Friday 23 August 2019

Germany will be most consistent in a tournament of contrasts

Lionel Messi arrives at Zhukovsky International Airport, Moscow yesterday with the Argentine World Cup squad. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Lionel Messi arrives at Zhukovsky International Airport, Moscow yesterday with the Argentine World Cup squad. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Stephen Hunt

Here is a question for you. If Lionel Messi does not win the World Cup with Argentina can he be classed as the game's greatest player? Pele won it, Diego Maradona won it, and inspired their nations to football's biggest prize. Can Messi do the same in Russia?

At Barcelona, Messi has shown he is one of the greats. The level he has played at for years, the goals he has scored, the games he has won, particularly on the big occasions. He doesn't need to win the World Cup to prove he is the best to me. But it is the emotion and attachment of the World Cup which makes it so special and winning it puts you on another level. Cristiano Ronaldo winning the European Championships with Portugal two summers ago put him on another level, especially in his own country.

And Messi does have another couple of levels to go up among people in Argentina because of the stature of Maradona who brought so much joy to his fellow countrymen. You can't do that by scoring at the Nou Camp every week.

The problem Messi has is the players around him in the Argentina squad. You never know what you are going to get with them, whereas you do know what you will get from Germany.

And they are not in an easy group. They will not have played Iceland before and they are like we were in 1988 going into the World Cup in 1990. Iceland are on a roll, they are very strategic and well-organised and they still have the feel-good factor. It would not surprise me if they do well again because they have the mentality to cope. They won't lose all three group matches, that's for sure, and they can take points from the other teams.

Nigeria are another random side. They don't know what they are doing themselves so how are we meant to know? They will have a sprinkle of good players throughout but their defending will let them down.

And this is a good generation of Croatian players. They are a strong team, especially with the three central midfield players, and they could certainly spring a surprise if Argentina don't turn up.

Looking elsewhere in the competition, I am looking forward to seeing Belgium, mainly because I would like to see them fail. What winds me up about the Belgian players is that they always seem to go away from their clubs and think they can get away with murder. How many times have we seen players in this Belgian squad give digs back to their club or managers in press conferences? They are a good side but for some reason think they are better than they are. They seem to overlook the fact that they haven't won anything.

England versus Belgium will be a good game. And I know this won't be a universally popular view in Ireland but I hope England do well because that can only be good for the Premier League, and English football, where most of our lads play.

This could be an exciting England team and with Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Harry Kane, they have players who can attack and score goals. There is not much finesse around the team, they are purely energetic and reactionary players, but that energy will carry them.

I'm looking forward to seeing Poland with Robert Lewandowski and I think they can get out of their group as winners. They play with width and look to have a go, getting crosses in the box and always bring a big fan-base which creates a good atmosphere at their games.

Then there is France. Heroes or villains, you don't know what you'll get. They should win all of their group games and believe it or not, I think Paul Pogba will probably have a good tournament. How many times have you seen players come away from the pressure of their clubs and express themselves to the level they want to reach?

Of course all Ireland fans will be watching Denmark, thinking 'what if?' A lot will depend on how Christian Eriksen performs and they should get out of their group, however I am going to go with Australia as runners-up to the French.

They will be well-organised, score from set-pieces and they are arrogant sods who back themselves, no matter how good or bad they are.

Brazil will be hard to beat. Away from their own country, four years on from the disappointment and embarrassment of the semi-final thrashing against Germany, might mean they can play with a bit more freedom and less pressure. Any Brazilian team playing freely will be a danger.

And then there is Germany. Germany will be Germany. Semi-finalists at least and probably finalists.

If they perform, there is always that fear factor that comes with playing Germany because when they come to town with that hard tournament attitude and mind-set, they win their games 1-0 and 2-0 without getting out of third gear, and suddenly they are in the last four.

Interestingly, England will face Germany or Brazil in the knock-outs if results go to plan. I think they can beat Brazil but I am not too sure they will do Germany.

The opening ceremony always creates a great buzz and it is just really unfortunate that the first game is Russia versus Saudi Arabia. It is not the best opener but the tournament will really come alive on Friday night when Spain play Portugal. That's a game everyone will tune in to.

Of course we all look forward to the big teams and seeing the big names. But the World Cup is really about the emotion of watching unknown players or teams coming out of the woodwork and going on a journey. You see lives changing in front of your eyes as players and fans create history. You can't beat it.

It's just a bloody shame that Ireland won't be there to add to our enjoyment of a great occasion.

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