World Cup

Game on to lift the trophy

June 13 - 19, 2018

Gulf Weekly Kristian Harrison
By Kristian Harrison

Gulf Weekly Game on to lift the trophy

With the World Cup kicking off tomorrow, everyone has an opinion on who will raise the FIFA World Cup Trophy on July 15.

Thousands of fans will descend on Russia this week from all corners of the globe, not least those from Latin and South America who will undoubtedly ramp up the carnival atmosphere.

It promises to be a memorable four weeks, one great international party, and my hope for the tournament is that the quality of football is every bit as high, if not higher, than it was in Brazil four years ago.

From my point of view, there are four serious contenders and a couple of dark horses thrown into the mix.

Surprisingly, Brazil are favourites, but I think Germany, France and Spain all have stronger squads.

I’m personally struggling to see beyond Germany after watching their preparations this time last year at the Confederations Cup, where they breezed through the tournament with effectively a ‘C’ team.

The common consensus is they could have put out three different teams in this tournament – one experienced, one middling and one young – and not many nations can say that.

Any country that can drop Leroy Sane from the final 23 has to be taken very seriously. He would arguably be our most important player if he qualified for England, which gives you an idea of Germany’s strength.

A lot of people fancy Brazil and they could win, although I’m not buying into all the hype around them yet.

Tite has turned things round very well since the 7-1 semi-final hammering by Germany four years ago, but I don’t think those scars will have fully healed yet. The team is still all about Neymar too, which can be a bit overpowering and could affect the young forward’s confidence, particularly as he hasn’t hardly kicked a competitive ball in months due to injury, although he scored as Brazil swept aside Austria 3-0 in their final World Cup warm-up game in Vienna.

Germany have quality throughout their squad and can make changes that Brazil simply can’t.

Spain are another team which massively underperformed last time out, where they crashed out in the group stage as the holders. The current crop is not as good as 2010, but there’s still a ton of quality.

The concern is at centre-forward. Can Diego Costa thrive in a possession-based team? I doubt it. But the midfield strength with Andres Iniesta, Thiago, Sergio Busquets, Saul, Isco, David Silva and Marco Asensio appears overwhelming. Add to that the best goalkeeper in the world in David de Gea and a top defence, and you have a formidable opponent for anyone.

That leaves us with the great enigma, France. On paper, their squad is absolutely ridiculous. In fact, you can judge that by the players left at home - Lacazette, Benzema, Payet, Rabio, Martial, Koscielny, Laporte, Coman to name a few. That team would beat the first XI of most of the current World Cup crop. However, there’s just something about France in major tournaments.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they crashed out in the group phase and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won the whole tournament.

The big question is whether they will come good or whether they will be like their rugby union side, who are capable of demolishing the All Blacks one day then getting demolished by Scotland the next.

That makes me wonder if there is something about the French mentality, that they have this incredible flair, aptitude and ability but something else that can undermine them. They crumbled in the final of Euro 2016 on home turf two years ago, and they just seem so fragile if there is disharmony in the team.

As for dark horses, Belgium have to be in with a shout, but will they come good? We keep saying this, and we keep waiting for them to hit their stride. Four years ago, they let everybody down so it will be interesting to see if Roberto Martinez can get the best out of their so-called Golden Generation.

Poland are the other nation who could cause an upset. They have a superstar in Robert Lewandowski and a feeling that the group could be relatively straightforward. If they get momentum out the group phase they could go a long, long way.

As for the surprise package, don’t underestimate Peru. They have their captain and all-time leading goalscorer, Paolo Guerrero, back after his drugs ban was reduced and that in itself can galvanise a nation.

South American qualifying is very strong and, like Poland, the feeling is that if they can get out of the group they can grow along the way.

They play with a real attacking flair, work tremendously hard for each other, and have a nice balance between youth and experience. And it’s their first finals since 1982, which will make things extra special for them.

Finally, what about England? I can see us getting to the last eight, not because we have a fantastic team but because the system that manager Gareth Southgate plays seems to be getting the best out of them. For the first time, there also seems to be little to no expectation from the media and England fans, which has led to a more relaxed atmosphere both within the squad and in the country.

We have the second youngest squad and quite a kind draw. We are more than capable of beating Belgium in the group, and then it would likely be Poland or Senegal in the last 16. Making it to the last eight would be a par score, and a great learning experience for the fledgling squad.

At that stage, with all predicted cards falling into place, it would be a clash with Germany where we will inevitably get beaten. Probably on penalties after withstanding the Siege of the Alamo for 120 minutes.

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