Do Big Club Struggles Mean a Better World Cup?

An end of game goal from defender Marcos Rojo saw Lionel Messi’s Argentina team through the group stages of the World Cup. A team that boasts Messi, Dybala, Aguero, and Higuain shouldn’t have struggled against Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia but they did. As much as it took a toll on Argentina fans hearts, for neutral viewers this World Cup may be the best in recent memory, and it’s all about the open doors elite teams are leaving the underdogs – or rather the doors the underdog teams for smashing open.

As fun as the round of 16 should be, few days will have as much tension and excitement as June 25th – the day Iran almost topped Portugal and Spain. Group B, the Group of Death was aptly titled but for all the wrong reasons. Spain and Portugal were in hot water on the final day of group play with Iran threatening to not only eliminate one of the two Iberian footballing giants, but win the Group! The football gods would not allow this to happen, however the thrill of a no call red card, or un-disallowed goal made tuning in and switching between the two simultaneous games a thrilling experience.

Like group B, groups E and F are full of potential world class upsets. Group E had bookie favourite to win the World Cup Brazil slotted in alongside Serbia, Switzerland, and Costa Rica. Despite Keylor Navas, Costa Rica was written off from the start, and it was believed that while Brazil would easily grab top spot, the group would have an interesting battle for second place between the Serbians and the Swiss. Fast forward to the final day of group play and we see the likes of Brazil facing a real threat of missing the group stages by losing to Serbia and Switzerland. Although this did not happen, Costa Rica who was out of contention to move on had a terrific final game and fought back to earn a 2-2 draw against Switzerland.

Group F was similarly destructive to “safe” sports bets all over the world and exciting to onlookers around the world. Germany have looked less than their elite selves leading up to this World Cup and started off poorly by dropping all three points against Mexico and needing a stoppage time free kick winner to defeat Sweden. Germany’s disappointment has translated to Mexican and Swedish joy as the unlikely happened. Germany needed to win against South Korea after Mexico put up a shockingly bad performance in a 3-0 loss to Sweden. To shock the work Germany fell 2-0 to South Korea in a result that saw Sweden and Mexico move on to the round of 16 while the defending champions go home.

France has made it through the group stages, but has done so in unimpressive fashion. They narrowly defeated Australia in their opening match 2-1, a close 1-0 win over Peru, and a 0-0 draw with Denmark. No one would have predicted that such a young, talented squad would be challenged when it came to goal scoring. But, the struggles for France meant an underdog team like Denmark were able to shut them down with strong defensive play and escape through to the round of sixteen.

Denmark’s spot through group play is an example of what some might call a symptom of a better World Cup – underdog success. But, It is hard to say “better” since enjoyment is so subjective based off of national support of each viewer. If we look at this World Cup objectively up to to this point it is a more competitive tournament that has made matches that include teams like Iran, Morocco, Sweden, and Switzerland much watch viewing.

Realistically there have only been three big-dogs who have gotten to eat so far – Uruguay, Belgium, and England. Uruguay were tagged as the group A favourites and haven’t disappointed going unbeaten in group play and not yet conceding a goal. Belgium and England reside in group G together and have collectively put up 16 goals (8 a team) against Panama and Tunisia. Sure their competition hasn’t been great, but both teams looked comfortable so far, and just have each other yet to play to determine who takes first in the group. So, a massive accolade to the the less elite ranked teams; you are making this World Cup different and exciting, not the football superpowers.

What Russia 2018 is proving is that the gap between the world elite and the underdog countries is quickly closing. Does this mean it is a better tournament? Maybe not, but more exciting? Absolutely. What this World Cup should be remembered for (so far) is the smaller nations having success on the world stage, upsetting the heavy favourites along the way.

Are Russia The Real Deal? – 200takes

Russia have concluded their preliminary group stage play and are officially moving on to the round of 16 on home soil. Russia started their campaign with a bang, smashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 and taking it to Mo Salah’s Egypt 3-1. Despite their strong start Russia flopped against group leader Uruguay in a 3-0 defeat. The 35 minute red card was a massive factor but it was just not Russia’s day.

Sure, Russia drew the “easy” group but that consisted of one of (if not) the best players of last season in Salah, and the tied leader for most goals in World Cup qualifying in Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (albeit in an easier qualifying group). The competition was still on paper world class, so credit has to be given to Russia there.

The disheartening news is that they faced real adversity once in this tournament and crumbled. They conceded a bad free kick and were scored on, hammered in an own goal, and took a red card in the first half alone. When the pressure was on they failed – So my final verdict is that if they score first they are the Real Deal, if not it’ll be early curtains for the home nation against Spain.

Nothing For Peru To Be Ashamed Of In World Cup Opener

A close 1-0 loss for Peru to open their 2018 World Cup campaign was far from ideal but looking at the match, Peru has a lot to be proud of and a lot to build on for their next games. After this great team performance but eventual loss there is one truisms that come to the forefront: you can’t control the other teams goalkeeper.

Kasper Schmeichel was channelling shades of his legendary father on the pitch today, shutting down the Peruvian attack at every opportunity. He did look shaky at times, and this was to be expected after his long injury lay off for Leicester City, but when it mattered he was exactly where he needed to be. The Peru attack did, at times, help him out by shooting the ball right at him, but on saves like his left hand stop on Cueva just after Denmark scored he was the Man of the Match for his nation.

This focus on offence leads us to two important points for Peru – their possession and shots – as they flipped the script on Denmark in the second half. The stat that shows this most effectively is the total possession percentage at the end of the game, with Peru taking the lions share with 53%. At 35 minutes into this game Denmark was holding on to the ball for a staggering 67% of possession. Peru were restricted to a heavily counterattacking style of football taking what Denmark gave them possession wise and using their immense team speed to stretch them out when they could. The second half, however saw them hold onto the ball and create plays rather than force them into existence.

The shots for Peru were also incredible this game. With 17 shots and 6 on target, the Peruvian attack forced Denmark back on their heels, and forced Schmeichel into his A game. Despite the most important shot being missed by Cuevo on his penalty kick, Farfan was a constant threat up top, Cueva brought the speed up the middle and Carrillo was stretching out the right side of the pitch all match.

For Peru the biggest turning point in the match was their knight in shining armour, Paulo Geurrero entering the game. The 62nd minute substitution for Edison Flores changed the complexion of the game for Peru. Cueva moved to the left and jumped to the top of the formation as a centre-forward. The polarizing forward was allowed to play in the World Cup as his suspension for doping was temporarily dropped, and the Peru supporters are thankful for this! He looked threatening immediately and just missed a couple key opportunities, most notably a sneaky back heel flick that curled just wide of the post.

For Peru this match was positive in outlook while disappointing in outcome. In group play France struggled with Australia who, despite playing well against France, capitalized on a really random and unnecessary hand ball by French defender Samuel Umtiti for a penalty goal. Although Peru are without a point they are only -1 on goal differential and made a statement in their opening match against Denmark. France and Australia will have a tall task against them in the form of Peru in Group C play.

Panama: World Cup Preview

Panama are new comers to the World Cup, with that comes a mixed bag of expectations all fuelled by the high emotions the team and supporters are riding on. Not to describe Panama’s success as unexpected, but the nation did celebrate their first ever World Cup qualification with a national holiday. But, hey it was a monumental occasion! Panama had been actively playing to qualify since the 1978 World Cup, it’s been a long time coming but Panama has qualified so why not celebrate?

Group G:
– Belgium
– Panama
– Tunisia
– England

Players to watch in Panama’s inaugural World Cup campaign:

Roman Torres – Captain of the Panama team, Torres will be crucial in keeping his team organized defensively, as based on the group draw, they will likely be defending often. The strong centreback captain will need to use his MLS experience and 108 international caps to keep his team motivated and ready to defend.

Blas Perez – Age is just a number, right? Well for 37 year old striker Blas Perez that seems to be the case. Continuing his trend of scoring for his nation, Perez has scored 10 goals in 35 matches for World Cup qualification. Honing his skills in the MLS Perez will get a nice swan song for his storied career, representing his home nation in their first ever World Cup.

Gabriel Torres – Another striker looking to make an impact, Gabriel Torres has a solid conversion rate and will be relied upon to make the most of the opportunities afforded to the Panama offence. In his 72 national appearances Torres has managed 15 goals. Now a member of Chilean League team Huachipato FC, Torres scored 9 goals in just 15 matches. He’ll need to keep that goals per game ratio high if Panama want to celebrate some offence this tournament.

It will be against all odds that Panama should move on or at they very least win a game in this group. Belgium and England are both studded with superstars, while Tunisia is no pushover either. For Panama their success has already been achieved by qualifying for their first ever World Cup. Now, it is about learning, playing, and making this a tradition the national team keeps up every four years from here on out.

 

Iran: World Cup Preview

A dark horse at the best of times, Iran drew the group of death in the 2018 World Cup with Spain and Portugal, meaning their success at this tournament will be metered. However, the bar is relatively low in World Cup history for Iran, so there is plenty of room for this team to have success and make their supporters proud in Russia. With only one win in World Cup history, coming in 1998 over the United States, Iran set their international pace that year as well with a 20th place finish (omitting their 1978 14th place finish with a record of 0-3-1). Can they succeed? Well, while their group is stacked against them their young star players could carry them to underdog success.

Group B:
– Portugal
– Spain
– Morocco
– Iran

Key players for Iran:

Sardar Azmoun – Iran could have a real impressive star on their hands her with 23 year old striker Sardar Azmoun. He is a continentally recognized player who is just coming into his prime as a centre forward. He has been honing his skills in Russia last season, managing 5 goals and an impressive 5 assists in 26 league games. His team, Rubin Kazan were a mid table 10th finish last season, partly in thanks to his offensive skills. As a player to watch now and for the future Azmoun is an impressive youngster with a lot to prove.

Saeid Ezatolahi – Another youngster, another Russian League player, and another impressive talent for Iran. Midfielder Saed Ezatolahi is a rather unknown player globally, but has been bestowed the title of “Persian Pogba” by onlookers. He played for Amkar Perm in the Russian League on loan last season from Rotov, who managed a 13th place finish. Last season he only scored one goal, but that isn’t his area of expertise. Look for Ezatolahi to be moving the ball in transition from defence to offence. He is a physical player who can ping a striking long ball pass, outletting team offence. Making his international senior team debut in Russia, keep an eye on this emerging 21 year old talent.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh – The pound for pound best player skill wise on the Iranian football team is Jahanbakhsh from the Dutch league’s AZ Alkmaar. The 24 year old attacking winger was slicing and dicing through opposition in the Netherlands, racking up 21 goals and 12 assists in 33 league games last season. A crucial member to this young, inexperienced national team for Iran, Jahanbakhsh can bring that top European pedigree to the team and lead by example in the department of goal scoring.

Okay, I think I have just turned myself into a supporter of team Iran. Throw the dark horse tag on the team and send them off to battle against world football giants, im betting on the underdog team from Iran! They have an exciting, young core of star players who are all taking strides in European leagues and gaining the international legitimacy for team Iran. Alright, i’m ordering my kit and all in – lets see some World Cup upsets from the unlikely hands of team Iran.

 

 

Croatia: World Cup Preview

A squad often underestimated by World Cup predictors, Croatia boasts a midfield full of dominant, Spanish league players, and an attack that has some top class Italian league players – both factors in their dark horse status. After not making it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa Croatia got back on track in Brazil in 2014 finishing 19th, their best finish outside of their 1998 3rd place finish in France. Can their elite and underrated talent carry them out of a competitive group into elimination games?

Group D:
– Argentina
– Iceland
– Croatia
– Nigeria

Players to watch for Croatia:

Luka Modric – The main midfield man at Real Madrid, Luka Modric will be the heartbeat of everything that Croatia can muster up in Russia. One of the intangible players that every elite team seem to have amidst their midfield, Modric won’t necessarily be filling the score sheet, but his ability to dictate play and create link up passes that free the offence will be his contribution. He has 106 international caps under his belt for Croatia, bringing experience and talent into the squad.

Ivan Perisic – The Inter Milan left winger has an intensity in his game that Croatia will be ever so happy to add to their ranks for the World Cup. Converting 11 goals in Serie A this season, Perisic evened that total with assists showing he can create as much as he can finish. A versatile attacking player who can take control of a game – with the striker options Croatia have, this could be a fun tournament for Perisic.

Andrej Kramaric – My dark horse player on a dark horse team, the 26 year old striker from Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga could be the man to replace long servant and still potent target man and striker Mario Mandzukic. He has scored 13 goals this season and added 8 assists in 32 league games, showing he can be a centre forward on an elite stage. Look for Kramaric to surpass Mandzukic this tournament as the Croatian striker moving forward.

Their pool is not only competitive for Croatia, its winnable. Many are taking Argentina as the favourites to move on from Pool D but don’t count Croatia out just yet. Their team has a midfield led by Modric that features his Real Madrid partner Mateo Kovacic, and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic – some elite talents. As well, the striker duo of Kramaric and Mandzukic will either be a lethal tandem on the pitch, or a solid 1-2 punch from the bench. Any ways you cut it Iceland, Argentina, and Nigeria better bring their A-Game if they want to pry results off of Modric and the Croatian crew.

