By Umar Sa’ad Hassan
One peculiar thing about the 2018 World Cup holding in Russia is the absence of a clear cut favourite. The Spaniards were tipped to win the 2010 edition right after their 2008 Euro Championship heroics and Brazil was hugely favoured to win at home in 2014.The small teams aren’t quite small and the big teams don’t act big. A cliche in football that has become much much harder to disprove over the last few years. Europe and South America are the 2 strongest continents in football and while Chile won a 2nd consecutive Copa America in 2016,Portugal edged out France at home to clinch the Euros same year. That is football’s current state.
However,no team outside the favoured top 4 have won the tournament since 2002 and though we are all ready to bet on a big nation winning in Russia,it has never been harder to say which stands the best chance. Below are the main contenders for this year’s edition.
The french squad is without a doubt,the most stellar collection of today’s football stars-Paul Pogba,Ngolo Kante,Kylian Mbappe and Antoinne Griezman to name just 4.Over the course of a possible 7 games,a team dripping with this much depth in top class quality would blow past anything before it if it gets its acts right.While the french boast of the best midfield on paper,goals win games and its attacking prowess isn’t quite legendary.
They won a game more than their closest rivals; Sweden and Netherlands in the European qualification group A but while 3rd placed Netherlands scored only 3 goals more,Sweden in 2nd place scored 8 more goals than the French.A thorough look at the french’s attacking line-up will reveal the lack of a top marksman.Mbappe and Griezmann play their best in a supporting role while Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar are noted for their proficiency from the wings.Nabil Fakir will need time to fully adapt to the lights and Olivier Giroud isn’t quite noted for his consistency.
In the very tight games where the midfielders have a lot extra to deal with and can’t focus entirely on forward play,you need the one man you can count on to bury the one chance he gets.
What the french have to remedy that however is a midfield that will press hard enough to create a lot of chances.
This is arguably Brazil’s best squad since the winning class of 2002 and if there is one thing Brazil has going for it at the World cup,it is tenacity.It has gotten to the semi-finals of 4 of the last 6 editions.
The brazilians exhibit an uncanny understanding of the rudiments of the knock out phase which they are always guaranteed to reach and are never over-powered by a one-off good performance.It is usually by a truly superior team as they have always been beaten by eventual winners or finalists at the very least.These star-studded ensemble look very likely to win it.The successful brazilian teams have operated with a solid balance in midfield and in Casemiro,Fernandinho and Paulinho,they have players capable of replicating the unsung heroics of Kleberson and Gilberto Silva at the 2002 World Cup.Moreso in these times where counter-attacking play is big business.A highly attacking side needs not just a creative midfield but also one with enough physicality to match its flair.
The toughness and powerful busts of Paulinho,the tireless running of Casemiro backed by a firm Fernandinho at the base of midfield and the inputs of Douglas Costa whenever he comes on may very well be the lesser celebrated aspects if these team win.It also must be said that even without Dani Alves,the brazilians have the best collection of defenders in this year’s tournament.Marcelo,Thiago Silva,Marquinhos,Miranda,Felipe Luiz and Danilo are a coaches’ dream pool.
The Brazilian are even worse off than the French in the lack of a proven marksman with first choice Gabriel Jesus having his positional skills to thank for a large collection of tap-ins,headers and rebound goals but the brazilians have a well oiled attacking machinery that affords midfielders and wingers enough space to wreck havoc.In the end,other teams may have more exotic players on their lists but it takes a compact unit to last the whole hog and the Brazilians fit the bill.
As underrated as the belgians may be,they will not be going into this year’s tournament as under-dogs.They have a solid team that has been together for quite a while now with a world class player in every position.This team can match any in world football if it lives up to its potentials.The belgians before Roberto Martinez,were a side to prove a hard nut to crack to anyone in world football without never really posing a threat themselves.Their attacking play is where the most impact has been made.
Though they won a relatively easy qualifying group with Greece and Bosnia as main rivals,the Belgians scored 43 goals in 10 games to set a Euro qualification goal record.
Even with some of the best defenders in the game right now,there have been concerns over Martinez’s defensive play which i would attribute largely to a lack of a defensive midfielder on the same pedestal as the abundant attacking midfield talent,to mitigate exposure of the back 4.If they are to clinch this year’s world cup,then an extra defensive shift is required of their attacking players.
The spaniards sacked their coach,Julen Lopetegui less than 48 hours to the opening match of the 2018 World Cup but it still won’t change the very obvious-it won’t suprise anyone if they win for the second time in 3 editions.They have had problems stabilizing a team with an ageing crux and its best young players needing a little more experience.
Dani Carvajal, Isco, Marco Asensio, Ceasar Azpilicueta and Thiago Alcantara have blossomed into some of the finest legs in world football and now have what it takes to not just compete on the grand stage but to also go on and etch their names in gold.They have shed some of their patient possession play for a more direct and purposeful approach driven by speed and on their day,they are as lethal as anyone.The calciopoli scandal didn’t demoralize the Italians at the 2010 World Cup,it motivated them into winning it.The spaniards could very well transform the sack of their coach into a tonic for global success.
Germany and Argentina have the best outside chance of winning but its hard to imagine the champions not coming from the above listed four.
Umar Sa’ad Hassan is based in Kano.