NEYMAR’S BACK TO RULE THE WORLD
THIS, remember, is the World Cup that we had once hoped would take place in England. Who knows what home advantage could have done for Gareth Southgate and his team?
As it is, the 21st edition of the competition finds us looking once again at familiar names as we try to find a winner in Russia over the next month or so.
Indeed two clear images from the last World Cup in Brazil point to likely candidates once again.
It was in the early hours in Rio when the German players finally emerged from their dressing room with the trophy. It was fitting that when they did so, they arrived together as one big imposing group.
That had been the secret for Joachim Low and his team, unity decorated by individual talent. Four years on, not much has changed.
It may bemuse watchers of the Premier League to find that Leroy Sane of Manchester City is not in the squad but Germany did not lose in qualifying and it is hard to imagine they will not be at the forefront of things again this time round.
But what of the vanquished Argentina team from the 2014 final? Four years ago, Lionel Messi walked through the interview area like a ghost. His big shot at glory with Argentina had gone and one wondered if he would be back for one more go.
What a daft notion that was. Messi will be 31 by the time Argentina conclude their games in Group D with a match against Nigeria on June 26 but his form for Barcelona suggests that the five-time Ballon
d’Or winner still has more than enough drive and ambition to drag his country to the later stages of the competition once again.
This is a World Cup that actually may take a while to get going. We may have chuckled when European rivals such as Holland and Italy failed to qualify but it was always likely that the tournament would miss them when it came round and it feels that way at the moment.
The sight of Portugal versus Spain in the same group is tantalising and it is only a shame that their meeting in Sochi comes on the first day of Group B tomorrow. If ever there was a time to place a bet on a draw then it is surely now, even if Spain will be thrown by Julen Lopetegui’s sudden departure as manager.
Equally, England’s meeting with Belgium in Kaliningrad in Group G on June 28 looks appetising and if things have gone as forecast by the time they meet that should serve as a shootout for first place in the section.
Those two games apart, though, we are slightly short of glamour when we cast an eye across the first stage of a competition that is, of course, far too big. If you fill a tournament with mediocre nations by making qualifying so generous then this is what you get.
Later in the tournament, though, there should be plenty to entertain us and one of the most interesting subplots will be the one involving Brazil. Their tournament ended in ignominy last time round as they fell 7-1 in the semi-final against Germany. In truth, they were a little fortunate to get that far.
Four years later and the five-time winners look a lot stronger than they did on home territory.
Neymar’s return to fitness is timely but players such as Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus now provide stellar support to the golden child of Brazilian football.
If they can find a platform on which such gifted players can build then they could be very hard to stop.
If England do win their group and progress through the first knockout stage then they may well meet Brazil in the last eight. Already, that has a painful feel about it.
From Europe, Belgium have matured since their disappointing showing in the Euros two years ago and now have a coach, Roberto Martinez, they actually want to play for. Whether Eden Hazard can lift himself after a muted season at Chelsea remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, France should sail through a group comprising Australia, Peru and Denmark and will only be properly tested when they face the likes of Croatia or even Iceland in the second phase. However, I would suggest they have not really improved enough since Euro 2016 — where they lost in the final on home soil — to get as far this time.
PREMIER League followers will be keen to see how Mo Salah performs with Egypt and it is to be hoped his fitness will see him right to face Luis Suarez and Uruguay in Group A. That contest will be interesting but we should note that Salah is not the only reason Egypt are in Russia and if they can find a good result in that first game we could see them in the last 16.
So this is not, at first look, a World Cup that should serve up many surprises. If any of the top nations do not find themselves involved at the sharp end then they really should be asking themselves why.
England cannot and will not win this tournament. Gareth Southgate’s squad does not have enough quality in depth. A last-eight finish would be creditable.
In terms of the final, Brazil versus Argentina would satisfy most but it will not be a surprise if, somewhere along the way, Germany get firmly in the way of all that.
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