Thursday 17 October 2019

Stephen Hunt: After seeing all the big guns at the World Cup, I still think England will go all the way

Gareth Southgate should make a couple of changes to his side against Panama to freshen things up and win the game today. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
Gareth Southgate should make a couple of changes to his side against Panama to freshen things up and win the game today. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA

Stephen Hunt

There are obviously many world-class players on show in Russia but are there any world-class coaches out there? Spain sacked their manager on the eve of the finals and the team, the style of play and their brilliance has stayed the same under Fernando Hierro. If the departure of Julen Lopetegui to Real Madrid caused turmoil in the Spanish camp, you can't see it in their performances so far.

But surely Argentina cannot be serious about sacking coach Jorge Sampaoli mid-tournament after their miserable defeat to Croatia on Thursday. He has an entitlement to see through at least three games and, after Nigeria's win over Iceland, Argentina are very much still in it. If he is sacked, football really is in a world of pain.

As Sampaoli has admitted in the wake of the 3-0 loss, Argentina hold Lionel Messi back. But Messi is not helping himself at these finals. I watched him very closely against Croatia and Iceland, and his body language and demeanour are not right.

He looks like a man with the weight of his nation on his shoulders and he is struggling to fit into a different environment and team to the one he shines in at Barcelona.

I have played in teams where you don't play for the manager, but for your country, your family and your team-mates. And if you don't meet the standards you have set playing for your club, you will get stick no matter who you are.

Messi and Argentina can still go through if they beat Nigeria. But Nigeria won't be pushovers. They are strong, athletic and aggressive, they play on the front foot and make tackles and spontaneous decisions.

That could suit Messi but Sampaoli and the rest of the Argentina players have to find a way to get him in the game. Yes, he has to do more, and I don't want to criticise Messi, but he has to adapt.

By comparison, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo is making the kind of impact we anticipated but then Portugal are built around their main man and on the whole, they all meet the standards demanded. No least by Ronaldo! The dynamic is different, though. Ronaldo dominates the Portugal team, his team-mates accept it, and the coaches have worked around it.

He carries the team but the Portuguese players are willing to put a shift in and hope that Ronaldo turns up and does his magic. Invariably, he delivers, as he has shown against Spain and Morocco and will no doubt continue to do so as the competition progresses.

France coach Didier Deschamps has one of the strongest squads in these finals and so far he has got away with his tinkering of the team. He knows Olivier Giroud is a big centre-forward who is going to do a job and is not worried about the reaction of the press if he selects him, as he did against Peru.

It seems in international management you either get a job early based on your reputation as a player, or they go for an older, wiser coach. Deschamps was a World Cup winner as a player and a legend but he has also managed at the top level and he is not afraid to make big decisions to win matches.

But you don't know what you are going to get from this France team. In fact Paul Pogba sums them up perfectly. They are either very good or very average, exceptional or awful. A team, and a player, to be reckoned with on their day, though.

Neymar is taking a little longer to find his feet and consequently, so are Brazil. He has done remarkably well to get fit for the finals and it always takes time to get full match fitness and sharpness. But he is getting there and the goal against Costa Rica will have relieved so much of the pressure on him.

He has the hopes of a football-crazy nation on his young shoulders. And he may be the most expensive player in the world, but he is still a young man. The longer the tournament goes on, the better he will get. Whether the attack-minded Brazilians can keep a clean sheet and beat the top teams is a different matter.

One of the surprise packages have been hosts Russia, who were written off by their own supporters before the tournament even started.

It is difficult to get a feeling for the buzz around Russia because, sadly, Ireland are not there and I think we all know that Irish supporters would have made themselves very welcome in the country because our fans can mix with anybody. With stories and photos on social media, we would have seen the fans having a ball and probably had even more empathy for the Russian people and their team.

It can only be good for the finals if the hosts remain in the competition because it maintains the positive vibe in the country and keeps their dreams alive.

I said before the tournament started that I thought England were strong favourites to win the World Cup and nothing has changed my mind.

Gareth Southgate should make a couple of changes to his side against Panama to freshen things up and win the game today. They then have a group play-off with Belgium. I would not be surprised if that game on Thursday finishes a draw and the outcome of the group comes down to goal difference.

The draw could open up for England then and they will have a very good chance of gaining momentum and reaching the final.

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