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National disappointment on the international stage

What went wrong for these pre-tournament favourites?

On the eve of the World Cup quarter finals, we have some massive games coming up as the competition nears its completion. With just seven games and ten days left, it’s hard to say which nation will leave Russia victorious – but one thing is for sure, this World Cup long be remembered as one of the most exciting and unpredictable of all time.

It might not be everyone’s preference, but with some of the pre-tournament favourites now homeward bound, this World Cup has left fans on the edge of their seats. Not only are the latter stages missing some of the larger nations, the knockout phase routes have placed some of the highest ranked teams on the same side of the draw – favouring nations such as England and Croatia. Yet despite the thrilling thought of an underdog winner, fans are still left bemused at the disappointing performances from the likes of Germany, Spain and Argentina. What went wrong?

The three sides mentioned all travelled to the tournament with high hopes of returning world champions, and instead have left Russia with their head in their hands. Germany were particularly disappointing as they entered the tournament as current holders. Their lethargic displays across their three group F matches are some of the worst performances their fans would have witnessed in their life time, with very few pass marks. A dysfunctional performance vs Mexico got them off to a shaky start, as erratic defensive pairing Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng were criticised for their lack of awareness. The ageing Sami Khedira and everybody’s favourite scapegoat Mesut Ozil were also lambasted for their lack of energy, and were consequently dropped for the meeting against Sweden. However, it was their lack of cutting edge that costs the Germans as the team struggled to penetrate the opposition box with legitimate opportunities. The often dependable Thomas Muller was anonymous throughout the competition and Low’s plan B Mario Gomez was often too immobile to make a difference. There were some positives to take from Marco Reus and Timo Werner, but the pace and promise shown from the duo was often in wider areas with a lack of end product.

Germany’s tournament ended with one of the nation’s worst ever results against South Korea, and succumbed the world champions to bottom of the group. Many fans have bemoaned the fact that Premier League YPOTY Leroy Sane was left at home, but not even Sane would have saved the German’s from this disaster. Their exit was illustrated perfectly when captain Manuel Neuer took matters in to his own hands with minutes left against South Korea; in a Sane type tribute galloping down the left wing. These sort of erratic decision had cost the German’s in their previous group games and awarded Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min with the chance to slot the ball in to an empty net and book the Germany squad a space on the next flight out of Russia.

Germany’s fate was not dissimilar to Spain’s in 2014, where they came to Brazil as promising World Champions. That Spain side was exiting its cycle of dominance, one of the strongest international sides of all time as they won three consecutive major tournaments – since then, they have suffered three consecutive major disappointments. To be fair to Spain, their preparation to the tournament is one that we haven’t witnessed before as their manager Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament. Lopetegui and Real Madrid will have wished that their announcement of the new manager was planned more meticulously, as the nation was thrown in to turmoil before a ball was kicked. Chaos continued in to Spain’s opening game, as they drew 3-3 with Iberian rivals Portugal in one of the games of the tournament so far. Hierro’s Spain were clinical as they pegged back Portugal from two goals down and had the lead with only moments remaining. It was written in the stars however as Cristiano Ronaldo completed his hat trick with a thunderous free kick. Unfortunately, Spain never matched that performance again as they limped through two games against Morocco and Iran, picking up four points in the process.

Spain too, where criticised for their lack of potency, with Diego Costa suffering a dearth of genuine chances following his brilliant brace in the opener. The Spanish play with an identity, their slick passing movement and possession based football is often brilliant to watch – but not this year. The side to side movement of Iniesta, Busquets and Isco looked promising in theory but poor in execution as they struggled to get the ball in behind defensive lines. There were no notable disasters in the Spanish squad, with only David De Gea receiving much of the individual criticism. A surprising tournament for the keeper many consider the World’s best. Statistics show the Manchester United stopper faced seven shots at the tournament, saving only one and conceding six. A howler for Ronaldo’s second and a questionable shoot-out performance aside, it would be unfair to blame a keeper that faced so little shots, yet it was Spain’s lack of energy and desire that cost their nation a second world title.

Argentina were arguably the worst performers of the three, yet this one was far from unpredictable. The squad which travelled to Russia was notably top heavy, and their defensive frailties shone through across all of their four games. A shift of formation from manager Jorge Sampaoli done the team no favours as they were deservedly thrashed from Croatia, and they entered their final group game in bottom spot and their last sixteen hopes on a thread. Thankfully, captain Lionel Messi showed his quality with an early goal against Nigeria, and rallied the troops to a late winner from Marcos Rojo. However, qualification from the group stage failed to disguise the lack of tactics from Sampaoili as he openly admitted to local press that his game plan centred round Messi receiving the ball as much as possible. In what could be a final World Cup for the Barcelona superstar, Messi will rightly be disappointed but talk of dismissing him as one of the greats due to this would be nonsensical.

The comparisons between Messi and Maradona have grown tedious as the squad of 2018 proved that there was far from enough collective quality for Argentina to progress much further in the competition. Sampaoili’s ‘give it to Leo’ tactics were easily combatted as opposition teams such as Iceland and Croatia tasked their midfielders to track the attackers every move, with little room for his darting runs in to the box. This was typified by none other than Ngolo Kante in the last sixteen, as the Chelsea man never wasted a yard in marking Messi out of the game.

So, as many fans placed bets on Germany, Spain or Argentina lifting gold in July, we are faced with the prospect of Russia or Croatia reaching their first final ever, with England and Sweden both facing off to ultimately reach only their second final ever. As Southgate was criticised by some for his lack of desire to reach top spot in the group, England’s world cup hopes have not looked as promising in a long time. The prospect of Brazil, Belgium, France or Uruguay is as tough as it could be in the final, but this World Cup has thrown up too many surprises to mention so far.

By Lewis McKenzie

Published 05/07/18