- Only four serious contenders to win Russia ’18
- Germany and Spain are strong, Brazil lack flair, and France are mercurial
- England should expect to make the last eight, but no more
Have you noticed it too? That creeping sense of anticipation, that frisson of excitement, that warm glow of possibility? Um, no. That’s not what I was referring to. I am talking about World Cup fever! With the release of the Panini World Cup sticker album and a batch of some seriously heavyweight international friendlies, the countdown to the somewhat understated, so far, Russia ’18 is finally underway.
In terms of pointers for the summer, we’ve learned little enough. The same few countries remain the favoured contenders. However, the composition of the squads that will compete for these favourites has become a little clearer.
With less than 80 days to go, it’s hard to see a winner coming from any country other than Germany, Spain, France, and Brazil. Perhaps the French have more questions to answer than the others, but the sheer quality of their squad means they must be a factor. Arguably, the Belgians could make a breakthrough, but history is against them and then there’s the Roberto Martinez factor to consider. Indeed, some would say Didier Deschamps is a similar liability for France, but his stature in the game is undeniably higher if only for his playing exploits.
The Germany-Spain clash in Düsseldorf was high-end international football for at least an hour. Both sides looked tremendous and are scheduled to meet in the World Cup semi-final. The winner of that will be very hard to beat in the Moscow final.
The Germans rested many of their starters for the subsequent visit of Brazil to Berlin. While the 1-0 scoreline was a morale-boosting win for the Brazilians, their strongest eleven laboured somewhat against the German reserves. Overall, Brazil looked well-balanced and solid, but bereft of the flair that used to be associated with them. Unlike the Spain encounter, this meeting lacked the intensity of serious international football.
If the game told us anything, it’s that any notion that Germany could send two teams of contenders to the tournament is rubbish. A certain complacency has crept into German football since 2014. The Confederations Cup did nothing but accentuate that, with the kids winning it in the absence of the A Team. Yet, that tournament means precisely nothing in the great scheme of things. The team they beat in the final, a jaded, spent Chile, didn’t even qualify for the World Cup.
Ilkay Gündogan surely played himself out of the starting team, carelessly dispossessed on so many occasions, and there are now serious doubts about the effectiveness of Julian Draxler and Leon Goretzka, both anonymous and lightweight. Mario Gomez, for whom the ball appears square when he attempts to take possession of it, has probably incinerated his plane ticket. Sandro Wagner will likely assume his role as carthorse-in-chief, an option off the bench when all else has failed.
As for Brazil, Willian continues to prove himself the most stylish and accomplished Brazilian midfield player of his day. Tite, the coach, looks to have done a competent job in turning a disparate rabble into a team, but the lack of flair is glaring. If Neymar does not come back to full fitness in time for the tournament, they may lack that little bit of magic needed to win the tight games against heavyweight opposition.
Spain’s 6-1 destruction of a chaotic Argentina was the eye-catching result of the week, but there’s a possibility that they are peaking too soon. More likely, the result simply confirmed that Argentina are a shambles with an unhealthy over-dependency on Lionel Messi, their only world-class player.
England, meanwhile, continue to develop slowly. Respectable results against abysmal Dutch and Italian sides have only served to ramp up the usual hype that accompanies the national team prior to every World Cup. While most people should know better, you still get lots of “they couldn’t, could they?” type comments from fans who ostensibly claim that the English side is just not good enough but who still sneakingly regard themselves as contenders. They just can’t help themselves.
A soft draw should take England to the last eight, whereupon they are almost certain to come acropper against the first powerhouse they encounter. Barring another Colombian resurgence, anything less than the last eight should be regarded as a failure for Gareth Southgate. Anything more, a triumph.