FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Final: France 4 – 2 Croatia

France are World Cup champions, a second triumph in this competition which sees Didier Deschamps join an elusive club of player and manager who have won the coveted crown. Croatia left everything on the pitch but France particularly in that second half showed why they are deserving champions. Hawkeye Sidekick identifies a couple of talking points.

We need to talk about VAR

VAR was supposed to assist match officials and get the key decisions right. In the opening period of this final, France got the benefit of the doubt in two key decisions which led to goals. The free kick awarded to Griezmann prior to the opening goal was soft. The innocuous penalty appeal from France when Perisic’s arm hit the ball while in the air was incredibly harsh. VAR missed the opening incident and with no insight into the discussions that arrived at the penalty decision, mystery abounds. Did all the VAR match officials agree that it was a penalty? There is zero accountability in how the VAR decisions are made. This needs to change or it needs to be scrapped.

Croatia exposed defensively

Croatia can feel hard done by on the first two goals but it showed issues in their defensive shape at the set piece. The opening goal was a tragedy. Communication breakdown in the Croatian defense which forced Mandzukic to head the ball to nowhere in particular, unfortunately it was not in his own goal. Vida and Lovren needed to do better on organizing their side at the set piece. The Perisic handball was harsh but the player’s positioning was not great to start off with, not tight enough defensively.

France’s power and pace upfront as Croatia committed further players forward was seen to full effect in that second half. Pogba began to step his authority on the game; probing deep runs and his goal was superbly well taken as Croatia failed to track the towering midfielder’s threat to make it 3-1. The fourth goal was not long in coming; further space for France to exploit. Mbappe emphatic with the strike. Croatia tried hard but they were exposed defensively at various intervals despite playing attractive football led by Rakitic and Modric.

Versatile France

The central midfield performance today typified this. Kante with an early yellow card was walking the tightrope and the Chelsea player dared not to make a tackle. Deschamps reacted and took the player off for Nzoni. The move worked a treat. Nzoni zipped into tackles and Croatia’s key threats in Rakitic and Modric suddenly were not afforded the space and time enjoyed when Kante was on the park. France’s squad depth in this tournament has being superb; the ability of players to support others and execute the game plan has being to the fore.

Pogba’s performances in this tournament have grown in stature. Maituidi was heroic throughout. Kante was a mountain where opposition attacking options wilted in his presence. The attacking options were in cohesive unison today. Griezmann was probing with his intelligent runs in front of Giroud who led the line well. Mbappe was a constant source of angst for Vida today. France defensively were the strongest side in this tournament. Lloris’ gaffe aside, the French back line has oozed class. Pavard, Hernandez providing defensive shape out wide while supporting their attack. Varane and Umtiti were the standouts in the central defense.

Few can argue that France did not deserve to win this tournament. The system was conservative and controlled but the results produced a World Cup triumph. Deschamps is justified in his tactical ethos and with the age profile of this playing group, who is to say that this side will not retain this competition in four years time? Well done France. Enjoy the celebrations!

FIFA World Cup Final: France vs. Croatia Preview

After all the drama of the opening round and subsequent knock out rounds, there are two teams still standing. Croatia and France face each other in the World Cup final. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the key match-ups.

France central midfield key 

The performance of the France central midfield was immense in their defeat of Belgium this week. Kante, Matuidi and Pogba executed the game plan to perfection providing defensive cover at all times and providing their attacking players with quick ball. Kante has had a superb tournament; his ability to cover for team mates defensively, his ability to break opposition attacking play are hallmarks. Matuidi has being heroic in his overall work rate and defensive play. Pogba has improved as the tournament has progressed and will the Manchester United star save his best tournament performance until the final? Solid unit and one which has being instrumental in the side’s progress to this point. Croatia’s star players in Modric and Rakitic will do well to break down this unit tomorrow.

In Modric, Croatia trust

Luka Modric has being the Croatian standout in this tournament. His performances in this tournament have being outstanding in terms of game management, passing game and goal scoring ability. Modric faces his toughest challenge tomorrow against Kante and Matuidi who will look to negate from minute one. It is down to Croatian’s other stars to perform thus allowing Modric the time and space to deliver a match winning performance. Perisic, Rebic and Rakitic need to be prominent with the ball early and force French midfield deeper allowing Modric to create attacks deep in French territory. Mandzukic upfront will look for decent service; his form was excellent against England midweek, two opportunistic goals, more of the same is required.

