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
But Edson Arantes do Nascimento aka Pele, arguably Brazilian greatest footballer, is sceptical. Even though he believes the nation can win its sixth World Cup at Russia 2018, Pele has concern that the Brazilian squad is not yet working as a team.
“I’ve great confidence in the abilities of Tite,” Pele said. “I’ve only got one concern: there are only a few days before the beginning of the World Cup and we still don’t have a good team. Individually, all the players are very good. But we are not a team.”
Neymar’s return to action following a season-ending foot injury with Paris Saint-Germain has offered the great further cause for optimism, with the world’s most expensive player having netted spectacularly in his comeback game against Croatia in a friendly match.
The three times world cup hero said the PSG star alone, would not win Brazil the competition. “Today, he’s matured and has more experience, but he’s not going to win the World Cup alone,” Pele warned. “It’s teams who win the World Cup.”
Brazil’s campaign gets underway against Switzerland on June 17, before further group matches against Costa Rica and Serbia.
Argentina is another favourite for the cup. Argentina is one of the most successful national football teams in the world, having won two World Cups in 1978 and 1986. It has also been runners up three times in the 1930, 1990 and 2014.
In any case, it was a bumpy road for Argentina to qualify, having finished third in the 2018 South American Football Confederation, CONMEBOL qualifying tournament. During the period, the team missed the service of Lionel Messi, the best footballer in the world, who missed several matches. It also had three different managers, namely Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Jorge Sampaoli. In fact, it was not until Messi’s hat trick in the final qualifier against Ecuador in Quito that Argentina finally found a sense of calm and secured qualification.
Besides having the best player in the whole world, Argentina boast a plethora of other fantastic players who can hold their own on the field of play. Even though they are part of the group that has been harshly criticised after their loss to Germany in 2014, the credentials of players such as Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, just to name a few, are commendable. Analysts say with the crop of Argentine players being paraded, it cannot be out of place to say the team is capable of winning the World Cup.
The fear in many quarters, even as the tournament itself approaches, is that nobody seems knows who will play in the key positions. This, in part, is because Sampaoli has tried different names and systems but is also due to injuries suffered by several key members of the team. The constant swaps by the manager, with very different styles and formations, have had negative impacts on the team.
Nevertheless, heading into Russia 2018, Argentina’s hopes rest heavily on the shoulders of its superstar. And for the Argentine team to win the World Cup, it must first of all scale through Group D, with surprising Iceland, dangerous Croatia and Nigeria, a very familiar foe. It won’t be easy but Argentina is the favourite to win the group.
Perhaps, to dampen any high expectations, Sampaoli said he had no enough time to get the team playing exactly the way he would like. He also said, a little dramatically, that Messi would be playing “with a revolver to his head,” such is the pressure on the world best player to cement his reputation by delivering the World Cup as Diego Maradona did in 1986.
In any case, football analysts say Argentina should not have much difficulty in advancing to the quarterfinals. But unlike in Brazil 2014, where the path to the finals was relatively easy for the team, in Russia the Albiceleste, as the team is called, could end up facing Spain, Brazil and Germany once more. So, for Messi and co to become the champions of the world, it is another big task ahead.
The array of football stars in the Spanish squad is similarly intimidating, prompting Ian Darke, a columnist at ESPN, to write: “There is a tendency to believe Spain are yesterday’s men but might they be tomorrow’s as well? Led by Sergio Ramos, they still have massive experience and technical excellence, as Italy found to their cost in qualifying.”
In the same vein, a rival coach observed that Spain could be a champion again, having won the world Cup in 2010. “They move the ball with one touch at devilish speed,” the coach said.
Indeed, with the likes of David De Gea, Sergio Busquets, David Silva, Isco, Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Thiago Alcantara, Andres Iniesta and Diego Costa, even Lionel Messi, Argentina captain, said: “You’d rather not face them.”
Spain sailed through qualifying in Europe’s Group G, winning nine and drawing one of their 10 games while scoring 36 goals and conceding just three.
Spain’s biggest strength throughout their 2008-12 glory years was a possession-based style that saw them able to dominate games and international tournaments in a way never seen before. Julen Lopetegui, coach of Spanish team, has adopted the style to current conditions, renewing the team vigour at pressing to regain the ball immediately when they lose it, but his team’s chances of success in Russia will still be determined by whether it can again use possession to wear down opponents.
Experts say Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, veteran midfielders, will be key to this approach once more, and also using their experiences in previous tournaments in Russia.
The snag, however, is Spanish team’s inability in recent times to turn all that dominance of territory and possession into goals.
That notwithstanding, it is believed that the 3-0 victory over Italy in qualifying match had convinced fans and pundits that Spain were “back” and would have a real chance of going all the way this year.
Besides, the squad has at least as much talent and experience as any other country at the tournament, and if the players do click, then they can hope to win the ultimate prize.
Also among the favourites for the trophy is France. The 1998 champion is believed to have the team that can lay claim to the cup which it last won in 1998 when it hosted the tournament, and beat Brazil 3-0, to lift the trophy.
