Monday 23 September 2019

'No team stands out over the others' - John Giles gives his verdict on the eight teams remaining in the World Cup


John Giles

BRAZIL are still favourites, England can make the semi-finals and if I’m right about the next few days, they’ll be joined there by France and Croatia.

I have to qualify all of that with the observation that this has been a World Cup of inconsistency, packed with exciting moments and drama and the very dubious art of prediction has been even tougher than normal.

No team stands out as the pick of the eight quarter-finalists and none of them have had a faultless run to this point.

My call on Brazil before the finals got underway was based on my belief that they had the best spread of talent and a very good defence. Add in Neymar and the mix looked strong enough to win but of course, the boy wonder hasn’t followed the script.

He has been following his own path and became so wrapped up in what he looked like while he was playing that he forgot to play in the early games.

None of what he was doing has anything to do with football but can have a very negative impact on the efforts of his team if allowed to run unchecked.

I feel he has calmed down quite a bit and has played better but in this tournament, he is nowhere near as effective as he was in the last in Brazil.

I think the roots of his current circumstances go all the way back to the moment someone convinced him it was a good idea to leave Barcelona.

There, he could have learned from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez but he followed the sparkle of big money. Perhaps he didn’t fancy sharing the limelight but let’s be honest, why would anyone want to leave a set-up like Barcelona?

Cash or ego and in this case, a combination of both.

I worry about Brazil because of him and because they have no standout playmaker. But in this tournament, I think they still have enough, not through Neymar but more significantly, Philippe Coutinho and to a lesser degree Willian.

I have no idea which Belgium will turn up for this game. Rumblings about issues in the camp have surfaced in the last week and it would be farcical that one of the few nations with a decent playmaker in Kevin de Bruyne can’t get the best out of him because he has fallen out with Eden Hazard.

We’ve been talking about the Belgian golden generation for years now and they have never delivered. Perhaps the issue is unity in the camp because it has never been about any lack of talent.

If they click, they can beat Brazil, I have no doubt about that, but their form has been sporadic and they got an almighty scare from Japan.

Usually, that should be a kick in the backside at the right time for a fancied team but if the squad is fractured, it can just as easily have the opposite impact.

I have to say, my powers of prediction let me down completely with England because I genuinely didn’t expect them to get this far. In my defence, I didn’t realise Panama would be as bad as they were or that England’s path to this point in the tournament would be liberally sprinkled with good fortune.

I acknowledge the job Gareth Southgate has done to manage the media and the obvious time and effort devoted to set-pieces, but I still don’t believe England have been tested. I don’t think Sweden will test them tomorrow either.

My concern over Southgate’s preparation revolves around the fact that he used midfielders on the way to the finals and then played just one, Jordan Henderson, in all but one game so far.

I accept that he doesn’t have much choice, given the absence of decent midfield options, but why then were England not playing that way for the last few years?

I still think England will have too much for Sweden, a very ordinary team and for me, the biggest over-achievers in the competition.

Both England and Sweden were helped by the fact that big teams left Russia early and I think Southgate will enjoy some more luck before the dream dies.

I’ve said from the start that Didier Deschamps doesn’t seem to know his mind but France have definitely improved and I really fancy them to beat Uruguay.

Luis Suarez must step up now, however, because he has been short of his best and to beat France, Uruguay will have to be better than well-organised, dogged and committed.

France gained great momentum in the way they beat Argentina and Kylian Mbappe has captured the imagination of fans all over the world.

My dark horse team, Croatia (like Russia) got through by the skin of their teeth and I’m still backing Luka Modric to make the difference.

The Russians have survived on fear, commitment and a wave of adrenaline created by fans, but I don’t think they have another penalty shoot-out in them and that’s the only way I can see them reaching the semi-final.

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