Going by the odds, the list of top eight favourites for Russia reads Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, Belgium, England and Portugal just about everywhere you look. I don’t fundamentally disagree with this, except for one team: England. Nothing personal against potentially the most likeable England team for aeons, but there’s no way in my mind that the young, rebuilding, finding-their-tournament-feet-again Three Lions should be ahead of a Uruguay outfit that…well, read below.
Predicting the winners and match-by-match results is a bit of a mug’s game, and what I find more interesting to do is explore the reasons (some of them not so serious) running around in my head for why the most likely contenders in 2018 will succeed (even if that only means doing some damage in the knockout stages in some cases) *and* fail (in some cases, that may be anything other than winning the whole thing). Starting off today on matchday two are Uruguay, Portugal and Spain…with late added thoughts on a certain coaching situation included below.
They will do well because…
– This is an incredibly stable setup ‒ the wise old head of Óscar Tabárez has been in charge since 2006 (after guiding La Celeste to the last 16 in 1990), and there is a ton of still-not-far-from-their-prime experience in most areas of the field. In four cases a ton is literal in terms of caps in the form of Maxi Pereira (125), Diego Godín (116), Cristian Rodríguez (105) and Edinson Cavani (101), while Luis Suárez (98) and Fernando Muslera (97) are set to join that club during the tournament. This is also a team that is completely self-assured and dedicated in how it pragmatically plays and one that knows how to go far in tournaments, even if has been a little while since their 2011 Copa América title and 2010 World Cup semi-final campaigns. And there is reason to hope that they will be stronger in the two main areas they were deficient in during their tournament struggles between then and now…
– The first is in-between the defence and strikers. Rodrigo Bentancur, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Diego Laxalt (an option on the wing as well as left-back), Nahitan Nández and Lucas Torreira are all aged between 20 and 25, have just 42 caps between them and most are playing in their first major tournament. They are, nonetheless, Uruguay’s most promising crop of midfielders to have emerged in Tabárez’s long second spell in charge. Where the likes of Egidio Arévalo, Álvaro González and Diego Pérez had formed solid but blunt midfield engine rooms for much of this decade, the Serie A pair of Bentancur and Torreira may initiate play much more constructively (at least one of them is likely start). And where the decline of 2010 Golden Ball winner Diego Forlán and his selfless all-round game did so much to deprive Uruguay of inspiration and intelligence around or behind Cavani and Suárez in the middle of this decade, Cruzeiro’s De Arrascaeta in particular could do much to fill that void.
– Secondly, after all the controversy and ill-timed injuries, Suárez is finally set to play in his first full, uninterrupted major tournament since the 2011 Copa win. It’s astounding to think how much more he could have added to his already impressive nine goals in 14 major tournament appearances had he played more than two games across Uruguay’s three competitions in three years between 2014 and 2016… Since that victorious 2011 Copa in which Suárez grabbed four goals, the striker has scored 230 goals in 318 games across all competitions in England and Spain (many times by his own ingenious, cunning making), become the only Pichichi winner not named Messi or Ronaldo since 2010, won 12 of the 15 club trophies he has in his career to date and scored a further 30 goals in 50 international appearances. But thanks to injury (the first game against Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup and Uruguay’s short 2016 Copa Centenario campaign) and his own disgraceful behaviour that made a meal of Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder beyond a theatrical sense (suspending him from the rest of Brazil 2014 and Uruguay’s 2015 Copa América title defence), those two goals against England in Sao Paulo were merely a tantalising glimpse of what one of this decade’s elite strikers may have done across three tournaments at his absolute peak.
Simply put, it’s time for him to make up for lost opportunities in a national team shirt on the big stage. Despite a post-30 decline in general performance for Barcelona this season, Suárez still came away with 31 goals in 51 games. For Uruguay, Cavani does so much selfless running to open up space for him, the midfield could be in its best shape for years and Suárez himself has never had a hard time living up to his billing playing for La Celeste (and not biting someone). With a soft group to start off with, he’s a decent shout to add a Golden Boot to an incredibly dramatic World Cup journey after his handball sacrifice in Johannesburg and bite in Natal.