Indeed, France boasts an abundance of young talent and strength (not to mention quality) in depth that almost every other nation can only dream of. With the exception of a few select positions, notably left-back and right-back, Didier Deschamps, coach of the team, has an enviable array of proven stars quality or exceptional promise to choose from. This may as well be a problem for the coach.
Deschamps, who captained France nation to victory in 1998 (the last hosts to win, by the way), has the likes of Paul Pogba of Manchester United, N’Golo Kante of Chelsea and Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain’s as well as Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid in his squad. The team also has a very decent centre-back pair of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti.
But Griezmann remains the talisman of the French team. He was the leading scorer (six goals) at Euro 2016 and would be expected to repeat that trick in Russia. Despite his problems at Manchester United, Pogba is also a key man for France and might find pulling on that blue shirt galvanises him again.
According to experts, the major worry for France is that it flopped when it mattered in the final of Euro 2016, were held by Belarus and Luxembourg in qualifying and recently blew a 2-0 lead in losing to Colombia.
Hence, an ESPN analysis said: “Very talented but a little erratic must be the verdict. That last bit is a concern in a knock-out tournament where one bad day can doom you.”
In the same vein, Christophe Dugarry, a pundit declared after France lost Colombia in March: “Pogba and Griezmann are viewed as the strong men of this team. The other players are proud to play alongside these guys. Pogba and Griezmann do not seem to understand that, though. They are both rappers, actors, directors, dancers, footballers and basketball players at the same time: Griezmann has even said he would prefer to play basketball! A few months before a World Cup, they need to be concentrating. They have to lead the way! They cannot be asking journalists to “get behind us and push us higher” or “get behind Grizou and take him higher.” What is this c–p? It is up to them to take us, the nation, there! This French team lacks character and mentality.”
In any case, it is expected that France would top Group C ahead of Australia, Denmark and Peru but find things harder in the latter stages and possibly reach the last eight.
Another fierce contestant is Belgium. Belgium had a very easy campaign in UEFA’s qualifying Group H in which the team scored 43 goals with Romelu Lukaku of Manchester United leading the way with 11 and Eden Hazard of Chelsea FC adding six goals and five assists. To put it simply, there was no contest whatsoever.
In fact, analysts believe that the current Belgian team is the golden generation of the nation’s football and even the big stars of the 1980s, including Jan Ceulemans, agree that the current squad is the best ever. There is remarkable quality in every department, starting with Thibaut Courtois in goal. Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany are all leading defenders plying their trade in England. Mousa Dembele and Radja Nainggolan are supreme in central midfield.
Kevin De Bruyne is one the best playmakers in the world, the brightest star at all-conquering Manchester City. Hazard and Dries Mertens are outstanding wingers, with the latter starring as a centre-forward at Napoli in the last two seasons. Lukaku is one of the most powerful and prolific strikers in the Premier League.
“This really our best generation ever, especially as far as attacking potential is concerned. Martinez is an improvement on Wilmots on the bench, but the problem is that we will only be able to judge his abilities at the World Cup itself. There is significant criticism of his tactics within the squad, especially regarding the three-man defence. The gold medals tend to go to traditional forces at the World Cup, and Belgium are not one of them. Could they go all the way? I am a bit sceptical,” – Philippe Gerday, journalist for La Meuse Sudpresse, said.
Hence, Roberto Martinez, coach of the Belgian team, can pick a truly magnificent and experienced world-class line-up in every department, meaning that the team should be considered a legitimate contender to win the prize.
However, it is instructive to note that the same players went to the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 and didn’t deliver the expected results. This was brought down to mean that the team lacked a winning mentality and had tactical problems that resulted in poor balance between the stars.
That notwithstanding, Belgium is expected to make it into the last 16 without problems, beating Panama and Tunisia. If it finishes ahead of England and top Group G, it would then face Brazil in the quarterfinals. If it finishes second behind England, it would possibly face Germany in the quarterfinals. That hurdle will be high and it is logical to predict that the Belgians would go out at that point, just like in 2014 and 2016. If it manages to overcome the hurdle, them it could win the tournament.
Although England is not considered to be one of the favourites to win the cup, it is one of underdogs.
England made it to the Russia 2018 by emerging unbeaten at the top of a Group F of the UEFA qualifying games that included Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta by a convincing eight-point margin. It scored 18 goals and conceded three, the only points dropped by the team away from home against Slovakia and Scotland.
Harry Kane netted five times to lead the team in front of goal, but the gulf in class between the group winners and the chasing pack was underlined by the fact that 11 other players also scored during the campaign.
The present squad of England appears to have all the tools to be one of the fastest and most athletic teams at the World Cup. It parades young, dynamic squad with searing pace on the flanks and plenty of lung power in midfield.
Analysts say if England makes it to the knockout stage and faces teams who look to dominate possession, Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford could be devastating in transition, while Danny Rose, Ryan Bertrand, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier can provide further thrust from defence.
