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A glimpse of what lies in store at FIFA World Cup

With club football taking a breather one last time this season, it was the final ...

A glimpse of what lies in store at FIFA World Cup

With club football taking a breather one last time this season, it was the final opportunity for the international camps to get their acts together ahead of this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia. This was especially true for those sides that still had the bulk of their thinking to do, and certainly those that had no clue as to what the preferred lineup was going to be at the World Cup. And as it turned out over the past week, this was true for majority of the teams – including some of the biggest names. Since this World Cup will perhaps be the last one to have the ‘Messi v Ronaldo’ subplot, it was a contrasting week for both of them – with the former sitting out and the latter being part of both of Portugal’s friendlies. There was a contrast within the contrast as well, as Ronaldo won the match against Egypt 2-1 with two injury-time goals, but was at the losing end of a 0-3 defeat against Holland. Messi-less Argentina, meanwhile, beat Italy 2-0 and lost 1-6 to Spain, with the Barcelona forward not even sitting through the entire game. The first Portugal friendly was the ‘Salah vs Ronaldo’ contest, with the Liverpool forward being billed by many as being ‘in the same bracket’ as Ronaldo and Messi, thanks to his exploits for his club this season. With Liverpool still in the Champions League and Egypt not in the most difficult World Cup ever alongside Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay, Salah has the opportunity to prove himself, by taking his sides as further as he can in the two competitions. Hosts Russia, currently at their lowest ever FIFA ranking at 65, look headed for an early round exit – which is never a good thing for any tournament – after two overwhelming defeats against Brazil and France. Les Blues, meanwhile, might’ve had the 3-1 win over Russia in their bag, with impressive performances by Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba, but lost 2-3 to Colombia after being 2-0 up early in the first half. It’s evident that Didier Deschamps is still working out his starting 11 to make this French team title contenders after the runners-up finish at Euro 2016. Brazil, on the other hand, are now officially flying as they beat Russia and more critically Germany without their talisman Neymar Jr. Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus showed his pre-injury club form and proved to be a more than able replacement for the Paris Saint Germaine record signing. Jesus’ club mate Leroy Sane didn’t quite have similar impact for Germany, after having impressed in recent times. Defending World Cup champions are still among the favourites for the title, but don’t quite have the same aura as they did four years ago. Germany’s 1-1 draw with Spain was a classic stalemate between the two giants, as the last two World Cup winners cancelled each other out in a match that neither would’ve found acceptable to lose ahead of the summer. For Spain, it was Isco whose hat-trick helped the 2010 World Cup winners beat Argentina 6-1 – but all in all they increasingly look like the team to beat in Russia. Elsewhere Belgium beat Saudi Arabia 4-0, with the side looking to Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelo Lukaku to fire their World Cup bid. Uruguay won both their games against Czech Republic (2-0) and Wales (1-0) with sufficient ease, with both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani among the goals to make their mark ahead of the summer. England beat Holland 1-0 and drew 1-1 with Italy with Jessi Lingaard and Jamie Vardy scoring the goals for them in either match. However, England would heavily rely on Harry Kane to have any chance of going deep in the World Cup draw. As things stand, it’s Spain and Brazil that look the likeliest to go the distance in Russia, closely followed by Germany. The next tier includes Argentina, Belgium and France. The third bracket would have Uruguay, Portugal and England. Of course for Portugal and Argentina to have any chance, Ronaldo and Messi would have to have their best international tournament ever to finally win the coveted trophy missing on their CV. For Messi, who is yet to win any international tournament, there will be more pressure than ever to finally deliver for his home fans in Russia. Ronaldo might have got the monkey off his back by leading Portugal to the Euro win in 2016, but he too needs the World Cup to complete his trophy haul. Uruguay, France and Belgium would be relying on their stars to come good in unison, while Germany, Spain and Brazil look like the teams that have taken final shape. But for now it’s back to league football, as international teams take the backseat for a couple of months.

K Shahid

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