Tuesday 23 October 2018

Early form suggests this will be most open Cup in years

VAR has been a star, and Brazil look most likely but expect surprises to continue

Team to beat: Brazil. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Team to beat: Brazil. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The first day of rest at this World Cup and the breather is required following a dramatic group stage that improved in quality as the games progressed.

There is only a brief window to take stock as the thrills and spills of the opening fortnight has set up a fascinating round of 16.

Germany are the only major power that will be watching from afar.

Admittedly, there are other sides that have gone home already who failed to live up to expectations, but the defending champions are the only eliminated side that were realistic contenders to win the competition.

And what of the teams that remain?

It looks to be the most open World Cup of this century, with no team standing head and shoulders above the others on the strength of their opening three games.

Surprise package: Sweden. AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
Surprise package: Sweden. AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Early form can be deceptive, of course. Argentina looked unstoppable at the beginning of the 2006 tournament and inexplicably flopped in the quarter-finals.

Spain lost their first match before identifying themselves as world beaters in 2010.

Four years ago, it was quite open too but there was a school of thought that Brazil were destined for success which turned out to be misguided.

This time around? It's as difficult to rule teams out as it is to rule them in.

The candidates

Here's one way of whittling it down: Japan won't be winning the tournament. Either will Sweden, Denmark or Switzerland, with all due respect. Russia are nowhere near good enough, and Spain can expose that - although expect a stirring effort from the hosts in Moscow on Sunday.

Mexico panicked against Sweden and their run tends to end at the round of 16 - Brazil should see to that.

That leaves 10 sides. Uruguay, Portugal, France and Argentina are in the same quarter of the draw and they all have the ability to click into gear. France have the deepest squad, but Argentina have Messi.

If there's a case to be made for Argentina - and it might be a weak one - then Croatia have to be contenders. Colombia are building up a head of steam, although the fitness of James Rodriguez is a concern.

Unluckiest team: Senegal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Unluckiest team: Senegal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

And while last night's game was of little real consequence, Belgium and England do have players with match-winning ability that can shine in a knockout challenge.

The harshest process of elimination reaches the conclusion that Brazil and Spain have fewer question marks hanging over them than all of the above named and they cannot meet until the final, with Fernando Hierro's boys on the right side of the draw.

It's the percentage call, but there are sides named above that could take them in a one-off game.

The unluckiest team

Senegal are fresh in the mind after their desperately unfortunate exit on the Fair Play rule but they had Japan on the ropes in the previous game and let them off the hook.

Peru were extremely competitive in losses to Denmark and France before comfortably beating Australia. Christian Cueva will be haunted by his penalty miss against the Danes.

Best player: Croatia's Luka Modric. Photo: REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Best player: Croatia's Luka Modric. Photo: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Morocco were also better than their finishing total as they were sucker-punched by Iran in their opening match and ended up drawing with Spain. They made a slow start against Portugal which hurt them.

The surprise package

Sweden have been a revelation across the 2018 campaign. Despite the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they have actually pushed on and it was their performances in qualification that pushed Holland out of the equation. They then knocked Italy out in the play-offs before coming to Russia and bouncing back from a painful defeat to Germany by hammering Mexico to top the group while the holders went home.

The best player

Croatia have been really good and Luka Modric was a joy to watch in their comfortable win over Argentina which allowed the confirmed group winners to look after star men in their final group match with Iceland.

Modric is a gem of a player, yet his popularity in Croatia has suffered due to his involvement in a corruption case dating back to his transfer from former club Dinamo Zagreb. In the circumstances, it's impressive that he has managed to perform well here.

The worrying stat

For the first time since 1982, no African team advanced from the group stage. And Senegal were pushed out of the round of 16 by Japan, the only Asian qualifier.

This is a troubling state of affairs because, for all the talk of growing the game by bringing the event to new continents, there's no real sign of a serious breakthrough from outside the traditional power bases.

In addition to Morocco, Senegal and Iran, Nigeria were unlucky too, but the bottom line is that Europe and South America provide 14 of the final 16.

In the first 32-team World Cup in France 20 years ago, their combined tally at that stage was identical with Nigeria and the reliable Mexico the exceptions.

The planned expansion to 48 teams will bring up representation from the struggling confederations but they arguably need more regular competitive exposure to the better European and South American sides if they are going to progress - anyone for a worldwide Nations League?

Best newcomer

VAR. The correct decision to chalk off a penalty awarded to Senegal yesterday was its finest moment to date.

Striking trend

Penalty kicks have helped Harry Kane to the top of the chart but it's noticeable that the top strikers are delivering in this competition.

Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa are all central to their respective country's chances and they are thriving as central strikers coping with the responsibility.

Germany would have gone through if they had a front man of that quality. Their new man, Timo Werner, struggled desperately.

The last two winners - Spain and Germany - both had spells where they effectively operated with a false nine. A real nine is preferable at this point in time.

The team to beat

This could be Brazil's year, even if Neymar's antics will have done little for them in the popularity stakes.

One thing that has stood out in their three games is that they have finished quite strongly.

They did give away a lead against Switzerland, but they were banging down the door late on.

When it came to the crunch, they delivered at the death against Costa Rica. And while there were laboured spells against a decent Serbian side, they ultimately ended up prevailing with a bit of a cushion and they were able to relax in the dying stages.

If Gabriel Jesus can find form, they will be in a strong place and they always have Roberto Firmino as an alternative. Tite has quite a settled side and it's likely they have a bit more left in the locker.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport