On the eve of the World Cup, Quibbl Sports examines the five biggest questions leading into the start of the tournament.
Will Germany repeat as Champions?
There is an age-old question a title-holder must face when going into a major tournament: can they do it again? The World Cup in particular, has proven to be a difficult tournament to navigate as the defending champion. Spain and Italy crashed out of the Group Stage in 2014 and 2010 respectively. Brazil could not live up to the joga bonito hype in 2006, while France famously failed to score a goal in their embarrassing Group Stage exit in 2002.
Joachim Löw has crafted the latest German machine with meticulous care, in order to avoid sharing the same fate as his predecessors. Combining title-winning pedigree and youthful energy, technical precision and graft, Low has built a positionally deep side capable of fluidity in formation and personnel. As a result, Löw’s Germany are not reliant on the talents of one player, and could afford to leave players such as Leroy Sané, Jonathan Tah and Mario Götze home.
The core five of Toni Kroos, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller remain intact, and will be called upon to deliver Germany’s fifth title in Russia. If they can do so, Die Mannschaft will become the first team to repeat as World Cup champions since Brazil accomplished the feat in 1962.
Will this finally be Messi’s World Cup?
Called La Pulga by some, and the GOAT by others, Lionel Messi is facing his last real chance at winning a World Cup. The diminutive Argentine nearly captained his side to glory in 2014, losing to the Germans in extra-time. Defeats in consecutive Copa America Finals completed the cruel hat-trick of lost finals, and the subsequent fallout nearly forced the star into an early retirement from the national team.
At times, Messi has singlehandedly dragged an underperforming Argentina side to victory, while his talented teammates routinely floundered under the expectations of a nation starved without a major trophy since 1986.
After Messi’s October hat-trick against Ecuador that secured qualification to Russia, Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli declared that “football owes him a World Cup and we have the chance to help him make this possible in Russia”. To turn this fantasy into reality, the supporting cast of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuan and Paulo Dybala must supplement Messi’s brilliance with contributions of their own if Argentina are to achieve any sort of success in Russia.
Messi has won every trophy in a dazzling club career for Barcelona, while the trophy cabinet remains relatively bare (outside of an Olympic gold medal in 2008) for Argentina. In order to achieve the dream of winning the World Cup, the generation’s best player may need some help.
Have Brazil exorcised the demons from 2014?
July 8, 2018 will mark the fourth anniversary of one of the most memorable matches in World Cup history: Germany 7-Brazil 1. The Brazilians suffered the ultimate humiliation at home, as the 7-1 became a punchline across the globe.
Four years later, there are signs that the Seleção of 2018 have improved. In Tite, Brazil have a manager who seems to have established the right balance of the expressive, samba-style that fans across the globe have come to love, and the tactical nuances from the European game. Four years ago, they were severely lacking in the forward department (remember Fred?), forcing Neymar to carry the offensive weight of a nation on his shoulders.
This time around, Neymar will be surrounded by players who can help shoulder some the burden. In Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino, Brazil possess two dynamic forwards who can contribute with goals, interchange movements across the front line, and initiate defensive pressing. Barcelona playmaker Philippe Coutinho joins the squad, providing creativity from the wing, the ability to drift deeper in the midfield, and can pull the strings for Neymar and the forwards.
Defensively, Real Madrid midfield anchor Casemiro has emerged as one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe, and will provide more stability as the fullbacks Marcelo and Danilo bomb up and down the flanks. The defensive frailties of Marcelo and David Luiz were brutally exposed by the Germans, who broke quickly into space left by the poor positioning from the Brazilians. Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho has developed into a more complete player under club manager Pep Guardiola, while Paulinho’s impressive performances for the national team will bolster the midfield. 2018 will see a vastly improved Brazilian side, capable of becoming only the second South American side to win the World Cup on European soil.
Who was the first South American side to win on European soil? You guessed it, Brazil. Led by a young Pele, Brazil captured their first World Cup title in 1958, defeating hosts Sweden in the final, 5-2.
How far will Brazil go?
Will an African team finally reach the Semifinals?
Russia will feature Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal as the African representatives. While all five nations are currently ranked outside of the top 20 in FIFA’s world rankings, Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal will be seen as tournament dark horses.
Egypt of course, is led by Liverpool’s Mo Salah. The Egyptian tallied the Premier League single season goals record, and helped Liverpool reach the Champions League Final. His legendary goal in the 94th minute against the Congo sealed qualification, and turned him into a national icon. Egypt holds its collective breath over the status of his injured shoulder sustained from Sergio Ramo’s tackle in the Champions League Final against Real Madrid. If Salah is healthy, Egypt could find themselves sneaking into the knockout stages.
The disciplined Super Eagles of Nigeria have a well-rounded squad consisting of past and present Premier League players. Ex-Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel will provide a calm head alongside Leicester’s young midfielder Wilfried N’didi. Chelsea’s Victor Moses will be liberated from his club’s defensive duties, in order to play in a more creative wide role. Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi (who happens to be the nephew of Super Eagles legend Jay Jay Okocha), will add pace and creativity behind striker Odion Ighalo. As an added bonus, Nigeria have arguably the sickest kits in the entire tournament.
Meanwhile, Senegal will be playing in their second World Cup this summer. A deep squad, highlighted by Napoli center-back Kalidou Koulibaly and Liverpool forward Sadio Mané, will form the foundation for success. Manager Aliou Cissé has been largely jeered for his conservative approach to matches, and could be seen as a hindrance on the attacking potential of the team. Keita Baldé and Ismaila Sarr are young and talented forwards capable of becoming break-out stars, while midfielders Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyaté will shield the back line.
Will an African team finally reach the semifinals?
Belgium coming of age: How far can they go?
The Belgians are currently enjoying a golden generation of talent, as soccer stars replace the waffle as the Flemish nation’s famous export. The previous golden generation came of age during the 1980s as Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans, and Jean-Marie Pfaff led Belgium to the 1986 World Cup semi-finals. While this current generation may not have to line-up against Diego Maradona, an appearance in the semifinals will be positive. Given the players at the disposal of Roberto Martinez, Belgium will realistically be among the favorites to win.
Spoiled by a wealth of attacking options, Les Diables Rouges are spearheaded by the orchestral talent of midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and the mercurial captain Eden Hazard. The Chelsea winger is joined by fellow Premier League star Romelu Lukaku, and Napoli’s Dries Mertens, in an attacking side that scored 43 goals in qualification.
Despite their ease in qualifying, we still don’t really know how great this Belgium side is. Defensive vulnerabilities within Martinez’s system may be the downfall to this team, primarily at the fullback position. Dynamic winger Yannick Carrasco has been filling in at the left fullback position, and has often left the centerbacks of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen crucially exposed. Tactical naivety will see Belgium punished against the likes of Germany, Brazil, and Spain.
How far will Belgium go?
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