Belfast Telegraph

Jackie Fullerton: World Cup underdogs showing bite and lighting up glittering show

By Jackie Fullerton

Maybe it's the Northern Ireland supporter's DNA in me, but I have enjoyed this World Cup all the more for the exploits of the smaller footballing nations.

We love to see teams punching above their weight and putting one over on the big boys in the way we've done repeatedly down the years.

I think we've all been entertained by the performances of Iceland, Japan and Senegal in gaining unexpected results against Argentina, Colombia and Poland, respectively. And Costa Rica made it hard for Brazil yesterday.

You've got to especially admire Iceland, the smallest nation ever to play at World Cup, with a population of just over 334,000 - even smaller than Our Wee Country.

Yet they achieved what the best defenders in Spain's La Liga have not been able to do over the last 10 years by keeping Lionel Messi quiet in their 1-1 draw with Argentina.

And, speaking of Argentina, the surprise factor has added another dimension to the excitement levels at this World Cup.

Who could have foreseen  the fancied big guns, like Germany, Brazil and particularly Argentina struggling in their opening matches?

The unpredictability has been good for the tournament in these early group stages, so often a phoney war before the real action begins in the knockout stages with the top sides routinely rattling off wins against the cannon fodder.

Not this time. When we sit down to watch games in this World Cup, we never know what we are going to get and that's been the real beauty of Russia 2018.

None of the front line nations can take anything for granted any more and I think we will see that in their approach to the remainder of the group games.

Germany, Brazil and Argentina would have been most people's picks to progress at least to semi-finals and all of hem short odds to lift the famous trophy on July 15 in Moscow.

But something is not quite right with each of them.

Germany, the reigning world champions, don't look the relentless force of four years ago. There have been hints in the German media of splits in the camp and of cliques forming.

That same media, unused to seeing their team lose a World Cup group game, as they did to Mexico, have been uncharacteristically critical of manager Joachim Low and some of his players, notable Khedira and Ozil.

One German commentator described Ozil of having the body language of a dead frog in the Mexico game - and he was dead right. 

But the thing about the ultra-efficient Germans is they always find a way to overcome obstacles and I would back a World Cup winner like Low, a very clever operator, to quickly work out what has been going wrong and to put it right.

Argentina, I am not so sure about and I fear Lionel Messi's dream of ending his international career with the ultimate high of a World Cup win will be over by Tuesday.

There have been huge question marks over Messi in their two games so far. There is no doubting his footballing genius but he has not looked mentally dialled in, especially in Thursday's 3-0 defeat by Croatia.

As someone close to the Argentinian camp observed: "He is absent even when he is stood in front of you.”

Messi is said to have retreated to his room and remained there alone after his penalty miss against Iceland, even when the other players and their families were enjoying a barbecue. The understandable reaction of a disappointed player? Or does it run deeper than that? He appeared distant, too, in that Croatia match so has a chasm opened up between Messi and his team-mates and manager Jorge Sampaoli. If so, his and his nation's World Cup hopes are about to tumble into it.

Brazil are an enigma. Like Argentina, with Messi, and Portugal, with Ronaldo, they appear to rely too much on one player, in their case Neymar.

Like many of my generation, I fell in love with Brazilian football, watching them on a grainy black and white television set at home in Ballymena as they won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958.

The football romantic in me would love to see them win it again.

But they are having to contend with more than just rivals emboldened by the sense that these supposed footballing gods possess an Achilles heel.

Neymar is clearly being targeted. Switzerland subjected him to more fouls than any World Cup player in a single game in 20 years in their opening 1-1 draw and that can't go on.

Which brings me to VAR. If the game's rule makers are going to employ video replays, they need to make sure it is used to enforce the rules right across the board. Too much is being missed.

The wresting that goes on in penalty areas is a real source of irritation for me. It was especially prevalent in the England-Tunisia game. Harry Kane must have felt he was in the ring with my old pal Giant Haystacks yet nothing was awarded.

I have mixed feelings about England. Their football in the first half against Tunisia was scintillating, apart from those missed chances.

They are too young and inexperienced to be even considered successors to the 1966 World Cup winner but hasn't stopped their media and commentators going into overdrive, hyping up the expectation, and if they defeat Panama tomorrow, as they should, cancel the papers and turn off the TV and radio if you want to avoid an outbreak of unbridled jingoism.

Gareth Southgate, I believe, is wise enough to keep his players grounded. This England team is a work in progress and if they can build on their steady improvement under Southgate, they can start to think about making an impact at the 2020 Euros or the next World Cup.

Russia, the hosts, have exceeded their own and their media's expectations in their charge to the knockout stages. Full of running and energy and with the home crowds behind them, they are now being talked about as dark horses. Spain or Portugal lie in wait in the last 16 so let's see how they handle that step up in class.

Spain 3 Portugal 3 has been the best game I've watched. On that evidence, either of them could realistically harbour hopes of going all the way.

Portugal, as I've stated, rely too much on Ronaldo for that to happen, in my opinion.

And although Spain were less impressive in their next game against Iran but they tick all me boxes for me. Some people might have felt their pre-tournament managerial upheaval would have affected them adversely. Not so. This is a team that manages itself. They have big game experience of World Cups, Euros and Champions League and in Diego Costa they have a bull of a centre forward.

They can also change their tactics and tempo as situations demand as they showed against Iran with their patience after the cavalier approach against Portugal.

So while my heart will always favour Brazil, on this second Saturday of a hugely entertaining World Cup, my head is telling me Spain.   

Belfast Telegraph

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