FIFA World Cup 2018, Novy Kapadia column: 'Intelligent' Luka Modric makes Croatia title contenders in Russia
The player of the tournament so far has been Croatia’s nippy and intelligent midfielder Luka Modric. His precise and nimble scheming is perhaps Croatia’s greatest weapon, a key part of what makes them genuine contenders.
Toni Kroos’s stunning, curling free-kick winning goal against Sweden is arguably the most crucial goal ever scored in a World Cup. It required great mental determination and courage to take such a shot five minutes into added time, with the score tied at 1-1. If the match had ended in a 1-1 draw then holders Germany would have been on the brink of elimination after two games.
Germany are still not certain of qualifying for the Round of 16 unless they beat South Korea by a large margin in their third round tie on 27 June. Also, FIFA has this time introduced the fair play rule as a tie breaker in case the teams are level on points and goal difference and goals scored in the group stage. For instance, England are topping Group G ahead of Belgium even though both are on six points and have a similar goal difference of plus six. England have only two players with yellow cards compared to Belgium's three. With Jerome Boateng getting a red card (two yellow cards) in the match against Sweden, the Germans could be at a disadvantage if Sweden beat Mexico and three teams are tied at six points each.
Misfortunes are piling up for the holders in the 2018 World Cup. Sebastian Rudy, who replaced out of form Sami Khedira in the playing eleven against Sweden had to be withdrawn because of a damaged nose. It is now learnt that he needs an operation. This means he misses the vital tie against South Korea. Rudy is a competent defensive midfielder and this allows Kroos to play upfront spraying accurate passes and making darting runs. Kroos is uncomfortable as defensive midfielder and has tended to be error prone. The other midfielder Ilkay Gundogan also tends to be more attacking and Germany sorely miss a midfield anchor like Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Argentina were also given a lifeline when Nigeria beat Iceland 2-0 thanks to two brilliant goals by dashing winger Ahmed Musa. Now Argentina’s fate is in their own hands. They have to beat Nigeria in their last game on 26 June at St Petersburg and reach four points and qualify. In five previous meetings in the World Cup, Argentina have always beaten Nigeria so history favours them. However Nigeria are a transformed side after the President of the Nigerian senate Dr Bukola Saraki met the Super Eagle’s players and gave them a pep talk before the match against Iceland. Saraki is in Russia at the invitation of the chairperson of the Russian Parliament.
Nigeria are very motivated and with Victor Moses and Musa in sparkling form, they can harass the fragile Argentinian defence. Sadly for Argentina and Lionel Messi fans their coach Jorge Sampaoli has not found his settled combination and is constantly changing and chopping the team. His experiment with three backs in the 0-3 loss to Croatia was a disaster. The wing backs Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna did not track back and this allowed Croatia to create pressure from the flanks. The experienced Javier Mascherano made too many passing errors.
There are also stories that the players are unhappy with coach Sampaoli and want him replaced by Burruchaga, who had visited India to play in the 1984 Nehru Cup in Kolkata. In a meeting with the media, Mascherano had said that we just gave our suggestions to the coach, but a player’s revolt seems imminent. It is also learnt that for the match against Nigeria the players will decide what formation and system Argentina should adopt. If Argentina fail to qualify, it will be for the first time since the 2002 World Cup. In 2002, they were in a tough group containing England and Sweden. This is a relatively easy group and it will be a disaster if Argentina cannot progress to the next round.
When the first round of matches end, sixteen teams, two from each group will be eliminated. So far eight teams. Saudi Arabia and Egypt (Group A), Morocco (Group B), Peru (Group C), Costa Rica (Group E), Panama and Tunisia (Group G) and Poland (Group H) have been eliminated. It has been a fascinating World Cup as only Group A and Group G have been decided so far. Russia and Uruguay have qualified from Group A and England and Belgium from Group G. Croatia from Group D is also through with six points from two matches. The eleven other qualifiers will only be decided after the third round of matches conclude on 27 June.
Remarkably, there have been several outstanding performances by lesser known players in the World Cup so far. The outstanding goalkeeper has not been Manuel Neuer or David de Gea but the lanky and courageous 25-year-old Iranian custodian Alireza Beiranvand who plays for Persepolis in the Iranian league
Standing at 1.93 metres (6ft 4in) Beiranvand commands his box well. He has also displayed remarkable reflexes and strong hands to make improbable saves, such as the one that denied Hakim Ziyech against Morocco or the double-stop from a Sergio Busquets shot against Spain. The only goal he has conceded in two matches despite being under constant pressure was not from a shot, but a ricochet off Diego Costa in the 0-1 loss to Spain.
Among the young players right back, Moussa Wague of Senegal has been a revelation. He is a precocious 19-year-old whose classy shot from an acute angle to score the second goal for his country in the 2-2 draw versus Japan was brilliant. His pacy runs on the right and timely interventions make him similar to a young Cafu who excelled for Brazil in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. Overall Cafu has played in four World cups, from 1994 to 2006.
Left-back was a problem position for Senegal before the tournament but their coach, Aliou Cisse, solved the dilemma against Poland by moving the erstwhile right-back, Youssouf Sabaly, to the left and entrusted their right-back slot to Wague, an inexperienced 19-year-old. The teenager justified that decision with an immaculate performance, helping his country to a famous 2-1 win. Wague has impressed more than Joshua Kimmich of Germany another highly rated young right back.
Other young players to impress have been winger Hirving Luzano of Mexico, who scored the match winner versus Germany and is likely to join Barcelona next season and the classy and unpredictable Aleksander Golovin of Russia
The player of the tournament so far has been Croatia’s nippy and intelligent midfielder Luka Modric. His precise and nimble scheming is perhaps Croatia’s greatest weapon, a key part of what makes them genuine contenders. His goal against Argentina when he twice beat their central defender Nicolas Otamedni and then curled in a shot from far was one of the best in the tournament so far. If Modric and Ivan Rakitic remain in from Croatia could emulate the feat of the Balkan War babies of 1998, the Croatian team led by Davor Suker which finished third in the 1998 World Cup.
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