Russia 2018: First Bites

We are underway in what we’ve all been waiting for. How are your nerves holding up? Personally, my voice is gone and my emotional reserves are shredded. And we’re not even a week in!

Now that every group has played their first games (half of Group A has played twice), let’s see where we stand:

GROUP A

My pre-tournament picks to progress: Uruguay (1st), Egypt (2nd)

Going in, I didn’t really care for this group. It is stacked with a team I don’t particularly care about (Saudi Arabia), don’t want to see win (Russia), vehemently despise (Uruguay…I’m sorry that the cheating and racist Luis Suarez has ruined your whole country for me) and a team led by a Red of Liverpool (Egypt). But with that said, I was excited for Egypt and Egyptians to have a team that could make it to the knockouts and be a nuisance. Unfortunately, the point is rather moot as Russia have turned into Real Madrid and look certain to make it out along with Uruguay.

It should be noted that this group has been defined by Mo Salah’s injury. Egypt surely would have gotten something out of the game against Uruguay had Salah been on the pitch. The match was even and the Egyptians kept their shape even when under the cosh. A late goal broke their hearts and the images of the players, most interestingly of Salah, are devastating as they know that it could have all been so different. Against Russia, Salah was still not fully fit and seemed to not commit to anything that would expose his poorly shoulder. They had their chances still and credit must go to Russia, who have been prolific in front of the net. Taking your chances is a skill most cherished and that is exactly what the Russians have done. Kudos. And Aleksandr Golovin and sub turned star Denis Cheryshev (raised in Spain and a former Real Madrid youth product) have been fun to watch already combining for four goals in total. With Saudi Arabia transporting large heaps of unquestionable rubbish for footballers, Uruguay look set to join Russia with six points after 2 games. Their rewards will be some Group B giants in the next round.

GROUP B

My pre-tournament picks to progress: Spain, Portugal

Just as the masses predicted, Iran lead this group after the first round! JK y’all, this has been a rollercoaster of a group with the best match of the World Cup so far taking place between Spain and Portugal. I said that Spain would have questions going into the game and Portugal gave them the answers that they did not necessarily want. Spain looked decent despite a rare David de Gea error (he does actually have a tendency to make errors on national duty if you go back through the last year or so) and a timid display from Isco. They are going to be just fine and will benefit from this early test. De Gea will shore up his mistakes and this front 6 will continue to purr now that Diego Costa (a big question I wrote that needed answering early) is rolling. Spain have their striker going with two goals already and I see them cruising through to the next round.

Portugal are doing what this Portugal team can do if Cristiano Ronaldo is on form. He rarely isn’t so he must and will carry them. What we saw against Spain was simply the greatest football player on the planet having his way with one of the best XI’s in the sport. It was a magical performance of the highest quality and his hat trick was the least he deserved. It came with a literal goat celebration after his first (adidas made a lethal mistake going ahead with the GOAT Lionel Messi campaign ahead of the Cup and waking an already woke AF lion in Ronaldo), a whipped in shot once in space that de Gea bobbled into his own net and then the absolute pearler of a free kick at the death. This is his stage and we are all just witnesses. The problem for Portugal is that there is a steep drop off after Ronaldo. Bernardo Silva showed me largely nothing in the first match so I am anticipating he will at some point prove to be alive. Gonçalo Guedes looks raw at 21 up front but I did enjoy his endeavor. I don’t believe he will cut it as their striker but if they can get him the ball in better positions, the on loan at Valencia from PSG attacker knows where the goal is (I would start Milan’s André Silva over Guedes, but that’s just me). They have a big match against Morocco which will fill us in on everything we need to know. I like Portugal to get through and possibly make a run after a presumably winnable Round of 16 matchup against anybody from Group A.

GROUP C

My pre-tournament picks to progress: France, Denmark

This group has been surprisingly interesting. I know many who don’t watch football often thought that this would be the easiest group, but each team has acquitted themselves admirably. Australia for one looked incredibly disciplined and flat out up for it. They were resolute at the back and showed no fear of the lauded French. They were unlucky to lose, but lose they did as Paul Pogba came to Les Bleus rescue.

