Who is through?
Who is going through and much more about amazing progress made by African teams.
Over half the matches have come and gone at the FIFA World Cup, and the field is starting to thin out. Slowly, based on both performances and results, we are getting more of a sense of who the contenders are, and which teams will flatter to deceive.
So, here is a look at the standing of some of the teams still in with a chance of making an impact in Qatar, from the perspective of the African nations as well as the perceived top contenders.
Coming into the competition, Senegal were seen by many as Africa’s big hope. Despite an opening loss to the Netherlands, they have lived up to that expectation.
Their win over Qatar may not have been convincing, but then they turned in their finest performance of the competition when it mattered the most, dispatching Ecuador in a winner-takes-all battle on the final day of group matches.
Most impressive about the Teranga Lions is the fact that they have been able to weather the loss of talisman Sadio Mane, without whom it had previously looked like they could not function. Their confidence will be high going into a Round of 16 meeting with England, and rightly so.
Tunisia and Cameroon have a lot less room for optimism. While they posted impressive draws against Denmark and Serbia respectively and, in theory, still have a chance of progressing, they have to contend with two of the tournament favourites to get through. Tunisia must beat France, and Cameroon must beat Brazil.
However one slices it, that is a tall order. Even though both France and Brazil are already through and will likely play rotated teams, they still have enough strength in depth to hurt most teams in the competition. They will no doubt come to win. Ominous for these two sides.
Morocco have been a revelation at this World Cup. No one quite expected them to do as well as they have done, but going into the final round of group matches, there is a real chance they could actually top Group E.
All they need to do is beat Canada, and they are through. However, Croatia face Belgium in the tougher of the two final group matches, and as long as they do not win, the Atlas Lions will finish atop the group, avoiding the possibility of a meeting with giants Spain in the Round of 16.
Ghana dazzled and confused in equal measure, but came through with a 3-2 win over Korea. Question marks persist over their defensive discipline, but going into the final match of the group against Uruguay, there remains hope of advancement for the Black Stars.
Their destiny is entirely in their hands too: beat the Celeste and progress is assured. As if that was not enough motivation, there is history between these two nations from the 2010 World Cup and the infamous Luis Suarez handball.
Uruguay have looked underwhelming in their play, and even though they are fierce competitors, a lack of incision and tactical flexibility might prove their undoing. A date with Brazil beckons for the Black Stars.
Already, Brazil, France, Portugal and England have advanced to the Round of 16. In doing so, they all confirmed their championship credentials, albeit some in more impressive fashion than others.
Brazil have yet to concede a goal, and even took the loss of talisman Neymar on the chin to beat Switzerland. Real Madrid winger Vinicius Jr has stepped up in attack, but really it is defensive midfielder Casemiro who has most impressed at this tournament, patrolling the area in front of the defence and also crashing the final third to score goals. They look like a team on a mission, and are a side no one will relish facing.
There have been similar cries of pleasure whenever France are in full flow. They may not be as rock-solid in defence, but when their attack gets going, there is simply none better in the entire competition. Kylian Mbappe relishes the big occasion, and is delivering with goals and assists, while in midfield Antoine Griezmann has been excellent, giving shape and tempo to their attacking play.
Only Brazil have ever successfully retained the World Cup, but if anyone else is ever going to do it, it would have to be this France side, surely?
Spain looked a lot more human in their draw against Germany, and that has led to questions about the composition of their attack. They are a side built entirely on the strength of Luis Enrique’s ideas, but this is tournament football — you need a little more than that to make hay in this unforgiving format.
They should, however, seal qualification with victory over Japan, although there will be tougher tests to come later on in the competition. As crunch time approaches, just how viable is Marco Asensio as a centre-forward ahead of Alvaro Morata?
For their part, Germany finished strong, and now look to have a new hero in attack in the form of Niclas Fullkrug. Considering that they were done a solid by Costa Rica’s surprising win over Japan, it could all be coming together for the four-time champions.
A meeting with Croatia likely beckons. The 2018 finalists looked at their fluent best in hammering Canada, trusting in their technical superiority and staying composed while pulling back a deficit. There is recent history of them growing through a competition, and they look to have figured out the shape of their attack, with Andrej Kramaric playing as an inside forward from the right to provide incision, Marko Livaja as a battering ram centre-forward and Ivan Perisic providing the guile and crosses.
The struggles of Argentina in what looked like a reasonably straightforward Group C have harmed their prospects in the eyes of many. Them needing a result in the final round of matches would have been unthinkable, but until Lionel Messi rescued them against Mexico, it seemed like even that was in jeopardy.
It now looks like a winner-takes-all scenario against Poland, who saw influential striker Robert Lewandowski finally break his World Cup duck against Saudi Arabia. That could really go either way, but Poland are somewhat lacking in athleticism in midfield, and it is in those areas that Messi is at his deadliest. That may be enough to see them through, but Denmark potentially in the Round of 16 looks more like a banana skin now than it did when the draws were made.
England and Portugal have both progressed with ease, but neither have convinced.
England swatted aside Iran, but were dominated by the USA and struggled to create against Wales until the second half. Portugal beat both Ghana and Uruguay, but had wobbly moments and needed contentious penalty decisions in both of those matches.
Even more worrying: their frontmen are not firing. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored a penalty, and Harry Kane has assisted three times, but in truth neither has looked like scoring from open play in this tournament, and that that has to be a concern, especially for a Portugal side that struggles for penetration.
This is not doing wonders for their tournament prospects, and it looks increasingly like Cristiano Ronaldo will retire without ever achieving the World Cup dream. On the Three Lions’ part, ‘It’s coming home’ does not seem probable either.
/ 10 months ago
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