Senegal: World Cup Preview

Looking for a team that is hard not to like and support? Look no further than Senegal! Lead by their captain and West Ham midfielder (sometimes defender) Cheikhou Kouyate, and Liverpool left wing ace Sadio Mane, Senegal are exciting, fast, and worth a shout in what promises to be the best group in the early stages of the World Cup. So, can they represent Africa outside of the group stages? Only time will tell, but the talent and skill is certainly there.

Group H:
– Poland
– Senegal
– Colombia
– Japan

Key Players for Senegal:

Sadio Mane – The main man in Senegal’s attack, look for Liverpool’s brutish and pacey winger Mane to lead the way for his team offensively. Combined on the left side with Diao Keita Balde that duo’s pace will cause problems for opposition. Mane scored 10 goals and added 7 assists in Premier League play last season, and was even more impressive in Champions League matching his 10 goals in just 11 matches. He is a big game player, speed machine and will be the driving force for the Senegalese attack.

Cheikhou Kouyate – The captain of the squad, Kouyate is a versatile player who can fit a need for Senegal, increasing his team value. Should he play in the midfield where he does for West Ham he is a box-to-box midfielder who can hold up play and is an aerial threat. He can make a defensive clearance in one moment and then be winning a header for a goal on the other side of the pitch right after. If he kicks his laziness out of his game he could be a crucial piece for Senegal. BONUS: look for his ever present wrist cast to change colours with Senegal’s kits.

Kalidou Koulibaly – The centre piece of both Senegal and Napoli’s back line, Koulibaly is a boss on the pitch and at only 26 years of age, promises to be a fixture in the Senegalese squad for years to come. At 6’4″ tall and nearly 200lbs he is a beast to deal with and that physical play not only comes in handy defensively, but also offensively helping in securing 5 goals this season. Look for this mountain of a man to lead from the back for Senegal.

Their pool is competitive but does not have any real tournament favourites in it, opening the door for the likable team Senegal to make it the the round of 16. Their attack, while supported heavily by Mane, also features Balde Diao a pacy outside attacker, and a “scores when he wants” striker is Diafra Sakho. Should the midfield of Idrisa Gueye and the Ndaiyes be able to get the ball to their attackers, this is going to be one fun team to watch!

Peru: World Cup Preview

If you want to believe in a miracle this World Cup saddle up with Peru and and hope for the best! Some late news on their star player allows for Peru to maintain their best hope at survival in the group stages as captain and main striker Paolo Guerrero was cleared to play after a temporary lift on his doping ban. Peru doesn’t have an insane group to contend with, but there will need to be some praying to the football gods if they want to make a run this year!

Group C:
– France
– Australia
– Peru
– Denmark

Key Players for Peru:

Paolo Guerrero – As mentioned above, they lynchpin to their team’s offence striker and team captain, Paolo Guerrero has been cleared to play after a temporary lift on his doping ban. Guerrero is 34 years of age, but in 41 World Cup qualification games he has managed 11 goals and 2 assists. He only played 2 games for club Flamenco in Brazil’s top league but did score 1 goal and added 1 assist, as well. He is enigmatic and enthusiastic, if not hot headed, and will look to fuel Peru forward with his passionate play.

Paolo Hurtado – Attacking midfield for Peru will be patrolled by Hurtado, an offensive minded player with a proven track record for getting on the score sheet. Playing for Vitoria Guimaraes SC in Portugal’s Liga NOS, Hurtado scored 11 goals and had 5 assists in 25 games for club this season. Look out for him as the quarterback for their attack, and watch for him to quickly jump into attacking play.

Jefferson Farfan – Another older veteran player, Farfan had a lights out season in Russia in 2017/18. Scoring 10 goals and 6 assists, the winger from Lokomotiv Moscow has a prowess and the experience to score goals at the international level. In his 81 career national caps for Peru, Farfan has scored 24 times. He looks to keep this alive in Russia this year.

With a group that will be challenging but not impossible Peru could stake a claim at second place behind France in Group C. Their attack is older, with the likes of Farfan and Guerrero being north of 30 years old, but the rest of their team is in the peaks of their careers, generally around 23-29 years old. Do not be surprised if Peru show up to this tournament ready to play and motivated to not go quietly.