France are the only major favorite to have won their first match (Belgium aren’t necessarily a “major” favorite in my book, but certainly a favorite due to their strength and depth and now I’m rambling about semantics). And it took a dogged determination to find the winner despite not playing well. They seemed nervous and gave the ball away needlessly. That was also down to the Aussies’ knack of interrupting play and looking to pour forward themselves. It was a massive result for France and their tie against Denmark will settle the group.

Peruvians worldwide, I know, are disappointed. But, I hope, are proud. La Blanquirroja looked exciting in attack and were one (badly) missed penalty away from getting a point off of Denmark. It was a fun match that also showed the character and grit Denmark are bringing. These Danish players have been about and will be a difficult out with the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Andreas Christensen, Simon Kjær and of course superstar Christian Eriksen on song. This group is far from decided but smart money says the experience and know how of Denmark will be enough to get them to the knockouts (their next match against Australia should be a right doozy).

GROUP D

My pre-tournament picks to progress: Argentina, Croatia

Well, well, wellllllll. The Group of Death earned its keep. What a ridiculous set of barn burners we have already had and are on tap to have with these teams. Argentina simply could not break down Iceland. They used all means to try and pick apart the ten men behind the ball, but nothing really worked. A thunderous and super gorgeous Sergio Agüero strike saw them lead but could not go ahead after the Icelandic equalizer. Messi struck a poor penalty which was duly saved and that was that. I am not yet worried about Argentina, but am once again impressed by Iceland. They aren’t necessarily pretty or enjoyable to watch, but their focus and organization should be marveled at and applauded. These players have spent their lives playing together and they are perfectly gelled. That is exactly what is illustrated when they play. They are resilient and they do not crack. The chemistry makes up for their on paper inferior quality. Someone will figure Iceland out, but unfortunately for Argentina, it won’t be La Albiceleste. The other two teams will have the benefit of seeing where Argentina went wrong (or more importantly, where Iceland went right) and try to improve upon that. These first matches are not usually a true signpost of a team’s actual persona. A world cup is a nervy prospect and working out the kinks in front of billions watching around the globe is undoubtedly overwhelming. Argentina, for one and Spain as well, will knock the rust off and start churning in the remaining games. A point is not the worst result in one of the most talented groups of recent memory.

Croatia are locking themselves in as everybody’s new sleeper in this Cup. Front to back they are solid. Their midfield is teeming with glorious talent (Ivan Rakitić, Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić all playing their last tournaments in their proper primes will cause any team in Russia certifiable problems) and they have a goalscorer in Mario Mandžukić who can pop a ball top bins or poach in the six yard box with the best of them. He is strong and dirty and willing to put in the hard yards for his side. That will serve the Croatians well as they look to make a seriously deep run. I thought Nigeria held their own against a vastly superior team, but Croatia never seemed in bother. They were never threatened even though they were awarded a very soft penalty to seal the three points.

This group is far from over and all four teams are still in the thick of it. There is surely more drama to follow but I do remain confident in my predictions for the countries to get out. If Nigeria can nick a point here or there, that will be the difference as to who ventures on and who doesn’t.

GROUP E

My pre-tournament picks to progress: Brazil, Serbia

The biggest storyline here, of course, is the stalling of heavy favorite Brazil. I stated earlier on this blog that Neymar would have to remain fit for all of the Brazilian dreams to come true. And that is not looking like it is the case. He did not seem healthy during the Switzerland bow (it looked like he was carrying a knock whenever he wasn’t on the ball…he was also consistently fouled by the Swiss) and now is not training with the squad after injuring an ankle. That is a problem. Luckily for Brazil, they are jam packed with stars who should be able to carry the weight and burden firmly cradled on Neymar’s shoulders (Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino just two of such highly vaunted options to replace Neymar if need be). A draw was not a death knell by any means and the team should be able to overcome that result and move on.