Defenses win championships

France’s back line has being imperious in this tournament. Only one goal conceded in the opening round of games. If you eliminate the Argentinian round, they have being rock solid. Umtiti and Varane have being outstanding and the full backs Pavard and Hernandez have provided sufficient width in defensive and attacking play. Croatia have had their struggles in the knock out rounds. Denmark, Russia and England have probed and scored. England should have scored more than the one goal in their encounter. Croatia will look to Lovren and Vida to be rock solid but I have question marks on this point. Croatia do give chances away and no better side to exploit this in the form of Griezmann, Mbappe, Giroud.

Goalkeeping Heroics

Lloris has being the standout keeper of the tournament. His save from Alderweireld was a pivotal point in that semi-final win. Lloris has vast experience at this level and the fact that he has now gone 180 minutes without conceding a goal means that France defensively are coming into this final in a good head space. Subasic has being heroic in the Croatian goal. His penalty shoot out heroics to the fore. Injury problems against Russia has not prevented the net minder from having a superb performance against England. His save from Harry Kane was a key semi-final moment in midweek. Two standout keepers.

Verdict 

Hoping Croatia can score an early goal to force France to show their attacking prowess but I see only one winner in this final. France have the advantages in all areas of the pitch for the exception of Modric. France to win this encounter potentially 2-1. Deschamps to become a World Cup winning manager along as a player. Unreal achievement.

FIFA World Cup 2018 Semi-Final: France 1 – 0 Belgium

France advanced to the World Cup final on Sunday with a composed, efficient performance to defeat a Belgian side whose bright start descended into ultimate disappointment. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

French Central Midfield Dominance

This was the key component of this fixture. France were dominant in this area of the park. Kante, Matuidi and Pogba were on point throughout. They negated the threat of Kevin De Bruyne so much so that the Manchester City midfielder was forced to receive ball deep in his own half. Eden Hazard had a superb opening cameo but was then snuffed out by the French central midfield. Kante and Matuidi in particular provided energy and work rate to proceedings, something that Fellaini, Dembele and Witsel struggled to match. Mission accomplished from the French central midfield and Deschamps should be given enormous credit for the manner in which his central midfield setup and executed the game plan.

Belgium rue lost opportunity

I will cut to the chase. This was the opportunity for Belgium to win a World Cup. Their golden generation will not have a better opportunity to win the coveted trophy with the likes of Spain, Germany, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil dispatched from the competition. Belgium looked like they played their World Cup final against Brazil; the effort to win this contest was evident in the central midfield performance tonight. Perhaps, a good opening thirty minutes of the contest where Belgian dominance should have yielded a goal. Lloris save on Alderweireld was a key turning point; thereafter France imposed their will on proceedings. When you consider the Hazard effort in this opening period, luck was not on Belgium’s side. A heartbreaking loss for Belgium. The talent is there but there are questions on the squad given some underwhelming performances tonight. Lukaku only touched the ball twenty-two times. I rest my case!

France clinical 

The game winning goal came out of nothing. While Belgium and Chadli struggled to find their range on the set piece, France executed their corner kick set piece to perfection. The run from Umtiti to first stave off Alderweireld  and then beat Fellaini to the flick on was sensational. The header gave Courtois absolutely no chance. Belgium on the other hand struggled for attacking cohesion. Martinez throwing caution to the wind soon after the goal, pumping crosses into the French box where Varane and Umtiti were imperious. No imagination from Belgium to run with the ball and their final ball was not good tonight. France scored and perhaps on another day could have scored a couple more goals at the end when Belgium went all out attack.

France favorites for final?

I think France will be installed as warm favorites ahead of Sunday’s final. Their performances to date in the knockout rounds have shown different attributes of the side. France exposed a poor Argentinian defense and showcased Mbappe to the fore. The quarter final victory over Uruguay was the standout for me personally. They nullified the Uruguayan middle third and with their expansive full backs of Pavard and Hernandez providing support in attacking positions, Uruguay were under pressure from the early exchanges. Their central midfield ability to link play while providing the protective shield to their back four is incredible. Offense wins games. Defense wins championships. This side have a point to prove after their 2016 Euro Championship final loss. France will relish playing either England or Croatia who conceivably may go deep into extra time again. France are primed for World Cup glory unless England or Croatia can throw something completely off the charts to cause unease in the Le Bleu camp. The water carrier has done well, don’t you think?

FIFA 2018 World Cup Semi-Final Preview

The first of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 semi-finals is just moments away from kicking off. Belgium ans France lock horns in Saint Petersburg for the opportunity to advance to the final on Sunday. Both sides are loaded with talent. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the key match-ups:

Can Kante and Matuidi protect French defense?

