Oh my days, what have we done???
The group stages of the World Cup are over and it’s all just about sinking in. Have we broken the tournament? Have we finally uprooted history and formed a new world footballing order?? No, unfortunately, not quite. But almost.
Look, there are disintegrated hearts and vacuous souls wandering numerous countries as we speak. The group stages were a brutal reality check for so many nations taking part. What we toyed with were poetic storylines and players on teams the entire globe seemingly began to back.
Morocco played wonderfully. They played some proper football and brought genuine excitement to the pitch. Nordin Amrabat especially wowed up and down the wing, but in the end was all for naught. They go home after a late loss to Iran on an own goal, a tight loss to Portugal after an early Cristiano Ronaldo diving header and a VAR assisted draw with Spain where Morocco were the better team for long stretches. One, lonely point is all they could muster but they were delightful to watch and deserved more.
Iran themselves were good and flirted with topping the group. They go home with an impressive four points, but that glimpse into what could have been will be the lasting feeling. I thought they took an overly aggressive approach into the Portugal game where just playing on the ball would have suited them better. They have the talent to match up with Portugal (I cannot overstate how ordinary Portugal are outside of Ronaldo…I mean, their next best player, Bernardo Silva, has been so lifeless thus far that he did not even make the starting XI for the final tilt) and didn’t really kick into gear until they felt the end was near. Iran were gifted a penalty and then a chance to finish off the Portuguese at the death, but it all went begging. They proved to be Asia’s best team although Japan will be the continent’s only representative in the knockouts.
Nigerians worldwide find themselves gutted. And rightly so. A team that were anchored down by the Group of Death almost lived. They came so close. After a lackluster loss to Croatia, Nigeria manhandled Iceland and then came oh so near to bringing down the Argentine giant. An absurdly late Marcos Rojo (of all people) goal knocked the Super Eagles out and that was that. They looked good, Ahmed Musa in the last two matches in particular, but couldn’t turn the screw. Nigeria allowed Argentina to push forward almost untouched for 70 yards over the span of the whole game, which is tantamount to a death wish. The winner seemed inevitable. It was a vulnerable and borderline fatally wounded Argentina side that were not spectacular and certainly were there for the taking. I was disappointed to see Nigeria sit back instead of utilizing Victor Moses and Musa wide to feed Kelechi Iheanacho (I am not sure why he started as he continues to be mediocre in such a worryingly fashion) or Odion Ighalo, once he came on. Instead the countless fruitless Argentinian forays towards the Nigerian net just led to exhausted wing play counter attacks with not even one green clad Super Eagle filing into the box for support. It was an opportunity wasted but this team will be back. The younger players will grow and (hopefully) mature (I’m looking at Alexander Iwobi here) and new leaders (Wilfred Ndidi seeming the prime candidate) will emerge. They did their country proud. #NAIJA
Those would have been lovely stories. And we came close. But, alas, no African country (and only one Asian country) made the knockouts. Senegal were looking the likeliest of the African contingent, but a loss to a resurgent Colombia sealed their fate. The Senegalese played well and did not cower from the pressure. They beat a favored Poland. They let slip (twice) against Japan to draw, which would end up being their undoing. And then a Colombian goal was all it took. With all of the other tiebreakers even, Japan advanced due to a lower yellow card count than Senegal. A nonsensical decider (based solely on the fact that the referees have shown little poise or an ability to separate themselves from the biggest stages dishing out yellow cards seemingly at random), but thems the rules. I will miss their exquisite and wildly infectious dancing, but more importantly, I will miss their forward minded style of play. Kalidou Koulibaly at the back was a rock and that set up Idrissa Gueye and the midfield to get the ball to the forwards. Sadio Mané and M’Baye Niang remained menacing throughout and I know they will rue the missed chances. It could have truly been something.
But that is how this Cup has gone. We teeter on the cusp of a brilliant/romantic story and a reward for free flowing and beautiful football, but in the end, it’s the top dogs ruling. #WOOFWOOF And none of these supposed behemoths have shown anything of note as yet. Brazil have looked nervy and outside of Philippe Coutinho, impotent. They need to ride him for as long as it takes Neymar and his pasta hair to sort himself out. A tricky matchup versus an excellent Mexico awaits (Mexico’s emphatic loss to Sweden is an outlier of sorts to me as El Tri bungled the gameplan against a team that was bigger and stronger than them). France have looked disjointed. There doesn’t seem to be any linkup play and I am not sure they know how to operate whilst trying to accommodate all of the elite attacking talent. There is no bona fide #10 in the hole as Olivier Giroud upfront is surrounded by fellow strikers Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann (one of Olivier and Ousmane tends to sit but France are still asking someone in the midfield like Paul Pogba to play make as well as assist N’Golo Kanté in bossing the middle). They just don’t seem to know what their best lineup is yet and that surely is alarming.