“To win the World Cup is going to be a miracle, but we have got the players to do it. A lot of us play in probably the best league in the world. We’ve got the players to do it, but have we got the experience going further along in competitions? No, we haven’t. Not in recent years. We need to be realistic. There are a lot of good teams out there and our record in tournaments has not been fantastic. We’ve had a lot of conversations inside the camp – England haven’t won a knockout game for God knows how many years, so for us to go there and win a knockout game, that would be a step in the right direction,” Kyle Walker, England defender, said to talkSPORT.
Another prominent underdog is Portugal. It has Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s greatest ever player, as the captain. The two times Portugal qualified for a World Cup in Europe, it reached the semi-final (England 1966 and Germany 2006), but matching that achievement now looks a forlorn hope.
An over-reliance on Ronaldo and 35-year-old Pepe, along with the fact that too many key players have had disastrous seasons – Andre Silva, Raphael Guerreiro, Adrien Silva, Joao Mario – has seen Portugal regress since winning the European Championship two years ago.
The team should be able to make out of the group, and once there, a favourable match-up in the round of 16 makes a quarterfinal appearance doable, though the run may end there against France or Argentina.
Among other underdogs are Uruguay, Switzerland, Croatia, Mexico, and Australia. While all the five African teams in the tournament, including Iceland, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Poland and others are considered to be dark horses.
For Russia, the host nation, hosting the event is said to be the only way for the country to have been able to feature in the tournament. Analysts say the Russian team is among the poorest in the history of Russian football. At the 2017 Confederations Cup at home, which acted as the only real test for Russian team, it was stopped at a group stage after beating New Zealand but losing to Portugal and Mexico.
In total, Russia have played 19 matches since Euro 2016 and won just six (against Ghana, Romania, Hungary, New Zealand, Dinamo Moscow and Korea Republic). It has not won since October 2017, and conceded 10 goals in four friendlies against Argentina, Spain, Brazil and France.
Although Nigeria, the first African country to qualify for the World Cup, is considered to be a dark horse, securing the Eagles’ spot in Russia, the qualifying campaign also served to restore the nation’s belief in the team and herald in Gernot Rohr’s new era.
The team has a mixed of youngsters and old reliable ones. However, perhaps, the Super Eagles’ key asset is the unity, morale and belief of this group of players.
Indeed, Rohr has overlooked many of the underachievers of previous regimes and brought in youngsters, many of whom have stepped up seamlessly to the international prominence. The likes of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi are now making waves with their youthful exuberance and mental ability required to succeed at the club and national levels. Nevertheless, Goalkeeping remains a concern for Rohr following Vincent Enyeama’s departure from the international scene and Carl Ikeme’s leukemia diagnosis. The coach initially lost faith in Ikechukwu Ezenwa, and plumped for 19-year-old Francis Uzoho to start between the sticks in Nigeria’s recent friendlies. The youngster overcame a nervy start to keep Robert Lewandowski at bay as Poland was beaten, but with only 180 minutes of La Liga football under his belt with Deportivo La Coruna, the inexperienced Uzoho is in danger of being exposed in Russia.
John Mikel Obi remains the Super Eagles’ talisman, even if Iwobi and Victor Moses may make more eye-catching contributions to the team.
Obi, as the central midfielder offers terrific experience, having won the Champions League, the Europa League, the African Cup of Nations and two Premier League titles, and is said to be a big brother to the all youngsters in the squad.
Analysts say the Super Eagles captain is always on hand to play a key role in controlling the tempo and ensure the side maintains its structure whenever Nigeria is under pressure.
“This team remains inordinately reliant on its spine of Leon Balogun, John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses. That in itself is not a bad thing. Every team has a spine to build upon. However, what is increasingly glaring is that the level of the side without them does not so much depreciate as it does disappear altogether. It is one thing to go from a good side to a not-so-good side, and quite another to go from a good side to a turgid, bereft one,” Solace Chukwu, Goal Nigeria, said.
Drawn alongside, Argentina, Croatia and Iceland, Nigeria would need to work very hard to qualify as none of the team in the group is regarded as a minor.
If Nigeria is able qualify from the group, it will face a team from Group C, which includes France, Peru, Denmark and Australia, with possibly a good chance of moving on to the quarter-finals. However, it will have to face Iceland, a surprising and energized team in its World Cup debut, as well as Croatia, a very talented side.
The four other African teams, namely Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are not going to have it easy either.
So far, only three African teams have made it to the World Cup quarter-finals, Cameroon in 1990 in Italy; Senegal in 2002 during their World Cup debut in South Korea and Japan, and Ghana in 2010 in South Africa. So it’s fair to say that history won’t be on the side African teams.
All things being equal, Russia 2018 promises to be a very entertaining one. As usual only one team is going to emerge as champion, but getting the crown is not going to be a walk in the pack.
– Jun. 8, 2018 @ 18:10 GMT |