I think this is the key question ahead of this fixture. Belgium boast three standout attacking performers. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne in particular have produced devastating cameos to set their side on the way to knock out victories. When you add the physicality, pace and power of Romelu Lukaku, France have a job on their hands to stem the influence of these players.

The key French players tonight for me are Kante and Matuidi, two standout players for their ability to break opposition attacks. Both players will need to be on point with their tackles as an early yellow card could seriously undermine their ability to negate the running play of Hazard and De Bruyne who will look to slot into space between midfield and Lukaku upfront. If both French midfielders have standout games, France go to the final.

Thomas Meunier Absence

Thomas Meunier was heroic in his side’s victory over Brazil. His ability and conditioning to support his attacking colleagues while providing defensive solidity on the flanks despite the threat of Marcelo and Neymar marauding down his channel.

His suspension tonight poses a problem for Roberto Martinez. Dembele comes in fill the void but his central midfielder tendencies could potentially see France creating space out wide. It is a position of concern for Belgium when you consider the French attacking threats out wide. Mbappe, Pogba and Griezmann will look to move out to the flank vacated by Meunier to see if there are weak points to be exposed.

Pogba Conundrum 

Where is Paul Pogba’s best position in this French side? Pogba has shown flashes of his undoubted talent in this tournament but there has being long periods where Pogba has struck an isolated figure. Pogba needs to be prominent in the early exchanges; look to run with the ball from deep and perhaps look to launch a coupleof runs from deep to attack the ball in the Belgium penalty area. Deschamps persists with Pogba in the central midfield area but I don’t see the Manchester United player as a defensive protector of his back line. Interesting cameo beckons from Pogba tonight.

Attacking flair vs. Defensive Nous 

It is such an intriguing match up and how Deschamps and Martinez tactically setup will be fascinating. Both defenses are standouts in this tournament. Varane and Umtiti have shone for France defensively. Belgium’s back three of Kompany, Vertonghen and Alderweireld have provided the most assured performances with the ball in this tournament.

The attacking flair on show hopefully will not be stifled but I sense that both managers will have plans for the opposition star players. Witsel and Fellaini will be asked to negate the influence of Griezmann and Mbappe but then you have the threat of Pogba from deep and Giroud is liable to score a header from absolutely nothing. Same for France, the Belgium front three could potentially cause havoc provided that Hazard and De Bruyne ge the space they require.

Verdict

France to shut down the Belgium front three threat while exposing the absence of Thomas Meunier. France win this contest 2-1. Heartbreak for Belgium.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Saturday, July 7th Reflections

A couple of days past but it would be remiss of yours truly to not comment on the final two World Cup quarter finals held last weekend. England cruised through to the last four while Croatia again huffed and puffed before dispatching the gallant Russians on yet another penalty shootout. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.

Is it really coming home? 

There is plenty of work for England to do before it is coming home. We heard that Sweden were a superior outfit to any other team that they have faced in this tournament but Sweden saved their worse performance of the tournament for this quarter final fixture. They were listless (perhaps the early fire alarm wake up call had an effect) and struggled defensively to cope with the pace of Sterling, the goal poaching threat of Kane and the crossing and set piece delivery out wide.

Harry Maguire has steady improved as the tournament has progressed. He will probably be the first to admit that he was a nervous wreck against Tunisia but he has settled into the back three of the England defense so much so that he is now posing an attacking threat for England. An emphatic header from yet another clinically executed England set piece to open the scoring. Sweden were behind the eight ball and their blunt attacking threat was exposed and raised questions how they advanced to this stage of the competition.

Jordan Pickford has enhanced his reputation from this tourney. His saves during the  Colombia game have pushed his game to another level. His confidence is soaring so much so that his distribution from the back is now including excellent sweeping passes to midfield players out wide (seen against Sweden). Pickford was called upon to save his side when Sweden did try to threaten but a clean sheet in the quarter final can only bring good vibes for both the keeper and defensive unit who by and large dominated exchanges.

The England midfield continues to grow as well like the rest of the side. Henderson was on point with his defensive duties and ability to pinpoint England attacking runs with quality passes in behind the Swedish defense noteworthy. Henderson has emerged as a doubt for the semi-final; his presence will be required given the threat of Croatia’s midfield with the likes of Modric, Rakitic, Rebic, Perisic. Is Southgate tempted to change the formation to deploy Dier to support Henderson in the middle of the park?

England have to be praised for getting to this stage of the tournament. The draw has opened up for them and they have taken full advantage. Precious few gave England a chance of getting out of the second round. You sense that the Colombia triumph for this group of players was the turning point; their ability to win given the arduous circumstances have unleashed the pressure and shackles from the side.

