John Giles: Brazil aren't as good as I thought but my World Cup dark horses are progressing nicely
I’m not totally happy about my decision to put the favourites hat on Brazil before Russia 2018 kicked off, but I’m a lot more comfortable with it now than I was after they made such heavy weather of their tournament opener against the Swiss.
What I know now is that Switzerland are better than I thought they would be and perhaps Brazil not quite as good as I had hoped.
So far, I’m delighted with a tournament which has been full of goals, shocks and a thousand talking points.
VAR is in use and as far as I’m concerned, working very well. Its critics waited for one bad day when match officials messed up in the Iran v Portugal game and went quiet again a day later while the technology continued to work well.
The only issue with VAR is whether the referees use it properly and have the courage to penalise foul play appropriately, a good example being Cristiano Ronaldo’s sly elbow against Iran.
He should have been given a straight red and the fact he didn’t had nothing to do VAR and everything to do with the referee’s lack of courage.
In general terms, the standard of play has been decent without being spectacular and as a result, many of the favoured teams have struggled through the group phase rather than made any great statements of intent.
As I said, Brazil definitely improved from that first match and it looks to me that, Tite, their manager, handed out a fairly serious rollicking to his team. Neymar was almost out of control against Switzerland but he seems to have knuckled down and is making a better contribution.
He needs to because this is neither the Brazil of Pele nor the more defensive Dunga version, maybe somewhere in between, and every cog must do his part or it won’t work. Certainly it doesn’t work when Neymar goes off on a solo run.
I think everyone has a soft spot for their last 16 opponents Mexico and not just because their fans have brightened up the event.
They played some decent stuff in their first two games which, of course, included that defeat of Germany, but they took a right beating from Sweden so the win might have shone a brighter light on the Mexicans than they merited.
The big casualty from the group phase is, of course, Germany and I wasn’t surprised. If Mesut Ozil (below) is your go-to big name, you’re in trouble.
Argentina almost came a cropper but then Lionel Messi stepped in and scored one of the greatest goals you will ever see after effectively cutting manager Jorge Sampaoli out of the picture.
He is now managing the team as well as scoring goals like that and while I’d prefer to see a good coach in charge, I think Argentina fans must be a lot happier now than when Sampaoli was calling the shots.
Spain got a grip of their disastrous management upheaval two days before the tournament started and topped their group, a creditable achievement and one which should not be underestimated.
Funnily enough, France have had a relatively scare free trip though the group phase with Didier Deschamps, a coach I’ve never been sure about, and I still wonder whether he knows what his best team is and how they should play.
They must beat Messi and Argentina to go further in the competition and that’s a game which is almost impossible to call.
Will Messi hold his group together for another game or will Deschamps finally get it right?
The prize for consistency goes to Uruguay who scored three wins out of three and most be feeling very confident about taking on Portugal, who haven’t overly impressed me.
I must say, I’m more than pleased with progress of my dark horse Croatia, who have been gathering fans since they started out with some really nice football.
If I was to raise one issue it would be the possibility that they beat Argentina at a time when Messi’s morale was shot and the rest of his teammates rudderless.
But they play Denmark in the Round of 16 and we know enough about them to give Croatia a great chance of getting to the last eight.
Win it and they will meet either Spain or hosts Russia, at which point we will find out just how good this Croatian team truly are.