The first round of group games has finished, and as we progress into round two we’re starting to get some idea of how the tournament might take shape. It has not gone to plan for more than a few of the big teams, but this also means that supposed weaker teams are overperforming.
The hosts Russia opened the competition by blowing away an admittedly very weak Saudi Arabia side. However, it was nonetheless surprising to see Russia play so well, having come into the tournament with such low expectations. This result has set the tone for more surprises to come. None of the main contenders played particularly well, and France were the only ones to actually take 3 points from their opening game.
Unexpected ties in the last 16
Germany and Argentina’s results now mean that their progression to the knockout rounds is uncertain and topping the group looks even more unlikely. If they do happen to qualify in second place in their group, then it sets up mouth-watering ties in the second round.
It also means that one side of the draw could see one of Portugal or Spain, France, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and one of England or Belgium. So, does this mean that, unlike recent knockout rounds in major international tournaments, the latter stages of this World Cup will lead to exciting, open matches?
If the Spain–Portugal match is any indication, then perhaps it might. That 3-3 draw on the first full day of the tournament became an instant World Cup classic and it was simply wonderful to see two heavyweight sides put up such a great test of character to each other and then for both of them to answer it emphatically. It was one of those matches where most will have been disappointed that it ended at all.
But does the fact that it was only a group match mean that is was always going to be more exciting than if it were played in a knockout setting? Not necessarily. For both sides, they’ll want to finish first in the group to give them the best advantage possible in the second round. Plus, with all the talk behind the scenes at both teams, they’d have been hungry to prove the doubters wrong.
A repeat of the Champions League?
The state of the Champions League knockout rounds might also be a sign of things to come. In the last two seasons we have seen some of the most incredible ties between European heavyweights that will long live in the memory.
This has been down, in part, to an inability to defend. Teams are more open at the back, despite their best efforts, but are also now better than ever in attack. When two big teams have gone up against each other, they’ve completely backed themselves that they can recover from any set back, no matter how inconceivable a turnaround would look.
So, with the potential for big heavyweights to be playing each other in the second round – France vs. Argentina and Brazil vs. Germany both look likely – then perhaps we could see similar matches to that of Europe’s elite club competition.
Of course, the club and international games are in some ways dissimilar, but a lot of the players from top clubs will also be featured in the top international sides and thus can use their club experience to drive them when playing for their country.
Yes, the last few international tournaments have started well but devolved into a boring competition of cagey, nervous knockout matches but this all precedes the exciting Champions League seasons in the last couple years. The top players don’t necessarily need a manager to coach how the team will play, but a head coach has increasingly only become useful for being able to manage the egos of the squad. This gives the players the freedom to play their own way.
Incredible comebacks have become the norm
When teams are losing in the knockout rounds they’ll be able to look at the Champions League for inspiration. In the last two years we’ve seen such incredible comeback as the 6-1 between PSG and Barcelona – which featured players in the Spain and Brazil squads – as well Roma’s comeback against Barcelona and Juventus’ incredible almost-comeback against Real Madrid.
There is also the joy that the second round of group games has essentially set up a few knockout games within the groups themselves. In group C, Peru must beat France, or they will likely be out. Group D, Argentina will need a result against Croatia or their progression will be in serious doubt. Germany against Sweden will basically decide who goes through in group F and Serbia against Switzerland could be winner takes all in group E.
These matches will give us the best indication yet as to whether the actual knockout rounds can live up to the excitement that we all wish it would. While the matches could still end up devolving into tight, tense 1-0 affairs, there is more hope this time around that maybe, just maybe, the excitement will just keep coming.