With the conclusion of the group stages of the World Cup, the big talking points are the dramatic exit of current champions Germany and just how wide open the competition seems to be, with many of the ‘big teams’ failing to totally convince. Indeed for many pundits, including yours truly, the 2018 world Cup is looking unpredictable with shocks lurking around every corner.
Die Mannschaft breaks down
Undoubtedly the biggest shock of this World Cup or any World Cup has been the failure of Germany to make it out of the group stage. Coming into this tournament as one of the favourites, the Germans crashed out finishing bottom of a group they were expected to dominate.
Predictably, the German nation and media are stunned and ultimately many of this current crop of players may have played their last games for the national team. Joachim Low, Germany’s most successful manager may also pay the price of failure. So where did it go wrong?
Put simply, this looked a tournament too far for many of the German squad. They looked slow and off the pace in midfield with Sami Khedira looking like a liability as he lost the ball at crucial times. Mesut Ozil looks a shadow of the player he once was while up top Timo Werner looked like a player simply not ready for this level.
At the back they also looked pedestrian with Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Antonio Rudiger all failing to impress. Above all though since Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger have retired, there seemed to be a lack of leadership on the field and no real Plan B, when things got tough or needed changing.
Ultimately Low has perhaps been overly loyal to the players who won the 2014 edition and perhaps should have integrated more of the younger generation. Leaving Leroy Sane out now seems to be a huge mistake.
Not firing on all cylinders
In the absence of Germany, the tournament has lost one of its superpowers and arguably this should make lots of the remaining contenders believe they can go on to win. The problem is that question marks remain over all of the leading contenders that only dominant performances in the knock out stages will really dispel.
France came in the tournament with huge ambition. Les Bleus boast arguably an eclectic range of talent all over the park but have been unconvincing to say the least. Despite beating Australia 2-1 the French looked out of sorts. Samuel Umtiti, who is usually a rock at the back for Barcelona, made a beginners mistake in conceding a sloppy penalty via a handball. Stars such as Corentin Tolisso, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba haven’t exactly set the world alight. Indeed with Pogba he is continuing his run of United form, with odd cameos of quality in amongst largely forgettable performances.
The match against Denmark showed a frightening lack of ambition and a safety first attitude that seems to be crippling the team’s creativity. Under Deschamps, is it likely that there will be a French Revolution and fireworks in July? So far it looks unlikely.
La Roja falta de furia?
With Germany gone, what about the 2010 champions? Although Spain topped a competitive group ahead of Portugal, they have conceded 5 goals thus far and look a little shaky at the back. David De Gea despite having a solid season for Manchester United has looked a little off form- could this open the door for Athletic Bilbao youngster Kepa Arrizabalaga?
However, they remain a beautiful passing side capable of unlocking most defences and in Diego Costa, have a proven match winner who will challenge any centre back pairing.
Fernando Hierro has done a decent job in steadying the ship after the sacking of Julen Lopetegui and his Spanish team should see off Russia. Sterner tests will await in the quarter finals!
The South American Challenge
With Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina, making it to the round of 16, South America will definitely have a say in how this World Cup unfolds.
Brazil still remain many people’s favourites but have stuttered so far and have only played in patches. They have looked a solid outfit throughout and in Philippe Coutinho have a proven midfield match winner but don’t seem to have the flair or fluidity of the greatest Brazilian sides. Ironically it might be their greatest player who may prove their nemesis, Neymar who has a monumental ego and perhaps this is what prevents him from being a good team player.
Argentina are lucky to still be in the competition and just about saw off a combative Nigeria side. They look vulnerable in defence and continue to be over reliant on their talisman Lionel Messi. However they have plenty of quality and may improve.
Uruguay are one of my dark horses featuring a world class centre forward pairing of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and perhaps the tournament’s finest centre back pairing of Jose Maria Gimenez and Diego Godin. They are a rugged and uncompromising outfit and are prepared to win ugly if they need to. Nobody will fancy playing them.
Colombia, perhaps the weakest South American side left in the competition boast Juan Quintero, a fine playmaker and an in form Radamel Falcao. They also have James Rodriguez on their ranks so enough firepower to give England a scare.
Delivering the goods
While others may have failed to totally convince, England and Belgium have both looked like side who could progress to the later stages of this competition. Although qualifying from what was a very weak group also containing Tunisia and Panama, after convincingly winning their first two games, they played their B teams in a nothing fixture which Belgium edged 1-0. Ironically in winning the group, Belgium have entered the harder side of the draw and are likely to face Brazil in the quarter finals. England meanwhile if they get past Colombia, will face Sweden or Switzerland in the quarter finals and will probably never get a better chance to make a semi-final.
Harry Kane, probably England’s only real world class performer, looks in fine form and if he can get the required service, could be a real Golden Boot contender. At long last, Belgium have managed to click as a unit and have star quality all over the park. Similar to England though, while they may very easily see off Japan, more difficult games may await.
The Fateful Eight
Based on what I have seen so far, my prediction for the last 8 is: