Germany out? Brazil lacking fluency? VAR goal or no goal? An England side looking organised and dangerous? This World Cup has an unfamiliar feel at the end of round one and it is a refreshing change for us long suffering England fans. So which nations have impressed and who is hanging on in there by their bootlaces?
The tournament kicked off with a bang with the hosts tonking a very poor Saudi Arabia side 5-0, roared on by a vociferous home support. Russia followed this up with a professional 3-1 win over an Egypt side lacking penetration, with star man Mohammed Salah clearly lacking match fitness, before a sobering 3-0 defeat by Uruguay, with the ageing Russian backline struggling to handle the step up in class of the Uruguay front line. Denis Cherysev has real quality to change games from the left wing position, however difficult to see them overcoming Spain in the second round.
Uruguay started slowly with a laboured 1-0 win over Egypt, with leading man Luis Suarez bearing the brunt of the criticism. However, the following two games gave a sense of a team growing into the tournament, culminating in a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of the hosts in the final game. In skipper Diego Godin they have a real warrior at the back and he has played his part in them not yet conceding a goal. Combined with star quality in Suarez and Cavani up front, Uruguay will provide a stern test for any team and I can see them overcoming a fairly average Portugal side in the second round.
Winners: Spain; Runners Up: Portugal
The nations expected to qualify from this group duly did, however this fails to tell the story of a hugely entertaining group where Iran and Morocco could feel hard done by to fall at the first hurdle. A firecracker of a 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal should have set the tone for the big hitters to dominate the group, with Spain playing some sumptuous one touch passing and Ronaldo turning up at the big occasion once again with a stunning hattrick. However, Spain have very much underwhelmed since, needing a late Iago Aspas goal to hang onto a draw against Morocco after counting themselves fortunate to beat Iran in their second game. For me this Spain side lacks the legs for their intense pressing game and rapid football that can unlock even the tightest of defences, with one or two players such as Iniesta, Busquets and Pique looking like they have gone a tournament too far. Will probably get past Russia in the second round but a younger and more energetic side could cause them serious problems
The Portugal story hinges, as it always does, on star man Cristiano Ronaldo. Almost single handedly snatching a point from Spain in the first game, he went on to score the only goal to see off Morocco in the second game. Portugal’s lack of quality around Ronaldo showed in their final game draw with Iran. The game was littered with ill-discipline, play-acting and VAR controversy for both sides, with Portugal holding their breath as Ronaldo was subject to a red card VAR check. Ronaldo and Portugal survived and will have to significantly improve to progress past Uruguay in the last 16.
Without doubt the dullest group so far, with the colourful Peruvian support providing the greatest source of entertainment from this group. France’s squad undoubtably contains the highest amount of star quality with a spine consisting of Lloris, Varane and Umtiti at the back, Kante and Pogba in midfield and Griezman, Giroud and Mbappe up front. Despite this, they have contrived to score only three goals against run-of-the-mill opposition, including an arguably lucky 2-1 defeat of Australia. Some pundits are sagely suggesting that France are saving their energy for deeper into the tournament, though I have seen little evidence of any chemistry between the attacking stars, along with Paul Pogba looking more like the Manchester United disappointment than the skilful box to box man seen at Juventus. A last 16 draw against an out of sorts Argentina should see France progress, but the stars need to shine brighter if this talented France team can fulfil its potential
Denmark have been similarly unentertaining, culminating in them playing out an insipid 0-0 draw with France in the final match, in an insult to the fans who have paid good money to come out and watch them. Heavily reliant on Tottenham star Christian Eriksen to provide creativity and goals from midfield, a solid opening win over Peru was followed up by them struggling to draw with a weak Australian side. Organised at the back but I fail to see them providing a real threat to a strong Croatian side in the second round.
Winners: Croatia; Runners Up: Argentina
I’m pleased to report my pick of Croatia as dark horses looks a solid one as they have topped the group, scoring seven goals and conceding just the one. A comfortable 2-0 win over the underrated Nigeria was followed by a rampant 3-0 win over an Argentina side tipped to go far in the prior to the tournament. Even their second string dispatched Iceland fairly routinely in the final game, despite having little to play for. The midfield two of Modric and Rakitic are arguably the best engine room in the competition, providing creativity and intensity which will be a threat to any side. If Mandzukic can start putting the chances away up front they could be serious challengers, and I expect them to comfortably progress past Denmark into the quarter finals.
Runners up Argentina are perhaps the antithesis of group winners Croatia, where their engine room seems devoid of legs and creativity, with Javier Mascherano looking like he’s feeling all of his 34 years. The writing was on the wall with the opening draw with Iceland, followed by the comprehensive defeat by Croatia sparking rumours of discontent in the camp and that the managers head was on the chopping block. Some credit is due to Lionel Messi and Marcos Rojo for their moments of brilliance to shade past the unfortunate Nigeria, who with more clinical finishing could have dumped the famous blue and whites out of the tournament. If France play anywhere near their best, even with Messi, Argentina should be on their way home after the last 16.
Winners: Brazil; Runners Up: Switzerland
The pre-tournament favourites Brazil have failed to excite, despite topping Group E. Perhaps their best football was in the first 30 minutes against Switzerland in the opener, which they have failed to reproduce in the following grinding out of 2-0 wins over Costa Rica and Serbia. Veterans Miranda and Thiago Silva provide a solid base at the back, though I feel that they are yet to be tested by a high quality and pacey attack. Barcelona midfielder Phillipe Coutinho could hold the key to making Brazil sing, as he has the ability to knit it all together in the centre of the park. If Neymar can regain match full match fitness and overcome his own ego to inspire Brazil past a talented Mexico side in the second round, Brazil have the ability to justify their pre-tournament favourites tag and go all the way to slay the demon of their 7-1 embarrassment against the Germans in 2014.
Switzerland have proved themselves a tough nut to crack against Brazil in the opening match, and in Xherdan Shaqiri they have a player capable of providing attacking magic against even the highest quality of opposition. Switzerland will need their star man to provide more moments of inspiration, such as his run and finish from the halfway line to dispatch Serbia and effectively send them into the last 16. A less than convincing draw with Costa Rica in the final game casts doubt on their status as real threats to go deep into the tournament, however they can justifiably feel they have every chance against a Sweden side of similar stature to themselves in the second round.
Winners: Sweden; Runners Up: Mexico
This group will inevitably be remembered for the graceless fall of the mighty Germans from world champions to dumped out at the first hurdle. However, Mexico and Sweden were more than deserving of their passage to the second round. Mexico were brave in their opening tie with Germany and were handsomely rewarded when Hirving Lozano smashed their winner in at Manuel Neaur’s near post, where in truth the winning margin could have been even greater. A relatively comfortable win over South Korea followed, with the Central American side showing the danger that their nimble strike force, which includes familiar names of Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela, can cause with their pace and movement. Their lack of physicality and vulnerability was exposed by Sweden in a humbling 3-0 defeat in their final game, though with their ability to score goals and a coach who is willing to be brave against any opposition, don’t be surprised to see the Mexicans cause an upset in the knockout phase.
After scraping past a relatively unimpressive South Korea side with an Andreas Granqvist penalty, the Swedes found themselves on the wrong end of a brilliant Toni Kroos free kick to unfortunately lose to Germany in a game where they were left to rue missed chances. Needing something against Mexico to qualify, the Swedes delivered in abundance with an imposing 3-0 defeat of a strong Mexican side. This Sweden side is well organised but lacking in flair, typified by their 6’4” skipper Granqvist leading from the back. The Swedes will give little away and their physicality makes them dangerous from set pieces, they will also back themselves in a last 16 tie with Switzerland but should hold few real fears for England, should they face Sweden in the last eight.
The closest group in the tournament resulted in Japan making history, by being the first team to qualify from the World Cup group stages by virtue of a better disciplinary record than the very unfortunate Senegal. Colombia deservedly topped the group, despite shooting themselves in the foot by having Carlos Moreno sent off after three minutes in their opener against Japan and going on to lose 2-1. Colombia bounced back with a confident 3-0 dispatching of a listless Poland side, with Radamel Falcao reminding us of his deadly finishing ability with a clever outside of the boot finish. With rumours of 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez breaking down with injury again, this Colombia side lacks some of the verve and swagger that excited us in 2014. However, familiar names such as the afore mentioned Falcao and the pacey Juan Cuadrado, along with the giant centre half Yerry Mina, means that this side will always carry a goal threat that England will have to be aware of in the last 16.
