2018 FIFA World Cup: What the last friendlies tell us about the favourites
The last time Brazil faced Germany before Tuesday was in Belo Horizonte in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup. The home team’s starlet, Neymar, was missing due to an injury and the game ended in a 7-1 win for Germany—Brazil’s worst ever defeat.
This week, the game was in Berlin and once more there was no Neymar. Brazil again scored once but they managed to keep the home side scoreless on way to a 1-0 win.
Much has changed since the last World Cup, and one of the definitive transformations have been in Brazil’s fortunes. The team under manager Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite, is stacked with talent in all areas of the pitch, so much so that they can not only cope with the absence of Neymar but also thrive.
An ageing Julio Cesar was the best ‘keeper Brazil could manage in goal in 2014. Now, Tite had to drop one of the best custodians in the Premier League, Ederson Moraes, in favour of Roma’s number 1 Alisson Becker.
Fred became one of the scapegoats of that Belo Horizonte massacre never to play for Brazil again. But in Berlin, Tite could trust Gabriel Jesus—the game’s only goalscorer—and have the luxury of starting Roberto Firmino on the bench.
Brazil now seem well-equipped to bury the ghost of 2014 and make a serious dent in their quest for a sixth World Cup in Russia this summer.
As the South Americans overcame their trauma of the past, their arch-rivals Argentina were left contemplating their own. Lionel Messi couldn’t take any more of the mauling his team were receiving at the hands of Spain in Madrid and as the sixth goal in the 6-1 defeat went in, he made a move away inside the bowels of the stadium, having seen the game from the stands.
Argentine manager Jorge Sampaoli has the difficult task of sorting out his chaotic defence that played like amateurs at times. Willy Caballero, 36, will definitely not cut it as reserve ‘keeper and Javier Mascherano is unlikely to get the kind of rigour that would prepare him for a World Cup assignment in the Chinese league. In his Argentine record 141st cap, the former Barcelona man looked a shadow of his former self.
Reports suggest that Ezequiel Garay is not keen on call-ups for the national team but on the evidence of Tuesday, Sampaoli will need to convince the Valencia defender to accept the call for Russia.
For all the shellacking, Argentina started well and moved the ball decisively, attempting to play a passing game. Had it not been for an inexplicable miss from Gonzalo Higuain, La Albiceleste would have taken an early lead with a beautiful flowing move that started all the way at the back.
It leaves the question of whether Higuain is worth trusting with another important assignment. The script of the 2014 World Cup as well as the last two Copa Americas could have been vastly different had Higuain shown the same finishing capabilities that he does at the club level for Juventus. But his potency seems to desert him whenever he puts on an Argentine shirt.
Sergio Aguero was injured and Diego Perotti remained an unused substitute. But Sampaoli needs to give a serious thought about taking Mauro Icardi and Juventus’ starlet Paulo Dybala to Russia, having dropped the two for the twin friendlies.
Argentina are running short of time to fix their side in time for June.
Spain, on the other hand, look in great shape and are the favourites to add to the title they won in 2010. Manager Julen Lopetegui is blessed with a hugely talented squad that is stacked in all areas of the pitch.
Tuesday’s demolition job was completed without David Silva, Javi Martinez, and Sergio Busquets. There were combined 90 minutes for Andres Iniesta and Saul Niguez, while one of the best defenders in the Premier League, Cesar Azpilicueta, had to contend with a cameo.
The core of the side is well-experienced and the gifted youngsters make Spain a potent force and the team to beat this summer.
One team that would relish the challenge are the reigning world champions Germany. The two teams played out a 1-1 draw in their friendly last week, displaying how evenly they are matched.
There are some similarities between the two sides as well. Germany has plenty of experience in Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Toni Kroos, and Mesut Ozil, and some outstanding youngsters in Leroy Sane, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka et al. Although none of these players, Sandro Wagner, Timo Werner and Mario Gomez, give the same potency as a Miroslav Klose of yesteryears.
Belgium, too, have rich pickings in all areas of the pitch but doubts remain about manager Roberto Martinez’s ability to come up with tactics that gets the best out of the talent at his disposal. Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne openly criticised Martinez’s tactics during the November international break. It’s never a good sign when the team’s best payer doesn’t profess full faith in the manager.
The Red Devils do have shortcomings in wide defensive areas and the deployment of Yannick Ferreira Carrasco as left wing-back left them exposed whenever Saudi Arabia attacked that area on Tuesday.
Belgium secured a 4-0 win over the Saudis, but better teams will punish them. They have the squad to challenge for the World Cup but a lack of tournament-winning experience and managerial tactical nous may prove their undoing.
Belgium’s group opponents England also have similar concerns with Gareth Southgate at the helm. The England manager opted for a three-man defence in both the friendlies and employed Kyle Walker as the right-sided centre-back. It stifles the best qualities of the Manchester City defender, who thrives on bombing forward and delivering crosses.
A 1-0 win on Saturday over the Netherlands, who have failed to qualify for the World Cup, was relatively easily secured. But Italy would have won on Tuesday by a handsome margin had Ciro Immobile taken his chances—the 1-1 result flatters England.
The arrival of Harry Kane will shore up the Three Lions’ attack and they do have a serviceable midfield but that defence doesn’t look like it could bring the World Cup back to ‘the home of football’.
The match between reigning European champions Portugal and Egypt was billed as a Cristiano Ronaldo versus Mohamed Salah showdown. The latter seemed to be winning the battle with his 56th minute goal but the Real Madrid star had the last laugh with two headers in the injury time that settled the match in Portugal’s favour.
But Portugal had a calamitous first half against the Netherlands, going three goals down before the referee blew for half-time and eventually lost 0-3.
Portugal’s Euro win in 2016 was down to a collective effort and manager Fernando Santos will do well to rally his troops—especially with important players, including Andre Gomes, Andre Silva and Renato Sanches struggling at their respective clubs—if they are to add the World Cup to their Euro win.
France remain hit and miss. They let slip a 2-0 advantage against Colombia at home to lose 3-2 last weekend before beating a ramshackle Russia 3-1 away on Tuesday.
Didier Deschamps has one of the best squads in world football at his disposal. It’s up to him to find the balance. Paul Pogba has been struggling for consistency at Manchester United but Deschamps seems to trust the midfielder more than the United manager, Jose Mourinho.
The French team are well-equipped in attack with Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, while the centre-back pairing of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti—who despite making a rare mistake that gave away a penalty against Colombia—will be hard to get past. It’s the midfield where Deschamps need to get the right balance with a plethora of exciting options to choose from.
France’s game against Russia in Saint-Petersburg ended with reports of alleged racist chanting from the stands which football’s governing body FIFA is investigating. Russia has a history of such nasty stuff in its local competitions as well as European club championships and there were fears that such unsavoury incidents will tarnish the World Cup as well.
Football fans would hope Tuesday’s incidents are just a blip and those fears are not realised on world football’s biggest stage come summer.