Photo credit: indosport.com
1: CHANGING OF THE GUARD
No discussion of the 2018 World Cup seemed free of the looming Ronaldo-Messi subplot, which has now finally run its course one step short of the quarter-finals.
The two 5-time Ballon D’Or winners, each shouldering the hopes and dreams of their nations and certainly wishing for a misty-eyed final hurrah on the World Cup stage, were instead sent tumbling home courtesy of an imperious France and an incisive Uruguay on the same night.
A degree of schadenfreude on the part of Ronaldo supporters must have crept in upon watching 2-goal hero Kylian Mbappe tear apart a sluggish Argentine defence, though soon replaced by grudging empathy after suffering a finishing masterclass by the Frenchman’s PSG strike partner Edinson Cavani, who chalked up 2 goals of his own.
For Messi, it does not help that Maradona’s 1978 heroics have only been mythicised with the passage of time. While the senior Argentine donned the famous no.10 shirt with aplomb, it has since become a soggy and oversized trench coat bogged down with the burden of expectation, which his successor drapes wearily around his shoulders every two years trudging around the pitch like a botched copy of his Barcelona self.
Add Jorge Sampaoli’s questionable team selection, messidepencia and a reported rift in the camp and Argentina’s failure to progress isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Ronaldo, on the other hand, was let down more by a general death of quality and dubious tactical decisions.
While a side featuring an ageing Pepe and Jose Fonte, an ineffectual Raphael Guerreiro and an anonymous Gonzalo Guedes was only ever going to ride so far on his coattails, the absence of a competent centre-forward for Ronaldo to aim crosses at and the lack of quick, traditional wingers (Joao Mario and Bernardo Silva were deployed as inverted wingers) to supply Ronaldo as he drifted into more central positions meant that the 33-year-old was left isolated and frustrated against a dogged Uruguay.
Retrospectively, the inclusion of Nani and Eder (both instrumental in Portugal’s Euro 2016 success) may have given Fernando Santos’ squad an added attacking dimension, though they may rue the physical impossibility of Ronaldo beating his man and crossing to himself…
With both nearing the twilight of their careers, eyes now turn to the next generation of players looking to establish themselves at the top of a post-Ronaldo-Messi era, with England’s Harry Kane, France’s Kylian Mbappe and Brazil’s Neymar undoubted frontrunners.
2: GERMANY: A POST-MORTEM REPORT
“The team did not show what it usually shows. I, as the coach, am responsible and have to ask myself why that was” remarked Joachim Lowe, who guided German football to its most successful period in recent history since taking over from Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006.
An inquest will surely ensue to assess the causes of their ignominious exit, despite the DFB’s vote of confidence that keeps Lowe in charge for now.
Why his charges coughed and spluttered in Russia, in a performance somewhat antithetic of stereotypical German efficiency, however, does not take much asking- the retirement of all-time World Cup top goalscorer Miroslav Klose immediately comes to mind as well as the talismanic Phillip Lahm, while the glaring omission of PFA Young Player of the Year Leroy Sane left the German attack starved of much-needed dynamism and pace.
For all his ample natural ability, Julian Draxler has suffered from a lack of match opportunities at PSG and Lowe’s insistence at starting Manuel Neuer in goal over Kevin Trapp and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, despite not having featured for Bayern since September, raised no shortage of eyebrows.
His tactics are to blame as well- Kimmich and Hector were encouraged to push upfield to sustain Germany’s advanced attacking play, often playing into the hands of opponents content to sit deep and strike sparingly. When they did, they often found themselves running into space left behind by the German fullbacks and as Hummels pointed out, left himself and Jerome Boateng exposed on multiple occasions.
With the likes of Ozil and Khedira at tail-end of their physical prime, it is imperative for Lowe to rejuvenate a static German squad come Euro 2020 with an injection of youthful exuberance. To overlook the star quality of Sane may be a mistake he can ill-afford to make again.
3: ENGLAND BANISH PENALTY DEMONS
Trump may be utterly convinced that he has single-(small) handedly saved us from an impending nuclear apocalypse with his trademark diplomatic tact, but there is a greater reason to the believe the end days are nigh.
England have progressed to the quarter-finals by way of winning a penalty shootout, sealing a date against Sweden, with either Croatia or Russia lying in wait.
Of all the ways they could have won. Led by a coach whose playing career had almost been defined by that fateful penalty miss at Euro 96.