Their triumph against Sweden showed composure to close out the game in an efficient manner. Sweden were nullified; their defensive shape was compromised due to England’s pacy attack. Lingard continues to grow into this tournament and with quality delivery from Young and Trippier, Croatia will need to be on point defensively to advance to the final. England are underdogs; they will revel with this tag.

Croatia win but questions raised

I love Croatia and how they complement their physicality with an elegant passing game. The sight of Luka Modric orchestrating the tempo during games is a joy to watch; saw him first hand demolishing Republic of Ireland in Poznan. Modric has being an absolute star of this tournament but his colleagues around him need to up their game.

2-2 against a limited Russian outfit is another reminder to Croatia of vulnerabilities. Their ability to fightback from yet another opening half was admirable but their sheer inability to go on and win contests during regular and extra time is baffling. Chances were created but were spurned. Croatia have just about held their nerve in penalties but this adds to the mental toll ahead of such a key fixture.

Croatia’s midfield is the jewel in the crown of their impending fixture against England. If Croatia can provide a platform for Modric to control tempo to create chances for Rebic and Mandzukic then England will be under the cosh and facing World Cup elimination. However, their inability to defend the set piece is a concern in recent games. Denmark and Russia profited from set piece goals and England will not have to be asked twice to punish the Eastern Europeans.

Croatia are favorites to progress but they are making life exceedingly difficult for themselves leading into this semi-final fixture. The toll of playing two matches (120 minutes) plus the pressure of executing in a penalty shootout could take its toll and I am starting to wonder if Croatia defensively have not faced the genuine pace possessed by the England attacking options. Dele, Lingard and Sterling have the talent and pace to cause issues for Croatia defensively but whether they get the possession to do this is another factor entirely.

Russia exit the competition. They have not disgraced themselves in this tournament. Their loss to Uruguay could have signaled the collapse but Russia dug in against Spain and upset the odds. Their late equalizer from Fernandes was a result of perseverance and hard work. Their ability to take the punches during the contest saw Croatia get increasingly nervous leading to the equalizer. Denis Cheryshev was outstanding for the hosts; his opening strike a contender for goal of the tournament. Their conditioning and fitness was immense; a key factor why they advanced to the last eight. How much did Russia take out of Croatia? All to be revealed on Wednesday night.

FIFA World Cup 2018: July 6th Quarter Final Reflections

The opening quarter finals of the FIFA World Cup 2018 tournament saw contrasting fixtures. France were rarely threatened in their victory over a Cavani less Uruguay side. Belgium produced a stunning opening half performance to knock out Brazil from the tournament in one of the games of the tournament. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

France march to the semi-finals with ease

The reaction of Gimenez in the second half was enough. The Atletico Madrid defender struck a figure of desolation and disappointment on the football pitch. He firmly believed that Uruguay could pull off another performance out of the bag to shock France but in truth it never looked like happening.

There are still questions about this French outfit. The central midfield cohesion with Pogba in the side looks a distinct work in progress. Pogba has all the attributes; size, physicality, endurance and football ability seen in precious few cameos today. His strength is running with pace at the opposition; it remains to be see how Deschamps can address how to get Pogba centrally involved more frequently in France’s game plan heading into the semi-final.

France won this fixture in a canter as soon as Varane took advantage of a massive Uruguay defensive lapse from the free kick just before half-time. The delivery was on point but the split second where Varane lost his marker was fatal for the South American side. The header was emphatic and Uruguay were asked to come out and get back in the contest, something they were incapable of doing.

Even with Edison Cavani, Uruguay would have struggled today. The central midfield area for Uruguay lacked the quality on the ball to unleash Stuani and Suarez who failed to register a goal attempt today. It was the hopeful ball down the flanks looking for Stuani to win a 50/50 duel or Suarez looking to benefit from a sloppy French defensive pass. Suarez struck a forlorn figure come the final whistle.

The second French goal was a personal disaster for Uruguayan keeper Muslera. The vastly experienced goalkeeper will think long and hard in the coming weeks on how Griezmann’s speculative long range effort evaded him. The ball agonizingly going in was a horrible image for any neutral football fan to see. It spelled the end of the contest. Cue Uruguayan outfield players to collapse in despair at the concession. The white flag was as good as raised.

France controlled and game managed the fixture from then on. Uruguay game to the end but France were defensively on point. Kante protecting his central defenders superbly well throughout; no easy ball for Suarez to run and create goal scoring opportunities. They are the team to beat in this tournament; they have cruised through the tournament so far. Will a team be able to put under the cosh and see how the side react? All to be revealed next week then.