They will disappoint because…
– Godín has shown some signs of decline in the last two years and his central defensive partner for club and country ‒ is José Giménez ready to make up for it as Godín did so well in Diego Lugano’s later years and Lugano did before that with Paolo Montero? The fullback spots aren’t full of certainty either, with warhorse Pereira now 34, Martín Cáceres more of a central defender and Laxalt not yet as defensively proven as Uruguay like their fullbacks to be.
– For all the proven, hard-nosed veterans and talented youth, there is a lack of good players in-between in the prime 26-29 age range. To go deep into a World Cup largely depending on players either side of that spectrum is tough.
– We’ve seen promising young Uruguayan midfielders come in and struggle to establish themselves before, with Nicolás Lodeiro and Gastón Ramírez heading the creative list in particular. De Arrascaeta has yet to play club football outside of South America or in major tournaments beyond some substitute appearances, and perhaps it’s too much of an ask for him to open things up in a team of Uruguay’s general rigidity and conservatism. Perhaps Tabárez, admirable as he is, has come to the end of the line and Uruguay playing style needs reinvigorating to progress beyond where they now are.
– Suárez could easily do something crazy to Uruguay’s detriment to wipe out everything I’ve just hyped him up for. Or maybe Cavani, having had a taste again of being the main man up front for PSG this season, will not appreciate returning to being Uruguay’s secondary, hard-working striker in what may be his last World Cup. Maybe both things will happen, with Suárez biting a frustrated Cavani…
They will do well because…
– Finally, half a century after going close to breaking the duck so early, Portugal have a major title to their name and all the self-assurance that comes with it. Fernando Santos is also going for his fourth-straight major tournament in which his team has over-achieved, having previously guided a weak Greece past the Euro 2012 and 2014 World Cup group stages…
But let’s be honest here – like Greece, Portugal’s 2016 triumph owed much to weak competition. Another title, in a broader World Cup field, is going to require some significantly good, new factors. There may be some, though.
– In Bernardo Silva, Portugal may have a jewel capable of breaking things open at the top level missing since Rui Costa’s retirement (and at Euro 2016). Additionally, with 12 goals in 23 caps, another Silva by the name of 22-year-old André looks to be Portugal’s best hope for, at least, a reasonably productive #9 – a position in which they’ve been so lacking since the days of Pauleta and Nuno Gomes (the latter was better for Portugal than many remember). In his first major tournament after just missing Euro 2016, André Silva will look to build on his nine goals in qualifying and put an iffy first season at Milan well behind him.
– Along with some other promising players going forward, Portugal actually have the capability of playing some good stuff providing Santos doesn’t over-indulge in his conservative tendencies. When he hasn’t, the results have been impressive in qualifying and in friendlies (most recently the 3-0 win over Algeria).
– Cristiano Ronaldo’s slow start to the season and quiet Champions League final was just a sign that he’s saving himself for something big in what will probably be his final World Cup. And it wasn’t indicative at all that his 33-year-old body will only be able to carry Portugal intermittently at best at this point after a demanding club season that stretched into late May, honest. In all seriousness, if the above positive factors all come to fruition, he may be able to have a major impact in Russia by resting his body as a poacher feasting on what someone like Bernando Silva can possibly serve up for him.
They will disappoint because…
– Ronaldo is still yet to score more than *once* at a particular World Cup, leaving him with just three goals total in 13 tournament appearances. As someone with hundreds upon hundreds of goals in club football, 81 goals in 150 caps and nine in 21 European Championships appearances ‒ along with a plethora of team titles throughout ‒ the World Cup is the one unconquered territory for Portugal’s captain. At 33, his opportunity to finally go on a tear may well have passed and the possible improvements elsewhere for Portugal will not do enough to offset a (hopefully) increased standard of competition than the Euros.
– After winning just one game inside 90 minutes in the Euros success, Portugal’s luck is due to turn. Not helping things is the ageing central defence with Bruno Alves, Pepe and José Fonte all in their mid-thirties. Santos, too, will hold Portugal back when they need to break down reactive, defensively strong opposition.