As previously discussed, Argentina look a mess. The writing has been on the wall for some time (the necessity of a Lionel Messi hat trick to even get them to Russia, the 7-1 drubbing by Spain in March, the abject cluelessness of Jorge Sampaoli at the helm, etc.), but with Messi you tend to forget about your problems. And he finally woke up with a stunning in stride touch and strike with his weaker foot to sink Nigeria. But, unfortunately for him, the rest of the team look as if they are already on holiday. Ángel di María is finished as a top level footballer. The man defines anonymous. His touch is reminiscent of a child’s trampoline and his desire simply doesn’t exist. There is no spark. And yet they got by and now need to energize the front line. Their defence will leak goals, it is a given with Nicolás Otamendi and Marcos Rojo at the wheel, so it is imperative that they can actually score. Paolo Dybala should be more heavily involved and Sergio Agüero should never leave the pitch. Their pathetic displays against Iceland and Croatia did have consequences; however, as La Albiceleste finished as runners-up and now face the aforementioned hungrily lurking French. That should be an absolute corker.
And then we have the Germans. THE BLOODY GERMANS. Oh, how I enjoyed this flailing existence. A team rocked by Mexico in the first match. And then rescued by a moment of Toni Kroos’s sheer genius against Sweden where all hope was restored. Only for the Koreans to then storm in, a country who were one of the worst 3 sides at the World Cup based on what I’ve witnessed (Saudi Arabia and Panama the others), and score two injury time goals to send Germany packing. This is what they get! Their sleepy form should be packaged as a modern riposte to unwavering insomnia. It was conservative in nature and made for an abysmal watch. What exactly was the plan?? They shoveled harmless balls into the box and on the off chance a German found space, said chance was woefully fluffed (see Mats Hummels botching a free header onto his shoulder and wide of the post in the crucial, waning minutes of the Korea loss). I saw nothing from a team teeming with talent. No passing. No drive. No sense of direction. Thomas Müller may as well have been asleep. Mesut Özil surely was. And Manuel Neuer wished he stayed at home. Ideally to join those two in their synchronized napping. It was calamitous from the defending champions. And yet they almost (cruelly, in my book) survived. It was only fitting that they were eventually undone by messy defending at a time in the match Kroos likes to pounce. This summer will live in infamy and be placed in German history as their worst ever outing. It has to. The entire performance was diabolically inane. A shambles. And they only have themselves to blame.
And with these power teams struggling to hit top gear, the World Cup is for the taking. I see no reason why a new country can’t lift the trophy for the first time. Three countries in particular should be thinking “why not us?”
Uruguay: Sure, they haven’t played anyone of note but they’ve dispatched of everyone asked. The two time winners (1930 and 1950 so not exactly recent) are always a threat in tournaments and have the same solidity this year. Diego Godín and José Giménez are locking up strikers giving the Uruguayans one of the staunchest defences remaining. And upfront of course they have a top 3 forward in Luis Suárez. He, along with Edinson Cavani, cannot be left alone and will not fear any back line they encounter. Portugal and beyond are in for a handful.
Colombia: Don’t be fooled by the Japan loss as Colombia essentially played the whole match a man down. And without James Rodríguez. And Juan Cuadrado for the most part. Los Cafeteros are obscenely dangerous and possess a front four (Juan Fernando Quintero and Radamel Falcao combined with the two aforementioned stars) countries are finding very difficult to handle. Davinson Sánchez and Yerry Mina have gelled and will prove tough to breach at the back protecting David Ospina’s net. The Colombians have the firepower and they have the style to bowl teams over. The side is in form and topped an extremely even group despite starting out of the blocks with a loss. They will fancy their chances against a properly untested English defence in the next round. And after that? A much easier ride to the final than the top half of the bracket. One to keep your eyes on.
Croatia: The best team in the tournament thus far, Hrvatska are going for the jugular. They have not lost yet and have not even looked troubled. They eased their way to the top of the Group of Death led by their deity and the best player in the World Cup so far Luka Modrić. Modrić has dismantled every midfield faced and pulled strings at levels Andres Iniesta would be proud of. Already one of the best midfielders on the planet, Real Madrid’s diamond can now lead his country to unchartered territory. Alongside him is Barcelona stalwart Ivan Rakitić who together have dominated Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland. The sky is the limit and if Croatia can find a way past Spain in the quarterfinals…anything can happen. This is a country with history and they are looking to better the 1998 third placers who fell just short (they lost in the semifinals to hosts and eventual champions France 2-1) to bring home a trophy no one would have thought possible just a few short weeks ago.
With all of that said, my team of the group stages in a 3-4-3 formation:
GK: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
DEF: Andreas Granqvist (Sweden), Yerry Mina (Colombia), José Giménez (Uruguay)
MID: Luka Modrić (Croatia), Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
MID: Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
FWD: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Harry Kane (England), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
It has been wild and equally gut-wrenching. But in the end, the cream rose to the top. We have some upcoming matches now that we didn’t think we’d see until later on in the tournament, so buckle the F up! There’s so much more football to come. Cue the glory and the heartache. I’m sensing some history in the making.