Switzerland for their part looked handy. They were the Switzerland we know who can disrupt play and have the creatives up front (Haris Seferović and a much livelier than when playing for Stoke City Xherdan Shaqiri for two) who can counter and change the game. It will be interesting to see who gets out of the group between the Swiss and an impressive Serbian side. Serbia handled a plucky Costa Rica team who certainly had their chances (Bryan Ruiz needs to be far more involved for Los Ticos to do anything in Russia), but in the end the brilliance of captain Aleksandar Kolarov’s left foot settled the matter. The Serbian roster has the talent to fly, especially in their star studded midfield boasting the skill of Sergej Milinković-Savić and Nemanja Matić in particular, but will have to get more from their young and oft misfiring number 9 Aleksandar Mitrović. That man couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn door at the moment.

Keep an eye out on this group as there seems to be an old-fashioned shake up in the works.

GROUP F

My pre-tournament picks to progress: Germany, Mexico

I have thoroughly enjoyed watching this group go at it. Germany have already been beaten and it was nothing more than what they deserved. They seemed to lack a game plan and the players were anything but crisp and accurate when in possession. Going a goal down to Mexico screamed for the introduction of a fast, pacy and technically gifted attacker such as Leroy Sané, but alas he is at home for what strikes me as pettiness gone wrong. This Germany team bores me and they were overrun by an El Tri team who looked hungry for genuine glory. Mexico emerged worthy winners and have a proper shot now at winning this group (I do worry for their ability to at times play down to their opponent, which would be their obvious demise in this scenario).

Germany will survive this loss as the rest of the group does in ways not quite live up to the billing. Sweden are a good team with experienced players (Sebastian Larsson at 33 is looking to make his last World Cup a memorable one) who are difficult to break down. They play well together and once ahead are quite adept at holding the lead. They will be buoyed by the German defeat and hold out hope for their own bit of misery piling on come their tilt with Die Mannschaft this weekend. I do not see that as likely (although Sweden should be able to count on the services of defender Victor Lindelof now back from an illness), but we will see what Germany have in their heart when this kicks off. With Mexico facing off against a truly sub par Korea side, a win is the only thing the Germans can settle for.

GROUP G

My pre-tournament picks to progress: Belgium, England

This group has been chalk so far. Belgium did not impress me at all in their battle with an abysmal Panama team, but got a convincing result in the end. This Belgian side could be a contender to lift the Cup if they sort themselves out. And by “they” I mean manager Roberto Martinez. To be utterly frank, he is in over his head. He has a history of befuddling personnel choices and an abject ability to form a defence. He did not disappoint as kickoff loomed in Belgium’s first match.

First of all, Belgium should be in a back four. They do not have the requisite wing backs to pull off three at the back (I would move Jan Vertonghen to left back, Dedryck Boyata until Vincent Kompany is fit again and Toby Alderweireld in the middle, Thomas Meunier as right back). This alleviates the sheer liability that is Yannick Carrasco of having to track back and behave as a makeshift full back to any degree. Which leads me to my second point: why is Yannick Carrasco a thing? Why is he on this pitch? With these others attempting to win? He needs to go. Thorgan Hazard, Nacer Chadli and even Adnan Januzaj better options on the wing. I would start Mousa Dembélé in the center of midfield (I am still in shock and a state of confusion as to why he was on the bench for this match watching a wildly overrated Axel Witsel in instead), which in turn would allow Kevin de Bruyne the freedom to float further forward. If the people of Belgium are dead set on Witsel taking the pitch, I would play him on the flank where he is depended on far less than in his more comfortable role in the middle (he can play and has often played out wide, don’t worry). Otherwise with Witsel and Carrasco out, and Dembélé and any number of suitable replacements for Carrasco in, the Red Devils have that balance and shape to supply the stupendous front three of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku without any holes. This team is special and needs to be nurtured. Belgium have the reputation to appear disjointed and to disappoint when the lights go on. That can be discarded with one of the best players in the world, Kevin de Bruyne, given the keys to pull the strings in midfield in a fashion and manner he is fully capable of doing by slotting a genuine holding midfielder like Dembélé in ahead of the defenders.

