Till the end of the first round of matches, it can be considered the World Cup of the sporting underdog. Of the five top ranked teams in the FIFA list only Belgium won 3-0 against debutants Panama. Brazil, Argentina and Portugal were held to draws and top-ranked Germany lost. The turbulent first round of matches will also be remembered for the triumph of technology.
France prevailed over tenacious Australia due to the right penalty decision awarded by the much maligned VAR and goal-line technology. Sweden got the match winner against South Korea also because of a penalty kick awarded after the referee consulted VAR. In 16 matches held in the first round, VAR has been successfully used on four occasions to award penalty kicks. Also it has not taken very long and so the momentum of the match has not been halted.
This World Cup will also be remembered that sheer talent, technique and skill are not enough. Teams like Iceland and Senegal which kept their shape and defensive discipline gained results.
The three biggest upsets of the first round have been fancied Brazil being held by Switzerland, Lionel Messi missing penalty and Iceland holding them to a 1-1 draw and Germany upset 0-1 by Mexico. Argentina are still over dependent on Messi and it would be better if some other players take responsibility for taking penalty kicks. There is too much pressure on Messi. Brazil's coach Tite must curb Neymar's impetuosity and get him to release the ball early so that with quicker rotation of the ball attacks can be more penetrative.
However, the biggest surprise was the absence of the famed German mentality in the loss to Mexico. German coach Joachim Loew seems to have made the same mistake that Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque made in the 2014 World Cup, relying on an ageing team. If Germany do not overcome Sweden in their second round match at Sochi on 23 June, the jinx of the holders could continue. Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and now Germany in 2014 could be knocked out in the group stage. Also the jjnx if the country that wins the Confederation Cup a year before never wins the World Cup. It happened to Brazil in 2010 and 2014 and now maybe Germany.
If the unthinkable happens, Loew will be crucified for dropping speedy winger Leroy Sane from the German squad. Sane with his blistering pace, could have provided thrust to the German attack and given them options in attack. It is learnt that Sane was not included because some of the senior German players in the squad felt he had attitude problems. As an accomplished coach and a good man manager, Loew should have sorted out these problems and included Sane.
At present Germany are very once paced. They did not show the thrust, ruthlessness and mental toughness of German teams in the past. They sorely missed a team leader like the retired Bastian Schwiensteiger who could make his team fight. I recall the pre-quarter final tie against Algeria in the 2014 World cup, the only match which Germany played without rhythm. It was the tenaciousness of Schweinsteiger, Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer which enabled them triumph in extra time.
To add to Loew's woes, some key players like Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Mats Hummels seem out of form. Also despite the hype and success in the 2017 Confederations Cup, chosen striker Timo Werner was a flop against Mexico. He is not Gerd Muller or Miroslav Klose. His replacement Mario Gomez is ageing and slow.
Creditably in the match against Sweden, Loew did change tactics in the second-half and made Germany slow down the pace of the game and use the width of the field. However to succeed against the tenacious Swedes, Loew will have to take harsh decision, maybe start with Thomas Muller upfront and Marco Reus on the right.
Senegal maybe the poorest nation competing in Russia 2018 with a per capita income of just $1,038 but they have been the most impressive among African and Asian countries. Skipper Sadio Mane led by example, playing as a distributor and roving forward instead of his upfront role for Liverpool. Their overall tenaciousness, speed and technique was very impressive. Coached by Aliou Cisse, their skipper in the 2002 World Cup, they should qualify from Group H and maybe become the first African nation to reach the quarter final for a second time. Cisse is only the 14th African coach to take charge of a team in the World Cup in 44 appearances of teams from his continent.
New stars have emerged after the first round of matches which shows that many nation's are doing good development work. Senegal's left back Youssoyf Sabaly and hard tackling midfielder Idrissa Gueye impressed in the 2-1 win over Poland. Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyech who plays for Ajax excelled with his distribution. Russian midfielders Denis Cheryshev joint top scorer with Ronaldo with three goals and 22-year-old Aleksander Golivin have also been good. Mexico's thrustful and skillful left winger Hirving Luzano has been the most impressive young player so far. Japan, the first Asian nation to beat a South American country Colombia 2-1 in the history of the World Cup, also had some impressive players defenders Maya Yoshida and Gen Shoji and striker Yuya Osako, who displayed quick footwork and shooting in the turn.
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Updated Date: Jun 20, 2018 18:35:34 IST