Millennium Post
Sports

World Cup 2018: Big guns misfire

The 15th edition of the World Cup in Russia has had less than a glorifying start as most big guns have failed to showcase their brilliance, while the 'smaller teams' have displayed greater resilience, discusses Daman Singh.

It's not uncommon to hear piles of predictions outpouring, balanced strategically with a string of eye-catching yet exhaustive analyses; and, not to forget, pinning of the 'favourites' tag every time the World Cup reaches its brink. Venerated as the stage on which the biggies muster a show of their talents – this 15th edition, however, of the biggest showpiece event, witnessed a rather different turn of events. The World Cup, so far, has been a surprise package and arguably an exhilarating one as regular heavyweights struggled to find their rhythm in Putin's Russia.

The host nation also cleared the air regarding their capacity to host the event successfully – which had earlier raised suspicion about the same being intertwined with other off-field concerns. Nevertheless, it has, until now, been a great ride, especially one that has gone well with little in the way of unpleasant off-field incidents.

With the first round of the group matches all but done and dusted, five of the top six nations in the FIFA rankings have battled it out in Russia without even one of them registering a victory. Heavyweights such as Latin duo Brazil-Argentina and Germany have scripted 11 World Cups between them – but none of them could find themselves on the winning side in their opening encounters. As evident, four pre-tournament favourites and their respective stars performed far below par but credit ought to be given to the 'smaller teams' who refused to get intimidated, displaying boisterous performances against the much-favoured nations in their opening matches. Raise the bar from top six to top twelve, only two of the top dozen teams won in their first-round encounters.

Decoding the debacles, Messi's Argentina had dropped points against Iceland on Saturday, defending champions Germany lost 1-0 to an upbeat Mexico, causing arguably the biggest upset of the tournament so far, and the Samba boys failed to kickstart their World Cup campaign with a win against Switzerland. Also, 2010 champions Spain's failure to beat Portugal in a thrilling 3-3 draw and France's apparent struggle in overcoming seemingly the weakest Australian side in recent years, must be accounted. Not many anticipated the dragged pace of the first-round encounters. Experts and fans fiercely backed their respective fancied teams who were touted to use the opening fixtures as stepping stones to smoothen the road ahead, making their campaign somewhat hassle-free. But as they say, expect the unexpected – the big boys evidently struggled against their small but industrious opponents. Moreover, former World Cup winners – Uruguay, France and England – somehow managed to carve out triumphs but all of them were largely seen as scrappy performances won by late goals or, as was the case with France – an own goal. South American giants Brazil and Argentina too struggled widely against their European opponents Switzerland and Iceland respectively as the European minnows put on a display marked with resilience, organisation and solidarity at the back clubbed with a perfectly executed man-marking of the number 10s which by-and-by choked the South Americans' attacking potential and left them dead in their tracks. Phillipe Coutinho's stunning curled effort from outside the box found the back of the net in the first-half only for the Swiss Zuber to cancel it out with a header as Switzerland once again exposed the Selecao's age-old vulnerability when it came to defending aerial balls.

Likewise, it was the same bitterly disappointing scoreline which showed up at the end of their counterpart – Argentina's contest against the tiny Iceland who stood tall against them as they soaked in much of the pressure from the Albiceleste thanks to their sound defensive organisation and tremendous levels of industry and, partly, to the Argentine skipper missing the penalty. Mexico cranked it up a level further to send shock waves around the world by mingling a solid defensive wall with lightning-fast counter-attack football, to hand defending champions Germany a resounding defeat which raised a worrying alarm in the Die Mannschaft's media sphere back home. A large slice of blame for the occurrence of these disappointing results for the odds was more or less also attributed to their respective talisman not rising on the required occasion. Whereas, in a rather similar outcome in the form of a stalemate but contrasting performances in deference to the hot-shots of the tournament, the cracker between Portugal and Spain ended in no difference between the two sides which played some pretty attractive football. But the Portuguese could have ended up on the losing side of the scoreboard had their captain Cristiano Ronaldo not stepped up in the intriguing encounter to end the night on a classic note by scoring a brilliant free-kick to level the match in the dying moments before putting his side ahead twice. His hat-trick against Spain – considered to be one of the favourites to lift the cup – enabled him to become just the fourth player to score in four world cups and goes down as another record etched against his sensational career.

Banging up to the date, the Real Madrid superstar became the leading European goalscorer after he scored the winner against Morocco which certainly will see his side through to the next stage of the tournament. While it remains to be seen whether his rival hot-shots can translate the same form and lead the way in their upcoming fixtures. La Roja also huffed and puffed but finally registered their first win of the campaign by defeating Iran 1-0 as the second round sets in.

With players like Messi and Neymar performing below their usual standards, the epic football tournament, so far, has thrown up quite a few surprises for the footballing world. Some fascinating games paralleled alongside some upsets – accredited to the smaller nations who showed zero fear in their matches with some of the heavy-hitters of soccer. Interestingly, the onset of the second round of games promises to comply to the same lines of bravery and steely nerves as demonstrated earlier by the lesser-lights.

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