Belgium superb in eliminating Brazil 

The game of the tournament so far for me. Forget the opening round games. This was a high quality contest between two footballing sides who gave as good as they got during the ninety minutes. The game was ultimately decided by management of the two sides on show. The ability of one team (Belgium) to adapt and execute an efficient game plan with the correct personnel on the pitch. The other team (Brazil) floundered due to indiscipline and player personnel issues.

Belgium won this encounter in an excellent opening half. Their ability to defend in depth with Fellaini and Witzel outstanding providing a protective blanket for the Belgium’s back three was instrumental to this triumph. They consistently broke up game and their quick distribution to Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku paid ultimate dividends.

Both sides had nervy moments on the set piece early doors. Belgium perhaps a touch fortunate not to concede an early goal but they recovered and took full advantage of chaotic Brazilian defending to lead this contest on thirteen minutes. Kompany winning the initial flick on from a corner. Fernandinho unable to get his head out of the way and the ball was in the net.

Brazil management should have instructed their side to keep calm and composed but the players started to over commit to every Brazilian attack. Brazil were outdone by one of the goals of the tournament. A Brazilian corner was cleared and Lukaku rampaging run had Brazil defensively in all sorts of trouble. His pass to De Bruyne was excellent and the strike was emphatic. Marcelo not able to get close due to the player overlap on his flank. 2-0.

Belgium had numerous heroes tonight. The front three were such a live threat throughout and exposed Brazil’s weak points in defense. The defensive players in the side were sublime. Meunier was a hero for Belgium having to contend with Marcelo, Neymar throughout. Vertonghen, Kompany and Alderweireld were composed, defended with gusto and organized with leadership. Chadli and Lukaku sacrificed their attacking play to keep Belgium compact and hard to break down.

Brazil failed to give up and their attacking threats continued to create chances. Augusto’s goal was a superb effort; deft chip over the top from Coutinho to get Brazil back into the contest. Augusto had another glorious chance soon after with a chance to score from just inside the penalty area; shanked the effort.

Neymar was looking to create but was looking to go down at the every opportunity. For such a magnificent player, he really turns me off with his antics. I am glad that we no longer need to see his diving antics in this tournament. The player failed to deliver tonight and Brazilian media will not spare him. The lack of leadership defensively and central midfield as well was galling; Silva and Miranda struggled. Fernandinho’s’ confidence went as soon as he scored the own goal.

How Douglas Costa and Renato Augusto were not on from the start is another galling point for Tite to attempt to bat away? Jesus was mediocre at best. His link up play was poor and Firminho was an instant upgrade. Costa and Augusto were involved in all that was good with Brazil in that second half. Tite’s blind loyalty to certain players ultimately cost his side tonight.

Kudos to Roberto Martinez; a man who was greeted with indifference when appointed to this national team job. His passing football philosophy is known but his ability to get his team to adapt and execute a swift counter attacking formation tonight really shone through. Martinez will be a man in demand; his humble post match interview spoke volumes. Martinez and management staff won this contest. Martinez will be a man in serious demand after this tourney.

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018: Group Phase Reflections

As the final whistle blew in Kaliningrad tonight, so it signaled the end of the group phase. This stage of the tournament has seen varying levels of performance from the fancied side so far. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the group phase and picks out some high and low points.

VAR is a work in progress

We have seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly when it comes to VAR in this tournament. The good has being the ability of the VAR crew to alert the match officials to key incidents; some excellent VAR decisions were made during this stage, thinking in relation to penalty calls (some) and overturning decisions which were incorrect.

However, the sheer inconsistency of the technology in some games has caused massive issues. The Portugal vs. Iran game was a low point for VAR; dubious penalty calls and then the Ronaldo elbow incident highlighted what bother with the system when the superstar was issued a yellow card. Iran felt robbed.

The lack of transparency in the VAR decisions has left people speculating on the decision making process. If the communication channels were open for all, then it would address the question on how decisions were made? The sheer inconsistency of officiating crews to clamp down on defenders man handling attackers in the box has being a low point too. Work to do with VAR but there have being positives.

Germany exit!

The scenes yesterday were incredible. As South Korea scored a second injury time goal, questions aplenty for German management and squad. All need to take some portion of blame. The squad selection raised questions before this tournament. Sane’s omission was a shock as the Manchester City player had an excellent season. The same could not be said for the likes of Draxler. A strange omission and it set the tone for the tournament.

Neuer in goal lacked game time before this tournament and it showed in the group phase. The image of Neuer being dispossessed by South Korea far out from goal is for me the summary of Germany’s problems. Lack of precision on both sides of the ball proved fatal. Yes, there was the Sweden win but defensive shape was an issue and the attacking misfires ultimately drew blanks against Mexico and South Korea.

