As I write this post, we’ve just witnessed easily one of the greatest-ever World Cup games as Portugal and Spain thrashed out a scintillating 3-3 draw in Sochi. Yet the 3 games of Russia 2018 leading up to this epic weren’t anywhere near that quality, not even close. In fact they’ve been bereft of quality almost entirely.
Yep, I know it’s very early days and the opening game of the World Cup can often be a cagey affair. But one thing has stood out so far – European football is dominating.
If you studied the predictions beforehand – the betting odds, the form guides, the pundits – we were led to believe that Uruguay were a dark horse (that often-used term for a team with more talent on paper than in reality), that Egypt and Morocco could spring surprises, and that Saudi Arabia might even beat the hosts Russia in the opening game. What nonsense this has proved!
The Saudis were so poor in their opening 5-0 trouncing (to a team supposedly 3 places lower in the FIFA world rankings), that some were questioning the absence of Italy, the Netherlands and Chile when teams that bad could still qualify. “How is that fair and representative of the world’s best?” they said.
I think the fairer question should be, “Are Saudi Arabia among the best the continent of Asia has to offer?” Because if the European nations are so good that even Italy can’t qualify, then what hope do we have of ever seeing an Asian or African world champion? On the evidence so far, very little.
Uruguay went into the tournament having finished 2nd in South American qualifying behind Brazil, so hopes were high for a team boasting Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Diego Godin in the starting 11. But against Egypt in the opening game they flattered to deceive. The stats showed 58% possession with only 4 shots on target from 15 attempts; for all their creative talent, the Uruguayan front line were frustrating to watch as they struggled to break down a dogged Egypt defense.
Contrast those frustrations to the blistering end-to-end attacking play on show from Portugal and Spain, and you see the difference in quality. In fairness, you could argue the defensive play of the European powerhouses left a lot to be desired – Pepe’s theatrics against Diego Costa for Spain’s first goal a case in point – and that a lack of goals from Uruguay and Egypt showcased the quality of defensive play.
But this is 2018. Defensive play has been usurped by all-out attack at the very top of the European game. The likes of Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid threw the defensive rulebook out of the window this season, with the attitude of “we’ll win if we score more goals” being the mantra of this season’s Champions League, particularly in the knockout games.
Despite all this, my favourites for the tournament are still South America’s undisputed top team Brazil. They qualified a massive 10 points ahead of Uruguay, and that gap is certainly reflective of the chasm in quality between the two squads.
Remind me, on which continent do Neymar, Firmino, Jesus and Coutinho play their football again?