The thrilling first stage of the 2018 World Cup ended with Japan qualifying due to having fewer yellow cards than Senegal, Lionel Messi finally arriving in Russia, and Germany’s shock exit in their 2-0 defeat to South Korea.
Surprisingly, many teams who won the World Cup failed to get out of the group stage four years later in recent times such as Spain and Italy, and Germany have now joined this unexpected list.
They were, perhaps, the least likely of these teams to fall in the group stage four years on as the core of their 2014 winning side remains in the squad today, with players such as Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller still key men for the team.
However, between two poor defeats, a narrow last-gasp victory over Sweden was not enough for the Germans, who ended up finishing bottom of their group in Russia.
Whilst their backline, which includes Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels in front of Manuel Neuer, seemed extremely strong on paper, they failed to keep a single clean sheet and looked disjointed throughout.
In addition, Timo Werner of RB Leipzig was trusted as Germany’s number 9 after a very impressive season in the Bundesliga, but the young striker never seemed goal hungry and his movement played into the defence’s hands as he failed to score in all three games.
This incredibly poor campaign could have knock-on effects too; the generation of youngsters who missed the success of 2014 may lack inspiration, and the Bundesliga could also suffer a hangover as a result of Germany’s disastrous tournament.
Elsewhere in the tournament, Argentina turned their campaign around with a hard-fought win over Nigeria that saw them scrape through.
After a very poor start to the tournament where they were outclassed by Croatia and Lionel Messi failed to spark, it was Messi’s unbelievable goal that broke the deadlock against the Nigerians, but they needed a late winner from Marcos Rojo to qualify for the knockout stage after Victor Moses had levelled from the spot.
It was Ever Banega’s first start of the competition that appeared to be the key to unlocking Messi, as Banega consistently found Messi and other forwards with direct passes, something that Argentina had lacked in their opening two games where they had repeatedly passed the ball sideways. Banega’s brilliant pass set up Messi, who pretended to come short for the ball before darting in behind the defence and controlling the ball at top speed before blasting the ball into the top corner.
Finishing second in the group has punished them with a round of 16 against France, although Les Bleus, who may have topped their group, have failed to dazzle so far in Russia.
On paper, France’s squad is far stronger than Argentina’s and they should be favourites, but it could depend on whether or not Messi is unleashed as he was against Nigeria or if he is contained like in their games against Iceland and Croatia.
So far in the competition, no teams have been outstanding, as Spain rode their luck on their way to reaching the knockout stage and France, as we know, did not impress.
However, the three most promising teams so far have probably been Brazil, Belgium and England, yes, England.
After a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in their opening game, Brazil won their remaining two games to top the group and they appear to have been improving throughout their campaign.
Phillipe Coutinho has been their star man so far, whilst Neymar has threatened to light up the tournament at times.
Tite’s side sailed through qualification for this year’s finals and at the moment they have given enough evidence to suggest that they are one of the most likely teams to come out on top on July 15th.
As for Belgium, they won all three of their games in the group stage, overcoming Panama and Tunisia with ease before beating England 1-0 to top the group.
It has been common knowledge for a while now that Belgium have some top players in their squad but just need to perform well as a team, so this start has been extremely promising.
England also impressed in the group stage, especially in the 6-1 victory over Panama, but it is still difficult to tell if they will be a strong contender for the trophy.
Gareth Southgate’s men face Colombia in the round of 16 in what is possibly the hardest game of the round to predict.
Both sides managed 6 points in the group stage, and both have showed a relatively secure defence and a threatening attack, so Tuesday’s match at the Otkrytie Arena could be special.
Another team that must be mentioned is Croatia, who dazzled on the way to winning all three of their games, most notably in their 3-0 destruction of Argentina.
As we expected Luka Modric has been outstanding so far, whilst the likes of Ivan Perisic, Ante Rebic and Ivan Rakitic have showed that Croatia are a force to be reckoned with, and potentially a dark horse at this tournament.