Germany will be back but surely with a new voice at the helm. The players lacked drive. Leadership on the park was strangely muted. Management need to review clear issues in the cohesion of the side; defensive duties were at times treated with contempt by some German outfield players causing massive defensive overlap issues in the process. Given their struggles, Germany can have no excuses about their elimination.

Senegal Misery 

The most unluckiest team of the tournament was Senegal. I enjoyed their cameo in the tournament. Big and physical and their fast tempo game plan with Mane prominent caused Group G oppositions issues. Their physicality though meant that they tallied yellow cards and this proved decisive in their elimination.

Senegal will rue late lapses in their opening games. The late Poland goal concession for goal difference perspective. The late equalizer conceded to Japan in their second game was pivotal too; more than deserved a win here and it opened the door for today’s events which saw the African side play it safe only to be done by a late Colombia goal. Attacking threat came far too late. A bitter end to the tournament for Senegal.

Argentina advance (just) 

Issues aplenty for Argentina in this group phase but they managed to advance to the last sixteen. The issues defensively were hardly a surprise given their struggles to even qualify for the World Cup itself. The goalkeeping and defensive cohesion was an issue from the opening fixture. Croatia exposed this weak point ruthlessly in their second game. Nigeria should have but failed to inflict the killer blow.

Messi has arrived to the tournament with his sublime effort against Nigeria. Banega’s influence on the Nigerian game gives hope for Argentinian supporters that they could beat a France side who have flattered to deceive. Pavon’s cameo last time out also provides a good attacking threat but questions on why Dybala has not featured remain? A tough second round encounter beckons for Argentina though given the defensive and goalkeeping situation.

Underwhelming fancied teams 

Spain, France, Portugal, Brazil, Belgium have secured second round qualification but some of the performances have underwhelmed. France’s squad looks potent but no clear cohesion yet in the side. Spain have struggled defensively and their attacking goal threat has being assigned solely on Diego Costa.

Portugal looked great against Spain but have gone back to defensive first prototype in subsequent games. Brazil have grown into the tournament but still question their defense nous at the business end of the tournament along with Belgium who looked destined to face off in a quarter final.

With Croatia looking a prime tournament threat, these teams need to deliver now and deliver to the fullest performance levels. I suspect a couple of fancied teams will be on their way home come the end of the second round. No standout right now and it is now time for teams to deliver. Russia to upset Spain for me. Spain are in chaos from a managerial perspective, squad unity looks less than solid.

England Reality Check

The loss tonight is perhaps a nice reality check for England. It showed squad depth chart issues particularly in the midfield area. Dier and Delph were exposed tonight; looked ring rusty for long periods. Vardy and potentially Rashford were the standouts for England tonight but the dependency on Harry Kane and his goals was shown again tonight. The Rashford chance tonight should have being a goal, key opportunity lost from Rashford to start against Colombia.

The pleasing part for England has being the ability of the defense to come out and pass it out from the back. Pickford has being solid in goals and his distribution has being excellent. Squad players got game time but for the majority tonight, that will be the last they will feature in this tournament. The England team to face Colombia picks itself which for Gareth Southgate has to be a disappointment.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group H

The final opening round group sees an intriguing quartet. Colombia, Poland, Senegal and Japan should provide plenty of exciting fixtures with the likes of James and Lewandowsk featuring. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the group and it looks like a battle for second place with Colombia the standout team in this group.

Colombia

A potent dark horse in this tournament. Colombia’s attacking threats will seriously test any opposition in this competition. James, Falcao, Bacca bring different facets to the team. James will look to play deep and make astute runs in behind defenses. Falcao will be the ultimate goal poacher while Bacca’s aerial and shooting prowess is excellent.

This is a solid squad selection, defensively compact with Ospina in the sticks providing reassurance if defensive lapses take place. Sanchez and Arias are key personnel in the ranks, their ability to defensively organize and lead by example will be to the fore. Cuadrado as well is a player who given the opportunity could revel in this tournament given the attention that Falcao, Bacca and James will get in this tournament.

No significant weak links this side. A side who will be defensively compact but have an edge upfront. Colombia look destined to top the group. Their clash against Poland will be fascinating encounter to see how good this side is. James looks destined to have another immense tournament for Colombia.

Poland

A difficult side to work out truth be told. Poland are very Jekyll and Hyde at times; their qualification campaign saw mostly consistently high level of performance but then produced an absolute stinker against Denmark in Copenhagen. The side’s chances in this tournament rest with a couple of keynote players.

