5 talking points from the second week of the World Cup

June 27, 2018

Photo credit: Sport360

 

1: GERMANY BACK FROM THE BRINK(?)

 

Treading in the footsteps of Spain, Germany seem to have taken it upon themselves to prolong the trend of defending champions capitulating in the following World Cup campaign.

 

In what was effectively a must-win tie, the hopes of a proud nation hung in the balance as Jerome Boateng saw red and Ola Toivonen confounded Manuel Neuer with a delightful chip, momentarily consigning Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a distant memory.

 

2014's success was predicated on years of meticulous planning as pervasive as it was ambitious- engineering an efficient, cohesive team unit starting from the youth levels, whose strength lay in their collective ability, chemistry and quiet brilliance. Should the result hold, however, it seemed plausible that a certain degree of this would have been undone. 

 

Thankfully for die Mannschaft, Marco Reus (whose selection over Manchester City's Leroy Sane raised a few eyebrows), overturned a subdued first half to bundle home a crucial equaliser, with the second half still in its infancy. 

 

As the Germans lay siege and threw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at their opponents, with Manuel Neuer all too eager to adopt his secondary deep-lying playmaker/sweeper role, the pressure soon told as Timo Werner won a free-kick to the left of an as yet elusive Swedish goal. 

 

Up stepped Toni Kroos to write himself into World Cup folklore, producing a tantalising delivery from an indirect position which swerved up and around Sweden's Robin Olsen into the back of the net, sending German hearts across the world into overdrive. Full time: 2-1 to Germany. 

 

They are by no means out of the woods, requiring a big win over South Korea and for Mexico to avoid defeat to Sweden in order to progress to the elimination stages. But this result will certainly do, for now. 

 

 

2: FOOTBALL MAY WELL BE COMING HOME   

 

After the failure of the fabled Golden Generation to replicate their famous 1966 triumph, with Wayne Rooney's international retirement the final act of an English tragedy, attitudes towards the World Cup have tended towards a range of quiet optimism to outright cynicism. 

 

Certainly, a 6-1 victory against minnows Panama does not a World Cup winner make, in spite of the photoshopped images of Harry Kane and co. re-enacting of the iconic scene of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy, a tirade of boastful social media posts and "Football's Coming Home" becoming the newly and belatedly-adopted unofficial slogan of the England National Team. 

 

However, there is a decidedly different outlook about this team that may well see them through to the business end of the tournament. 

 

For one, this is a youthful side picked on merit and a clear tactical blueprint instead of reputation- it wasn't too long ago that 27-year-old Tottenham right-back Kieran Trippier was bombing forward in the Championship, while 25-year-old Jesse Lingard's credentials as a starter were earned through the past two seasons at Manchester United. Notably, neither were anywhere near the fringes of the 2014 cohort. 

 

Another point to consider is how the Premier League has grown to become tactically nuanced, with the likes of Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and John Stones flourishing under the ideas of Pep Guardiola and Ashley Young reinventing himself as a competent left-back under Jose Mourinho.  

 

The English press have also done their bit, ironically by not doing their bit. Unshackled by the burden of labels, fanfare and lofty expectations, this is a team given the room to quietly develop into an outfit with an abundance of pace, strength at set-pieces (a major source of goals in Russia so far) and attacking purpose. 

 

With traditional favourites such as Spain, Brazil and Germany stuck in second gear, England fans will be hoping for more of the same as we reach the midway point of proceedings. 

 

 

3: COUTINHO THE MAIN MAN FOR BRAZIL, NOT NEYMAR   

 

While Neymar certainly dominated the headlines for all the right and then wrong reasons in Brazil 2014, it is his long-time friend Philippe Coutinho who has lit up the tournament donning the famous canary yellow so far.  

 

Comparatively less flashy yet just as technically proficient as his teammate, the Barcelona attacker has set about notching crucial goals including a trademark long-range effort in their 1-1 draw against Switzerland and a calm finish in a 2-0 win against Costa Rica. 

 

However, those familiar with his spells at Inter Milan and Liverpool will not be surprised by his performances so far; the mercurial 26-year-old is reaching the peak of his powers and will relish the challenge of replacing the legendary Andres Iniesta in the heart of the Barcelona midfield next season.  

 

Neymar, on the other hand, was visibly short on match fitness, having expedited his recovery from a foot injury sustained against Marseille to join the Brazil squad in time for Russia. Getting his name on the scoresheet against Costa Rica will hence no doubt prove invaluable for his confidence, with the PSG superstar erupting into tears of joy upon the full-time whistle. 

 

While their infamous 7-1 capitulation at the hands of Germany still lingers in the minds of most Brazilians, even finding its way into the Brazilian vernacular as a sparingly-used synonym for humiliation ("at least it's not 7-1"), an on-song Coutinho and Neymar will surely banish the demons of 2014 with the backing of an all-star cast that includes Real Madrid's Marcelo, Chelsea's Willian and Juventus' Douglas Costa. 

 

 

4: WHO IS THE REAL DARK HORSE?    

 

The ignominy of being the lowest-seeded team must have served as fuel for Russia's campaign so far- the host's hospitality has stopped short of the football pitch, sealing a spot in the Round of 16 at the expense of Saudi Arabia (5-1) and Salah's Egypt (3-1). 

 

Echoes of the controversy surrounding South Korea's similar fairytale run in the 2002 edition which they co-hosted alongside Japan may seem inevitable, with whispers of the Russian squad enjoying a chemical advantage which allowed them to cover a greater distance than any other team in the above victories.

 

Such allegations may not exist purely within the realm of fantasy either- a significant number of Russian athletes across various disciplines were embroiled in a state-sponsored doping scandal around the time of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, although there has been insufficient grounds to suggest that this includes the national football squad. 

 

The first litmus test of Russia's title bid was one they failed, going down 3-0 to an ruthless Uruguay. They now sail into even choppier waters yet, with the result setting up a dreaded yet potentially intriguing date with Spain. 

 

Speaking of the Iberian peninsula, European champions Portugal appear to have carried their dark horse status from their triumph in France to Russia as well.

 

Despite clawing their back to an emphatic 3-3 draw with Spain in their opener, they have been unconvincing against Morocco and Iran and suffered from an obvious lack of depth in midfield, at times too easily swept aside by less-illustrious opposition. 

 

In other words, Fernando Santos' one-dimensional tactic of thumping the ball 30 yards in the general direction of Cristiano Ronaldo may only get his charges so far, especially when faced with a more credible attacking threat such as Uruguay. 

 

 

5: WHO SAID THIS WORLD CUP WAS BORING? 

 

Any sense that the 2018 World Cup in Russia would be a boring, drab affair can now be officially thrown out of the window. 

 

Though largely inconsequential in terms of progression, France's 0-0 draw with Denmark yesterday night was in fact the first goalless game of the tournament- proof that those late nights/early mornings in front of the TV will yield no shortage of drama and emotions. 

 

In addition, there have been a total of 11 goals out of the 105 so far (not that we're counting) which have come either in the 90th minute or stoppage time, meaning that no result is set in stone even in the dying stages of the game.

 

As we know, everyone loves an underdog until they play against you and bigger teams have certainly been given a run for their money so far; Spain went a goal down on two occasions to a plucky Morocco, Saudi Arabia proved a handful for Uruguay and Nigeria came very close to eliminating Messi's Argentina before falling to Marcos Rojo's emphatic winner.

 

However, expect teams to adopt a more conservative approach in the knockout stages- the World Cup stakes have just been raised.  

 

 

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