In many regards, this result was a triumph of character more so than ability, combined with hours of meticulous preparation- to keep a cool head in the face of Colombian petulance, underhand tactics, provocation and a stoppage-time sucker-punch from Yerry Mina which threatened to undo England’s dominance throughout.
On the backfoot, sapped of the playful impetus that had pinned their opponents deep in their own half and losing their tactical rigidity as Colombia peppered the England box with more crosses than the Vatican souvenir shop, penalties must have been greeted with mixed relief as the legs of Young and Walker began to give. Heads started to dip at this unfortunate turn of events and for a while it seemed that England, not football, was coming home.
While the first two England penalties were dispatched with confidence, Ospina dove well to his left to save Henderson’s tame effort, with Luis Muriel putting Colombia in front for the first time.
England then mustered a comeback of their own as Uribe hit the woodwork, Trippier scored, Pickford denied Bacca, setting up to Eric Dier slot home the winning penalty past Ospina.
They had, in Southgate’s words, “create(d) their own history”, going about business with a quiet confidence, unafraid to take the game to their opponents in a daring 3-5-2 and most of all, no longer petrified by the penalty spot, regardless of how badly sabotaged.
4: SPANISH ANGUISH
It seemed business as usual at first for Spain against hosts Russia, with the Real Madrid connection paying off as Sergio Ramos' penchant for popping up in attacking positions saw him bundle the ball home off Sergei Ignasevich with a well-improvised finish, following a Marco Asensio free kick.
Just as the neutrals, pundits and even a section of pessimistic Russian fans had predicted, the most dominant international side of the 21st century would now be on the ascendancy, racking up their customary 1000 passes, pulling their opponents left, right, centre and then apart with their pretty patterns and constantly interchanging positions. Death by a thousand passes, as it has come to be known, at the feet of the best creative players from the top club sides in football.
Except they didn't. Russia's defensive 5-4-1 saw units of 4-5 midfield destroyers constantly shuffling across the pitch to put out fires, whilst providing defensive cover for the back four. Further up front, Diego Costa, perhaps the most non-archetypal member of the Spanish selection, was kept uncharacteristically quiet, his qualities as a bruising centre-forward rarely employed courtesy of both Ignasevich's man-marking, a failure to drop deep on more occasions to pull the latter out of position and Spain's own religious adherence to short passing.
Isco, duly given license by Hierro to roam across the pitch and dictate the rhythm of play with Silva, Asensio and later Iniesta in support, did well to retain possession in tight spaces but found difficulty prying himself away from a disproportionate number of back and sideways passes.
The introduction of Rodrigo provided a more direct attacking outlet which threatened to rouse La Roja from their own tiki-taka induced slumber, but to no avail as Pique's handball ultimately proved costly and the 2010 winners crashed out on penalties in the latest instalment of giant-killing feats in Russia, masterminded by none other than the hosts themselves.
5: DEFENCE AGAINST THE DARK ARTS
Assuming guaranteed selection as an 18, 22, 26, 30 and 34-year-old, the average outfield player (discounting the Cristiano Ronaldos and Rafael Marquezes of this world) has a maximum of 5 shots at the coveted Jules Rimet trophy in his entire playing career. So one can be forgiven for resorting all means, flouting rules and dancing around grey areas in the rulebook to get by, surely?
While common time-wasting tactics such as tossing the ball a good 20 metres upwards into the air, as well as picking up the ball and nonchalantly dropping the ball a good 10 metres away when the opponent is awarded the ball have virtually been normalised as part and parcel of the game, other more underhand antics have reared their ugly head on countless occasions so far.
For instance, it defies belief how referee Mark Geiger could allow himself to be hounded and harried by a mob of infuriated Colombians after awarding England a penalty (delaying Harry Kane's conversion for a good 4 minutes), how Neymar seemingly summons the energy through all the pain and anguish he must be feeling to put on his best tumbleweed impression (which the internet has had its fun with) and 6'1 defender Pepe going to ground at the slightest contact like a shot rabbit.
Measures have been taken against incidents like these to certain success at least in the Premier League, which has taken lessons from rugby by penalising players other than the captain who remonstrate in front of the referee, or attempts to officiate the game on his own by brandishing imaginary cards trying to get opponents sent off.
There also may be a case for the jurisdiction of the VAR being extended to include not just penalty decisions etc., but also clear simulation, deliberate sabotage and other such unsavoury incidents which may directly affect the course the game to a degree, but that is a debate for another day.