Robert Lewandowski is the talisman of the side. His goal scoring ability is excellent. Fifty-five goals in ninety-five internationals speaks volumes. He will require service from the likes of Grosicki who is an underrated player in the setup. Kubar will look to provide leadership when the opportunities arise. Szczesny and Gilk will need to provide leadership at the back.

The issue with Poland is the sheer inconsistency of the side. You will see Poland have excellent periods in games but then there will be poor periods of play which will allow opponents a foothold back into the match. They should advance from the group but not sure if they will advance any further. Disciplinary issues and squad depth could rear their head in the latter stages of this group.

Japan

Is this the tournament where Japan can cause an upset and advance to the knock out rounds? Sufficient attacking threat to chose from with the likes of Kagawa, Okazaki in the squad. Yoshida and Kawashima are excellent professionals at Southampton and Metz respectively.

Japan will provide work rate, desire, team work and organization but how defensively solid are Japan on the set piece? Poland and Colombia in particular are particularly dangerous in this facet of play and some of the goals conceded in their qualification campaign exposed basic defensive fundamentals in free kick situations.

I would love for Japan to advance. Their fan base are incredible. For Japan to advance, a lot of things need to go in their favor. Japan will at times control possession in games, they will need to make these periods of play count. I think Colombia and Poland may have just too much for the Japanese team but their work rate and fitness will keep teams honest in this group. Opening round exit looks the shrewd bet here.

Senegal

A side who have experience and talent to cause problems for the other teams in the group. The experience of the squad emphasized with the likes of Kouyate, Gueye, Mane, Biram Diouf, Sakho. Players who have a wealth of EPL experience.

Mane is the key player for this Senegal outfit. The African nation will look to hit opposition on the counter attack and Mane’s pace and prowess in front of goal will be the primary threat for the side.

The negative is defensive frailties during the friendly games in recent weeks; defensive organization on the set piece was problematic and issues at times with their shape. Training camp sessions hopefully addressed these concerns.

The outcome of their first group game against Poland will determine how far Senegal will advance in this competition. A positive result and the team will fancy their chances of group progression; otherwise, heads will go down and an early exit could be confirmed in their second fixture.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group G

Group G sees England and Belgiium pitted against Tunisia and Panama. Can a youthful England side with little pressure deliver good performances in this group? Can Belgium’s golden generation produce the results and progression that the squad depth in their ranks deserves? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the group setup.

Belgium: Potential Fulfilled?

This is an ideal group for Belgium to settle into this tournament, looking to rid the ring rust and gain confidence heading into the second round of the competition. The squad depth is stacked with talent. The spine of the team looks strong with Courtois, Kompany, Vertonghen, Dembele, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku to name but a few and a squad depth whose performance levels are high.

The question for me about Belgium is how versatile and adaptable the team is given the game time circumstance. Recent tournaments have seen Belgium resort to Plan A with little deviation from that plan. Given their manager Roberto Martinez was critiqued for the same failing in club football, it will be interesting to see if Belgium can adapt as in the knock out rounds, they will be asked to change their game plan. If they can, then this is a serious contender.

Their final group game against England will determine who tops the group. Given their experience and caliber in the ranks, Belgium should qualify with ease to the second round and win the group but as mentioned the ability to change tact during the knockout rounds to achieve a result is their real test.

England

The hype about England has reduced considerably for this tournament. The side is a work in progress with question marks on defense and goalkeeping key. The goalkeeping position is up for grabs. Pickford, Butland or Pope have precious little experience at this level, not sure who will be lining up in goal for the Tunisian game? Enough said and the fact that Pickford and Butland have a mistake in them does not inspire sufficient confidence either.

The defensive side of the game has the potential to be on point. Walker, Rose and Trippier on the full back flanks will provide midfield sufficient width and their ability to defend is on point. The key question is the central defensive position and who fills the position? Will England go three at the back? Cahill or Stones need to be dominant, huge ask given their lack of first team action with their clubs this season. Question marks defensively for me.

The midfield and attacking options look exciting. Kane will score goals provided that the service from out wide is on point. Can Dele Ali start this tournament with energy and positive attacking mindset? His partnership with Kane looks key to England’s success from an attacking sense.

England should be more than capable to advance from this group but I think lapses defensively and goalkeeping are not far away. England to advance as runners up in the group with a couple of scares. For England to be a dark horse, Sterling has to deliver. Time will tell.

Tunisia

Their opening fixture against England is their proverbial cup final. They need to get something from this tie to realistically have a chance of qualifying for the second round. Tunisian’s squad looks solid and compact with the majority of players plying their trade in France, Egypt, Saudia Arabia and in Tunisia.