With that said, Belgium have enough to dispatch of Tunisia and set themselves on course for the next round. The Tunisians are no push over, can counter with pomp, but struggle to deal with furious flurries of pressure. That is what Belgium will pose just as England did in the first half of their match.

England looked very special in the first 45 minutes of their tie with Tunisia. They were silky going forward and remained in control. The attackers, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling in particular, will need to take their chances though if the Three Lions have any hope of doing anything constructive this summer. They let Tunisia creep back in through mistakes and complacency and if it were not for some late Harry Kane heroics would be swimming in disappointment as we speak. Kane showed his colors in this match and those are the hues of one of the best strikers in the world. I can only think of the aforementioned cheating racist Luis Suarez and Sergio Agüero as two out and out 9s I would select before him. He is a winner and demonstrated that in full as he put a tricky header inside of the near post to send the English into ecstasy. A monumental bright spot for England was Marcus Rashford who came on as a substitute and was instantly dangerous. I would start him going forward with either Sterling or the lacklustre Dele Alli (who seems to be carrying a knock) making way (Sterling can play in the hole if Alli is absent or if Sterling sits, Rashford could play alongside Kane in a slightly deeper role to accommodate the young Manchester United starlet). The pieces are there and the early signs are promising for England, but I still fancy Belgium to pip them to the top spot.

GROUP H

My pre-tournament picks to progress: Colombia, Poland

What a wild group this has turned out to be. This was always going to be the toughest group to predict as there is definite parity amongst the squads. Colombia should be favored here and would be if they hadn’t fallen to pieces versus Japan. I would mark this down as an upset result for the Japanese, but it wasn’t because: Colombia were a man down for 87 minutes, their best player James Rodriguez did not start due to injury and their next best player, Juan Cuadrado, was sacrificed (albeit, oddly) shortly after the sending off. And Colombia still had their moments. They had their chances. Japan in the end were worthy winners and weathered the numerous waves of Colombian attack. Colombia still have to play Poland so this group is on a knife edge.

Poland, on the other hand, did get upset. With the quality and experience they have, they should have been more effective at turning down Senegal. Now listen, the Senegalese have a team. They have talent, enough so that Cheikhou Kouyaté found himself on the bench. They have one of the most dangerous forwards in the game in Sadio Mané. They are not here as anybody’s fool. Don’t forget, their manager is Aliou Cissé, who captained the most famous of Senegalese teams as the Lions of Teranga roared into the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals only to lose in extra time to an extremely proficient Turkey outfit. They are a proper side, but that is how highly I rate this Polish team. Poland have an older but still useful Jakub Błaszczykowski, an innovative Arkadiusz Milik and a deadly Robert Lewandowski when they attack. Grzegorz Krychowiak is underrated, despite his gaffe for Senegal’s winner, in midfield (he wound up scoring Poland’s only goal on a nifty header to the far post). And Łukasz Piszczek has the experience and leadership at the back. That spine should be enough to replicate (to some degree at least) the form that saw the Poles take the eventual European champions Portugal to penalties in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.

But now everything is out the window. Both Colombia and Poland desperately need a win against each other. The prospect of at least one of these footballing powers hitting the baths early is real. Colombia require the services of James. He is their beacon. With him and Cuadrado creating space and balls into the area for the likes of Radamel Falcao to finish, Los Cafeteros are a handful for any country. Poland cannot panic. They have to settle their nerves and make sure Lewandowski can come off his marker long enough to get shots away. He does not require much help, but will need Milik to break out and play like he can to genuinely rattle the Colombians. There are goals to be had in this match. And both sides will be banking on their stars to come through. Japan and Senegal play earlier in the day so the pressure will well and truly be on, especially if one of those leading countries takes maximum points. Buckle up!

The stage is set! Everything to play for still and so much excitement left. The Round of 16 will look much clearer after the second round of matches so let’s see who wants to become a hero this week.

Football’s coming home!

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