– In addition to André and Bernardo, Portugal also have an Adrien Silva. The football commentary gods do not approve and will be unleashing bad karma for Portugal in Russia…and perhaps they’ll be joined by the wrath of football gods in correct squad numbering, angry at João Mário getting the #10 shirt ahead of someone like Bernardo Silva. Maybe other football gods in general will also pile on thinking that the sight of Pepe holding another major international title aloft is too much too bear, or Fernando Santos does not deserve another good tournament given his perpetually joyless appearances…
They will do well because…
– They’re the front-runner for best midfield in the competition. It speaks volumes for Spain’s talent production, their stylistic stability and also the lasting value of some of their remaining mainstays that despite losing Xavi Hernández, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fàbregas, Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata from the last World Cup squad, their six out-and-out midfielders in 2018 still possess 337 caps between them at an average of 56.2 each. This doesn’t even include David Silva and his growing midfield tendencies after 121 caps, while Spain’s least experienced midfielders in Russia are all still in the double-digit category in caps. Whether they’ve been in the senior side throughout this decade or have spent most of it coming through their harmonious youth teams (largely under Julen Lopetegui), everyone in the middle of the park or drifting there from out wide is accustomed to how Spain have long played and familiar enough to perform with the cohesiveness of a club side.
– Despite losing those aforementioned midfield veterans since 2014 and generally turning over much of their squad, Spain still possess more experience of knowing what it takes to win major tournaments than most of the main contenders in Russia. Six of the starters from the Euro 2012 final remain likely starters now (Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Silva) and four of them also played at Soccer City in the 2010 World Cup final. Only Portugal after Euro 2016, Germany after the 2014 World Cup and Uruguay after the 2011 Copa América compete with Spain in this regard.
– David de Gea’s curious occasional fumbles as Spain’s #1 were merely growing pains and with some solid national team experience now behind him, he will go on to be (just about) the international game’s best keeper in Russia as well as club football’s.
They will disappoint because…
– Either side of the midfield excitement, the regeneration is not quite as heartening and this still feels like a bit too much of a transition moment to win a World Cup. Diego Costa is still figuring out Spain’s style and despite their maturity, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo are both new to major tournament football. Ultimately, all three are a big difference to David Villa up front being such a sure bet on the big stage. At the back, the hairy ghost of the supremely dependable Carles Puyol still lingers in my mind, not least when Ramos has had his shorts pulled down at times as the main defensive leader in 2014 and 2016.
Of course, in the lead-up to Euro 2012 I thought ‘no Villa or Puyol, no party’, and that worked out OK. Euro 2012 required some serious, false-nine attacking help from their midfielders though (and a younger Iniesta in imperious form), while the Piqué and Ramos partnership were placed under relatively little pressure in Poland and Ukraine’s knockout stage. Even if they faltered then, pre-decline Iker Casillas was there to save the day; instead of settling down with increased national team experience in this World Cup, de Gea will instead continue to not be what he is at Manchester United, perhaps in part because of the different concentration levels required in a team that is less under siege thanks to their ball retention.
– There isn’t much else…except the not-so-small matter of Lopetegui now leaving his post after the World Cup to go to Real Madrid. Maybe it’s not that big a deal – major tournament teams have done well with soon-to-depart coaches before – but…wait, what? He’s being sacked?!? Two days before their freakin’ opening game?!?
Seriously, this is Spain, right, and not Saudi Arabia?
Bloody hell. The Spanish national team off their field ‒ not least with their coaching direction ‒ have been about as steady as it gets over the last decade. With three titles and a perpetually solid foundation to build a playing approach upon, they’ve been handsomely for it rewarded too. Just like that, things have flipped thanks to club football and power-plays again getting in the way of Spain making the most of their talent. Things can return to a healthy enough state for Euro 2020 and beyond, of course ‒ and the RFEF putting their foot down like this could actually prove to be an important statement to their long-term benefit ‒ but for this World Cup…what a change in situation from what these players are so used to. How do they respond to this? And to whom?
Fernando Hierro? OK…they need someone strong in character, he is that and he’s been long involved in the national setup too. But it’s not even like Spain are in one of the later groups allowing them a few more days to settle down before playing. And it’s Portugal they start off against. If a slow start stops them from finishing first in the group, it might then be Uruguay’s (potentially) best team since 2011 just four games in with Hierro still getting to grips with things…and that’s providing they do successfully navigate a sneakily tricky group. Either way, Spain required so much to be in order in both playing strength and coaching stability to triumph in 2010, and now they’re supposed to win or even go far after this extremely late and disconcerting shock to a previously serene system?
Perhaps England deserve to be in the top eight after all…OK, not quite, but an already fascinating La Roja campaign has taken a hell of a turn.