Belgium: World Cup Preview

Betting odds aside, Belgium are here and ready to take over top spot in world football. Lead by elite players from all over Europe, the Belgian attack is lethal and unrelenting. Strikers? Michy Batshuayi and Romelu Lukaku. Forwards? Dries Mertens, Yannick Carrasco, and Eden Hazard. Midfielders? Kevin De Bruyne, Moussa Dembele, and Thorgen Hazard. Oh, and Thibault Courtois in net. Yeah – they’re stacked to the gills and will be a heavy favourite to make it to the finals simply based on their skill alone. The players have been clicking in pre-tournament tune ups and hopefully for them the Belgian machine is fine tuned and ready to roll.

Group G: 
– Belgium
– Panama
– Tunisia
– England

A few (of many) players to watch for:

Romelu Lukaku – The big man up top for Manchester United, Lukaku has a bit of his chip on his shoulder, and something to prove for himself as he is often slated as only being able to score against lesser opponents. With the world watching Lukaku will work to shatter that myth. He managed 27 goals in 51 games (all competitions) this season, so he knows where to go for goals. But he is a superstar – striker at Manchester United, and even has his face plastered on bus stop ads here in Toronto! Look out for the big man, coming fresh off of a brace against Costa Rica.

Kevin De Bruyne – Pulling the strings in the midfield with Premier League winners Manchester City, KDB bossed it this season and has crept up the rankings of top players in the world. He is an assist king – whether it be over the top, a long pass down the wing, or a slick and slicing through ball to spring an attack forward, he always seems to find his targets. 16 Premier League assists, and 21 total in all competitions, De Bruyne makes his teammates better and is a good shout for tournament MVP.

Dries Mertens – The centre forward from Napoli has been a revelation this season for Italian side Napoli and their quest to topple Juventus atop Serie A. Although they finished second, Merten’s goal scoring ability helped in their ascension up the ranks of Italian football, as he scored 18 goals in 38 league games, adding 6 assists in the process. His application will be interesting to see; as a centre forward he can be an out and out striker or roam behind Lukaku and Batshuayi. Wherever he slots in for Belgium look for his name to frequent the score sheet.

Outside of the bookies favourites, Germany and Brazil, France and Belgium are both two insanely talented and young squads that can have coming out parties in Russia this year. The attacking power on Belgium is equally balances by their defenders : Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Kompany, Munier, Dendoncker. The squad is nicely assembled and has players like Fellaini, Dembele, and T. Hazard who can be used in specific roles to help close out wins. Do not be surprised if the Belgian team is lifting the trophy at the end of the tournament!

Colombia: World Cup Preview

In an ever competitive South American contingent of world football, Colombia has slowly but surely built an impressive team. A solid mix of veteran skill with young talent, Colombia are lead by all star first team names across Europe and are poised to make a deep run in Russia. Their group doesn’t have any of the bookies favourites for tournament domination, but is very competitive, featuring four teams with something to prove for themselves and for the rest of the world.

Group H: 
– Poland
– Senegal
– Colombia
– Japan

Players to watch for from Colombia

James Rodriguez – The first name on the team sheet and the man responsible for a lot of what has been going good for Colombia, James Rodriguez is a dominant player. At Bayern Munich on a loan from Real Madrid, J-Rod scored 7 goals and 11 assists in his 23 Bundesliga games this season, meaning he was involved in a goal almost every game. He is the sparkplug for this team and will be the same for Colombia. He scored two worldies at just 22 years old in the last World Cup and is poised to be even better this time around.

Juan Cuadrado – If you’re looking for speed look no further. The Juventus right sided midfielder has blinding speed and cuts in from the wide parts of the pitch to get in on the offensive action. Should he be played on the right wing, Jose Izquierdo could be he left sided partner and boy oh boy is that a side with insane speed. Cuadrado managed 4 goals and 8 assists this season in Calcio A in just 21 games. With him in the mix Colombia can widen out the opposition, forcing them to try and contain his speed.

Falcao – One of the veterans on this Colombian team, Falcao has ignored his age and keeps producing at an elite level. The AS Monaco front man in France’s top tier football is a goal scoring machine – 18 in 26 league games this year. He added 6 more goals in tournament play. He may be battling with fellow 30+ striker Carlos Bacca who light up La Liga this season with Villareal netted 15 goals and is a good shout to give Flacao some competition up top!

In a group too close to pick right now, Colombia are legit contenders to get into the knockout games in Russia. Their team is really balanced and is littered with really solid players (at a minimum) and punctuated with world class talents. If nothing else, Colombia promises to be an entertaining team to watch, hopefully with some more world class goals to score, too!