The thrilling excitement going on at this year’s football World Cup has been the best for at least two decades, with almost as many talking points as there were tattoos on the bodies of your average Argentinian squad member, writes Craig Goldthorp.
Indeed, given Argentina and their star player Lionel Messi’s largely poor displays at the Russian showpiece which resulted in them unimpressively stuttering through Group D before losing 4-3 to France in the second round, South American fans may be justified in thinking that their favourites might have done better with less pre-tournament visits to the tattoo parlour and more hours on the training pitch.
Seriously, Argentina’s relatively early exit is just one of many to strike fancied nations in the opening three weeks of action, with Germany’s departure undoubtedly topping the list of shocks.
Joachim Low’s men were defending champions from 2014, with the dodgily-haired German gaffer incredibly having led them to no worse than the semi-finals in his six previous major tournaments in charge.
But, on this occasion, the Germans resembled all the impressiveness of the pre-tournament prediction skills of BBC pundit Jermaine Jenas, who had blustered: “I can’t see anyone other than the Germans winning this tournament.”
Sadly, the outcome of Jermaine’s forecast proved to be about as successful as the alleged occasion when ex-Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger asked his German midfielder Mesut Ozil to make a tackle...
A dire 1-0 defeat by Mexico, followed by a fortuitous last minute 2-1 success over Sweden, meant that the Germans had to beat South Korea in their final Group F match to reach the knockout stages.
But the Asian underdogs stunned the four-time World Cup winners with a 2-0 success which condemned Germany to bottom spot in the group, an early flight home, and apparently resulted in thousands of bookmakers across the globe simultaneously doing a series of celebratory handstands as the tournament’s heavily backed second favourites surprisingly exited the scene.
Why on earth Manchester City’s lightning paced, skilful goalscoring ace Leroy Sane – England’s PFA Young Player of the Year after a brilliant 2017-2018 campaign – wasn’t in the German squad is quite simply beyond me (and apparently every other human being with an interest in football other than the 2018 World Cup German management team).
Spain have been another high profile casualty and it must be said that watching their tippy tappy, snail paced build-ups with next to no end product during the second round clash against hosts Russia was truly painful.
The Spaniards had sacked head coach Julen Lopetegui two days before the tournament started after he’d agreed to take over as Real Madrid gaffer.
And it’s fair to say that his replacement in the Spanish dugout, Fernando Hierro, didn’t exactly cover himself in glory with his tactics in that Russia match.
Despite the hosts’ ultra defensive set up seemingly making Craig Levein’s infamous 4-6-0 Scotland formation against the Czech Republic in a European Championship qualifier in October 2010 look attacking by comparison, Hierro inexplicably persevered with Spain having approximately six holding midfielders and only Diego Costa up front.
Although the game ended in thrilling style with Russia prevailing 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw, most of the regulation 90 minutes and 30 minutes of extra time which preceded that had been about as exciting as watching a particularly dull episode of Little House on the Prairie.
Why Hierro never went more attacking against such negative opponents – he even substituted Costa with 10 minutes remaining – is absolutely beyond me because I think Spain would have brushed the Russians aside comfortably if they’d shown any sort of ambition.
But enough of the negativity, Russia reaching the last eight has just been one of many fabulous stories at a tournament played in fantastic stadiums on bowling green pitches (they remind me of Fir Park!) and enhanced by the fascinating implementation of Video Assisted Referee (VAR) at a major event for the first time.
I think that – in an age when the incredible amount of run of the mill live football on TV can often be utter dross – VAR has added a much needed freshness and intrigue to the proceedings.
Other positives include: the high number of goals (a whopping 143 in 54 matches as I write this); the number of exciting games (Portugal 3 Spain 3, France 4 Argentina 3 and Belgium 3 Japan 2 have been my personal favourites); the friendly nature of the crowds and the lack of fan violence or racism (which was feared before it all started).
So who’s going to win it? France or Brazil look the best bets, but in this unpredictable tournament who knows...