding, the spotlights will be fixed on Neymar. As a star in 2014, he had his first World Cup appearance terminated in an injury against Colombia and from afar he saw his side thrashed 7-1 against Germany. Pundits have argued whether the result would have been different with Neymar in the pitch. We may never know, but what is apparent is that Brazil would be mindful of that humiliating defeat and avoid a recurrence.
“Tite’s taking over the national team has brought new stamina to the players, to the federation, and mostly, to the fans, who had lost their faith in the soccer played by the national team. Neymar’s injury, however, raises a major interrogation mark. If the PSG star comes back to the pitch with limitations, Brazilian hopes to get the sixth title decrease. However, if the No. 10-shirt ace comes back ‘in one piece,’ the cup gets closer,” said Antonio Strini, reporter for ESPN Brasil