Runners up Japan are probably the weakest side left in the tournament and can count themselves fortunate that Senegal tried to play for a draw against Colombia in the final game, which duly backfired. A commendable win against Colombia in the first game was followed by a battling 2-2 draw against Senegal, in a game which they were behind twice. Like any Japan team, they will not be found wanting for team spirit and effort, though apart from ex Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa and skilful midfielder Takashi Inui, there is little going forward for Japan that is likely to worry a top-class defence. Hard to see them troubling a strong Belgium side in the last 16.
Winners: Belgium; Runners Up: England
As you may have noticed I have gone out of order and saved my England review until last, just to up the suspense of course. Belgium and England were heavy favourites to progress from this group and duly delivered at a canter. In contrary to my prediction that Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ will buckle under the pressure that England’s same so called ‘golden generation’ did, Belgium have looked imposing and skilful with three comfortable wins to top the group. Panama and Tunisia offered little resistance to Belgium, losing 3-0 and 5-2 respectively, before their second string defeated England’s reserves 1-0 in a fairly tepid affair. Hazard and Lukaku have particularly impressed in attack, with the former looking like he is revelling in the captain’s role by driving his team forward with his typical mazy runs that are so difficult to stop when he is in full flow. Crucially Lukaku has got amongst the goals early and should be provided with ample ammunition from Hazard, De Bruyne and co. Perhaps some question marks over gaps in the defence which allowed Panama to score two goals, but with game changers all over the pitch and quality players to call upon from the bench, I expect them to comfortably overcome Japan and are rightly fancied to be right in the mix at the end of the tournament.
So finally little old England, so long the disappointment at tournaments, so much so that few gave England much chance of going deep into the tournament. However, Gareth Southgate is gathering himself a tidy reputation by eschewing half fit or past it big names and bravely implementing his own more expansive style, which seems to suit his young team and allowed them to cast off the feat that has so long haunted England teams. Promising performances in pre-tournament friendlies garnered a sense of good feeling from England supporters, so often lacking in previous tournaments, and England fans just allowed themselves to the Three Lions creep back into their hearts just a little.
England seemed to channel this good feeling by flying out of the blocks against Tunisia and should have been at least three goals clear when Kyle Walker’s moment of madness gave Tunisia a penalty and a route back into the game. England’s confidence waned, with Tunisia’s tightly packed defence and spoiling tactics frustrating England. The familiar sinking feeling was weighing on a nation once again as the fat lady moistened her lips, before another of Kieron Trippiers wicked corner kicks was flicked onto predator supreme Harry Kane to nod home at the far post. A nation roared in relief and the England band wagon’s wheels were very much put into motion.
England went into the second game against Panama with a sense of the hoodoo being lifted, and duly spanked a very poor Panama side 6-1 to record their greatest winning margin at a World Cup. A Harry Kane hattrick put him at the top of the golden boot charts with five goals, along with Jesse Lingard and Kieron Trippier particularly impressing in a team buoyed by youthful exuberance and energy. A much-changed England side slipped to a 1-0 defeat to Belgium in the final dead rubber group game, where perhaps on the balance of clear chances for both sides England could have snatched a draw.
So, is it really coming home? Some say that the defeat to Belgium will be a blessing as they enter the easier looking half of the draw. England need to be on their mettle to overcome a tricky tie against Colombia in the last 16, though this would be followed by the most favourable of quarter final ties against Sweden or Switzerland. If England make it to the final four, as clichéd as it is, really anything can happen and we can all rightly dream again.
For the first time in a long time it really feels like this England side go out with a plan to win games, rather than to simply hang in games and hope they nick a goal. The energy which these young players play with means they have the capability to go out and overwhelm any team if they are not ready to match their intensity from the first whistle. A lack of experience at the back has shown with mistakes giving away unnecessary chances, which better sides may take. The final game defeat against Belgium showed that England probably also lack real game changers from the substitutes bench, which in comparison to the Brazil’s and Belgium’s of the tournament could leave them coming up short as legs get tired deep into the competition. However, no team has really stood out as clear favourites and England have every chance of being in the mix by the final four. It feels good to finally have an England side we can enjoy watching and get behind, so let’s dream and fall back in love with international football. I will certainly be playing Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightening Seeds hit a full pump over the next few weeks, I implore you to do the same!