Kazan: With the group stage of the World Cup behind us, we are none the wiser about the clear favourite for this tournament. Over the past 15 days, the major contenders have slipped when least expected and only Belgium among the heavyweights won all three group games.
There is a sense, though, that top teams are slowly asserting themselves. Cesc Fabregas discussed the mental aspect of a slow start on BBC Sport, in light of the troubles faced by the big sides. “It is good sometimes to panic a little bit, especially for the top teams like Germany, Spain, Argentina and Brazil, who all failed to win their opening games. It can be a positive to feel that pressure, so you realise that if you don't do well next time, you are going home.”
Germany, however, found the pressure too much and collapsed in its face. The shirt can feel heavy when the tag of defending champion is put on it; Joachim Low’s side is the fourth winner in last five World Cups to go out in the group stage of the following edition. Germany’s tactical discipline completely left the players and every team which played against them found plenty of space for counter-attacks. It was remarkable that Die Mannschaft managed even three points, miraculously avoiding another disappointing result against Sweden. In a contrast to previous German sides, no team lost the ball in the opposition half more than Germany in the group stage* (162 times in three matches; the next entry on the list was Uruguay with 137).
Others have not been so miserable. Brazil recovered from their draw with Switzerland, and an insipid display against Costa Rica, to dominate a limited Serbia and there is a sense that they are growing into the competition. Neymar, despite the occasional bad-tempered act, is the leader for ‘key passes’ in this tournament with 56. Furthermore, nobody has made more solo runs into the opposition box than the PSG striker. No wonder then that Brazil have been in constant worry over his fitness.
Spain, though, have struggled to make similar incursions. Their lateral passing allows a semblance of control — only Germany spent more time on the ball in the group stage — but the opposition has discovered that Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos have not shaken off the poor form which dogged them for a large part of the domestic season.
France’s problems exist on the other side of the pitch. Despite the bevy of attacking talent at their disposal, they have scored only thrice in this World Cup. Notwithstanding the presence of skillful players like Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, the disjointed nature of the French team means its players have not been able to penetrate the opposition box as often as they would like — with only 30 passes delivered into the area, France stand tenth on the list of 32 group teams.
The remarkable achievement by the smaller teams to be able to resist the advances of their elite opponents has, of course, been more inspiring. Iran manager Carlos Queiroz, however, has been keen to stress that this does not mean that the gap has reduced between teams at this World Cup.
“The only nations that are able to compete in the World Cup are those with luck and those who are able to play for clubs in Europe, and that’s not just in Asia but also Africa and elsewhere. People point to Morocco or Senegal as strong African nations, but what they really are is African players playing in Europe. I’ve been coaching for 37 years and I can tell the gap between Europe and the rest is only growing.”
In light of the enlarging distance between teams, it becomes imperative for a side with cheaper gifts to be well-organised and compact. This was how Iran resisted Spain, Australia made life tough for France, and Iceland held out against Argentina. But another remarkable manner in which the big guns were resisted was by exposing their feet of clay. Germany’s lack of cohesion was brutally exploited by Mexico while Argentina and Portugal were punished by Croatia and Morocco, respectively, for their inability to keep possession, albeit with differing results.
Yet, despite all the problems, it is only the Germans who have missed out on the knockout stage. Rest of the heavyweights have entered the Round of 16 and it would be a surprise if they do not rouse themselves for the business end of the tournament. An exception to the trend of bumbling giants has been Belgium who have left their usual troubles with fluidity behind to win all three games; no team has had more shots on goal than Roberto Martinez’s side (22).
But even after the World Cup finishes, it will be worth recalling that the group stage draw was met with suspicion last year. The general feeling was that the major contenders would have it easy until the later rounds of the tournament. It has turned out to be anything but simple progress and the World Cup is richer for that. Even though it is unlikely that we will see a shock champion, the group stage games from this edition will stand out long in memory. For it has, at least, made us alive to the possibilities of a surprise.
Note: All data sourced from FIFA.
Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 14:11:15 IST