Tuesday 17 July 2018

Anticipation at end of the beginning

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French fans in Strasbourg watch their side’s victory over Argentina yesterday. ‘Shit just got real, as they apparently say in the hip-hop community.’ Photo: Sebastien Bozon
French fans in Strasbourg watch their side’s victory over Argentina yesterday. ‘Shit just got real, as they apparently say in the hip-hop community.’ Photo: Sebastien Bozon

Eamonn Sweeney

The serious stuff starts now. From here on in our heroes will add spice to the show by performing their tricks without a safety net. Forget calculations and permutations, a win will be a win and a loss will be the end. Shit just got real, as they apparently say in the hip-hop community.

Mind you, the fortnight leading up to this hasn't exactly been routine. We've had that emotionally charged Swiss win over Serbia, Argentina's great late escape against Nigeria, the almost perfect performance by Croatia which landed Lionel Messi's team in trouble to begin with, the exhibition stuff in the Spain-Portugal match which might not be topped in terms of sheer quality and some stirring underdog displays from the likes of Japan, Senegal and South Korea.

Above all, we've had the eclipse of Germany. Even the most shameless purveyors of hindsight can't pretend they saw this one coming. In fact, Toni Kroos' last-second winner against Sweden seemed like yet another proof of Teutonic indomitability. That the champions then came a cropper against a previously timid South Korea side was as big a shock as the World Cup has produced in its history.

Yet the German exit is far from unprecedented. Four of the last five champions have gone out in the group stages of the next World Cup, including French and Spanish teams coming off the back of European Championship victories who were even more fancied than the Germans were this year. You have to go back to 1974, and a Brazilian team derided for betraying the spirit of their predecessors, for the last time the World Cup holders even made the last four of the competition.

Such evidence seems to indicate that something powerful militates against the possibility of putting two good World Cups together. But what? Staleness? A lack of hunger which sets in after players have won the biggest prize in football? Or hubris perhaps? That certainly seemed to be the only explanation for Joachim Low's omission of Leroy Sane from the squad.

Such was the confidence in German prospects that many pundits regarded this as an example of awesome strength in depth rather than managerial eccentricity. But the truth is that there's no team at the finals who wouldn't be improved by the presence of the Manchester City wide man in their first 11, let alone their squad. One player wouldn't have made all the difference, but Low's selection perhaps indicated a fatal complacency. In the words of John McGahern, "You always get punished for behaving stupidly."

The two most obvious candidates to succeed Germany weren't exactly in earth-shattering form during the group stages. But there was a remorseless efficiency about Brazil's 2-0 dismissal of Serbia which bodes well for the rest of their tournament. The solidity of Thiago Silva and Joao Miranda at the back and Casemiro in front of them makes Brazil look a very different side from the defensively flakey outfit of four years ago when none of that trio played in the 7-1 humiliation by Germany.

Their problems may lie at the other end, though rumours of Neymar's impending demise seem much exaggerated. The Paris Saint-Germain star seems to have become the lightning rod for those who worry about poncy foreigners in football exhibiting that dread quality, 'petulance'. People harped on about Cristiano Ronaldo like this for a decade and he made them look extremely foolish. Neymar will probably do the same thing.

I'm not sure why there's so much love out there for Spain, whose campaign so far has consisted of two draws and a slightly fortunate win over Iran. The team looked tired in its previous two major finals and it's asking a lot to expect a renaissance when key players Pique, Ramos, Silva and Iniesta are the wrong side of 30 and new blood is conspicuous by its absence.

The best team in the group stages were Croatia and the way they swept aside Argentina entitles them to be considered as serious contenders. In Luka Modric they have the tournament's best creative midfielder and the side is full of players with impressive club pedigrees. At times they've looked like a modern incarnation of the great Dutch sides of the 1970s.

Yet Croatia have flattered to deceive before and this is the first time they've made the knockout stages of the World Cup since reaching the semis back in 1998. The two sides of their football character were epitomised by a couple of moments in the Argentinian game featuring the exciting Ante Rebic.

His volley to open the scoring displayed the team's huge technical excellence, but Rebic probably wouldn't have been on the pitch had the referee spotted a nasty stamp on Eduardo Salvio earlier on. The Croatians are a combustible lot and their ultimate fate may depend on how well they keep their heads if things go against them.

Belgium seem like Croatia without the question marks. They also had a 100 per cent record in the group stages while seeming to be playing within themselves. Most encouragingly, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku seem to be bang on form. It's very hard to discern any weakness in a Belgian side which should be at its very peak right now. A possible quarter-final date with Brazil next Friday probably won't worry them as man for man they may be slightly stronger than the South Americans.

What of their group rivals, England? It took just one thumping win over Panama to make them decide 1966 Mark II is at hand. The struggles against Tunisia were forgotten and the subsequent defeat by Belgium in the battle of the reserve teams viewed as a victory because it gives England 'an easier path'.

This betrays an insouciance about the ability of Colombia and Switzerland relative to Gareth Southgate's team which seems somewhat optimistic. Harry Kane has looked every inch the great striker he undoubtedly is, while the likes of Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Kieran Trippier have all been better than most people expected. All the same England may find goals more difficult to come by when meeting teams who don't find a high ball in from a set-piece to be a kind of doomsday weapon.

Colombia will be aided in this regard by the presence of 6'5" Yerry Mina, heir apparent to Pique at Barcelona, and one of the finds of the tournament. They've also profited from the rejuvenation of Juan Quintero, one of world football's brightest young prospects four years ago who'd entirely lost form of late. Colombia made things hard for themselves when losing to Japan after playing almost the entire game with ten men but recovered well and remain a very dangerous dark horse though they could be banjaxed by the recurring injury problems of James Rodriguez, sublime in their 3-0 win over Poland.

By this morning next week two of the four semi-finalists will be in place. The World Cup gathers pace as it goes on until in the final week everything seems a bit breakneck.

We've already lost a few teams who might have enlivened the knockout stages. Senegal's exit on yellow cards was a harsh blow after three gutsy displays, Peru's loss to Denmark was the unluckiest of the tournament and their flair would have contributed more to the last 16 than the Scandinavian side's well-organised dourness, Iran were much better than anyone expected. For all the talk about countries from far flung places lessening the standard of the finals, the continent with the most bottom-placed sides was actually Europe with three.

On paper, the most promising games in the last 16 were the ones which took place yesterday and the seven-goal thriller which saw a resurgent France end Argentina's World Cup lived up to all our expectations. Mexico will undoubtedly give it a go against Brazil tomorrow and Colombia-England on Tuesday evening promises goals. The game earlier that day between Sweden and Switzerland may provide an opportunity for anyone under pressure for watching too much football to make a conciliatory gesture. On the other hand, Germany-South Korea showed you never know what will happen so maybe it's as well to watch that one too. Today the Danes will test Croatia's patience and Spain should illustrate the limited power of home advantage.

The goals-per-game average is far from an infallible statistic but the 2.54 figure from the group stages would indicate that the 2018 renewal is not as good as the notably exciting 2014 tournament but is better than the notoriously boring 2010 finals. That seems about right. Yet over the next fortnight our memories of the group stages will disappear like tears in rain.

The greatest of all modern novelists Philip Roth died last month. He was a baseball rather than a soccer man but the last line of his best book seems pretty appropriate for what lies ahead. "So (said the doctor). Now vee may perhaps to begin."

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