Over the past two weeks, we were treated to the next-to-last series of international friendlies for most World Cup participants, and at their conclusion there seemed to be as many questions remaining as answers obtained. But through the hazy mist of results, injuries, half-strength line-ups, experimental strategies, and great and poor performances, some intriguing perceptions could be gleaned.
Fifty-one games were played, thirteen short of the scheduled 64 at this summer’s World Cup in Russia. Helpfully, many teams took advantage of having three previously perennial participants absent from this tournament, and the likes of Chile, Italy, and the Netherlands, provided Russia-bound teams with quality warm-up opposition.
There are three issues to keep in mind. One is that groups will determine who moves on and in cases such as Groups A, C, D, E, and H, teams which might not otherwise progress may well do so and reach the group of 16 at the expense of better teams in tougher groups. Two, is that among the potential contenders there are about 6-8 teams which should move on from the group stage and actually progress from there too. Three, the teams with real hopes of lifting the trophy, if this series of friendlies is any indication, are grouped in three tiers.
Let’s begin with the favorites, those in tier one.
Spain played two inspired games (1-1 at Germany and 6-1 home to Argentina, albeit without Lionel Messi) and placed itself among the top three, with Germany and Brazil, instead of grouped with Argentina and France as the second rung of potential winners. In truth, the Spanish team was very impressive, perhaps more so than expected, and they did not have sure starter, Sergio Busquets, available for either game. What they do have is an incredible number of potential starters, and any team that can afford to leave Alvaro Morata Pedro and Nacho out of the squad, to name a few obvious absences, is talent heavy. They are an out and out contender, period.
Germany looked strong against both of their co-favorites allowing each a single score while smartly trying-out optional line ups. It seemed the second one used, against Brazil, was more experimental, in an ‘let’s let them get this out of their system while we try out some options” manner rather than a “let’s show them what they’re up against” display. Against Spain, Germany seemed more like itself and they kept pace with the most impressive performers among the three top contenders. Against Brazil, albeit a team without its best player—as Neymar recuperates from right foot surgery—Germany looked somewhat tentative at times and lacked the “let’s win this one” intensity the Brazilians showed. This may well have been a Germany World Cup 1954 tactic, and if so, it worked. They are still the number one favorites on paper, the ones to beat, but they are not playing like it yet.
Brazil played very well without Neymar who, if he recovers in time, will be the team’s critical piece. Russia was an easy rival and Germany the opposite side of the spectrum, and Brazil managed both well. But without Neymar they are not as inventive and their penchant for predictably, repetitious wing play will make it easy for defenses to counter most attacks. The single most important issue coach Tite will have to deal with is how to arm his offensive side. With Ederson or Alisson in goal, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Dani Alves and Marcelo in defense, and Casemiro with either Fernandinho or Paulinho as holding midfielders, the question is how to support Neymar. There are options, with Philippe Coutinho, Willian, Garbriel Jesus, and Douglas Costa the major contenders. But three of these are wingers and Jesus is an on-again/off-again center forward. So the team will have to fine tune before their June 17th opener against Switzerland. But they have upped the ante as stronger pre-tournament favorites should Neymar be truly healthy in time.
In tier two we have two teams that could go all the way but that did not yet show they were at the level of the top three.
Argentina chose two tough opponents and looked lost without Messi against both Italy and Spain. A handful of standard Buffon saves aside, they needed two late scores (75th and 85th) against the Italians and were simply outclassed by the Spaniards. The Argentines are one team with and another without Messi, but it is also true that the diminutive Argentine is still more Messi-like surrounded by his superstar supporters in Barcelona than he is with the less stellar supporting cast of his national team. Nevertheless, this is still a team of destiny, the only real question is: are they headed for glory or ignominy.
France played well against Colombia but obviously did not take the South Americans seriously enough. They learned their lesson and were more focused against Russia and the result showed their class. But even against the Colombians one got the feeling that when clicking on all cylinders this might be the sleeper contender of the tournament. When Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele, hook up with Pogba, Rabiot, and Kante, we can view the future of football in a series of beautiful passes that can often seamlessly move the ball from defensive to offensive stances in the blink of an eye.
Tier three is where the revelations and dark horses and skilled but need-some-luck teams reside. Thus, the rest of the participants, all the other 27 teams, seemed to make a statement here or there, but they mostly remained in the large pool of not-yet-ready-for-prime-time players, with a few exceptions.
Belgium can be a factor if only they can string together a few good matches. Uruguay is nearly peaking, and if they can recreate their top performances from their best matches of their World Cup Qualifiers, this might just be the time for the Cavani-Suarez-Stuani show so many Charruas dream about. Finally, we have the Dark Horse(s). Those teams which, aside from having some intrinsic skill, yet need to ride the fluke of lucky group, and once in the Group of 16 maybe get a lucky pairing to move into the quarterfinals. Or that team that earns that top eight standing and next meets and beats a team they might not usually defeat but who happens to be bruised up and depleted by their last encounter. Several teams could do this and among them are Mexico, if their injured stars recoup, Colombia if Falcao and Rodriguez peak at the right time, and Portugal if Ronaldo stars, the team believes in themselves, and they get some breaks.
Papa will revisit the teams and their potential roles in a more in depth forthcoming review.
The matches were split in two rounds, over a two-plus week period. Bold teams are participants. Round one began on March 17th, when Iran defeated Sierra Leone 4-0. On March 22nd, Denmark defeated Panama 1-0.
On March 23rd, Japan drew 1-1 with Mali, meanwhile World Cup 2018 hosts Russia lost 0-3 to a Neymar-less Brazil. Senegal drew 1-1 with Uzbekistan, Norway defeated Australia 4-1, Switzerland defeated Greece 1-0, Tunisia beat Iran 1-0, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine drew 1-1, Morocco defeated Serbia 2-1, Argentina, without Lionel Messi, defeated Italy 2-0, Germany and Spain maintained their unbeaten streaks alive drawing 1-1, England defeated the Netherlands 1-0, Nigeria won over Poland 1-0, Portugal, with an ultimately rampant Cristiano Ronaldo, defeated Egypt 2-1, Costa Rica defeated Scotland 1-0, and Colombia defeated France 3-2. On March 24th, Chile defeated Sweden 2-1, South Korea lost 2-1 to Northern Ireland, Mexico defeated Iceland 3-0, and Peru defeated Croatia 2-0.
Uruguay, playing in the China Cup (also featuring China PR, the Czech Republic, and Wales) defeated the Czech’s 2-0 and Wales 1-0 to win the cup.
Thirty-one of the thirty-two participating teams played in this round and all of the favorites—Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Spain—had a chance to calibrate their squads and tactics.
In Round two, on March 27th, Spain defeated a still Messi-less Argentina 6-1, Serbia defeated Nigeria 2-0, Morocco defeated Uzbekistan 2-0, England and Italy drew 1-1, Colombia and Australia drew 0-0, Poland won 3-2 over South Korea, Brazil defeated Germany 1-0, ending the German’s unbeaten streak, Belgium defeated Saudi Arabia 4-0, Romania defeated Sweden 1-0, Tunisia beat Costa Rica 1-0, Senegal drew 0-0 with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Egypt lost 0-1 to Greece, Chile and Denmark drew 0-0, Panama lost 0-6 to Switzerland, Iran defeated Algeria 2-1, Russia lost 1-3 to France, Ukraine defeated Japan 2-1, Croatia defeated Mexico 1-0, and Peru defeated Iceland 3-1.