Massive onus in this side will fall to Leicester City’s Yohan Benalouane who will need to marshal his team mates around him from central defensive to ensure that the side is compact, hard to breakdown and organized because the attacking options while pacy have no proven goal scoring threat in this level of competition. Khazri is the focal point in attack; needs good service but given possession issues against England and Belgium, it could be a forlorn experience.

What is the hope for Tunisia? The hope and expectation is to be competitive and look to be in these group games come the final twenty minutes and look to score on the counter-attack or set-piece. The lack of goal threat is an impediment, the goal ratio in the squad is low. Tunisia to offer plenty but an opening round exit looks on the cards provided they can turn the tables on England tomorrow!

Panama

The fairy tale of making the World Cup for Panama is here. It is now time to deliver and produce good performances. The squad is comprised of players plying their trade in MLS and Central America. This is a significant improvement in opposition and I fear for Panama in all facets of play.

Their opening fixture against Belgium could be a potential nightmare unless Panama are defensively solid. Belgium have the ability to carve this side open at various stages; it is up to Panama to be compact and perhaps park the bus for the opening period and then look to probe Belgium thereafter with Perez and Tejada the key attacking threat.

Tournaments like this at times have glorious fairy tale stories but for Panama, the fairy tale ends here. Penedo and Baloy will have to produce heroics defensively for Panama to have any chance of securing a result in this group. Panama look vulnerable and an opening round exit is on the cards.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group F

Group F. A group which features Germany, the reigning World Cup Champions and one of the teams tipped to win the competition next month. Mexico, Sweden and Korea Republic will look to upset the odds but realistically it is a straight fight for the second place in the group. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Germany

Joachim Low had the luxury of not selecting Leroy Sane from the final squad, enough said. Germany are laden with talent in all positions and the squad depth is strong in all positions.

The positives for Germany is their squad’s backbone is personnel who triumphed in this competition four years ago. Kroos, Ozil, Reus, Khedira, Hummels, Boateng, Neuer all feature in this squad. Experience aplenty in the squad and their knowledge and insight in how to win this competition is invaluable.

Plenty of attacking options for Low to chose from. Gomez, Werner and Reus bring something different to the table. Gomez with his aerial threat. Werner with his movement. Reus with his pace and ability to create space in the box. Throw in Muller who can play in the nine channel and options are there for German management.

The negatives are potentially two fold: Is Manuel Neuer fully fit? If so, does Neuer have sufficient game minutes under his belt to perform at his typical ultra high levels. Low needs to make a hard call on Neuer if either question is no with ter Stegen in the wings to fill in.

Sane’s omission was a surprise. His pace, movement and ability to score goals was to the fore with Manchester City. Low and management evaluated in international football conditions and felt it was not the time for the youngster. Draxler, Brandt and Rudy are ahead of Sane in the depth chart, it is a decision if Germany do not win the competition will be discussed over and over again.

Germany will have sufficient quality to win this group with a bit to spare. Their group will not fully test the side’s full capabilities until the knock out rounds.

Mexico

Mexico realistically are hunting for the second place in this group along with Sweden and South Korea. Few surprises in the squad selection. The squad contains several marquee names.

Marquez in central defense. Salcedo looking to roam forward from full back. dos Santos looking to link midfield and attack with sharp, incisive passing. Hernandez looking for a chance to score a goal along with Carlos Vela.

Guardado and Herrera are key fulcrums for this Mexico side. Guardado at central midfield will look to protect his defense while supporting the likes of Vela with incisive runs from deep. Herrera at center back is a player with huge talent and pace, needs to be focused throughout.

The negative for Mexico is perhaps mentality based. What happens when Mexico concede the first goal? Will the team look to respond in a positive fashion or go out with a whimper? Mexico vs. Sweden decides who advances to the second round, hard to separate both teams.

Sweden

A solid team, well organized and with their threat on the set piece will pose problems for all group opponents. The positives for Sweden is their organization, they will sit in when required and this could frustrate particularly Mexico who may throw caution to the wind and let the Swedes score. Their performance against Italy on the road to secure their place in this World Cup a perfect case study.

Experience aplenty in the squad. Larsson, Olsson, Jansson, Toivonen, Forsberg have all experienced marquee tournaments and their presence will be a reassuring presence in the camp. Lindelof will have a point to prove with Sweden after a mixed season with Manchester United.

The negatives for Sweden is potentially that they struggle to score goals in major tournaments. UEFA European Championships, they exited in the group stages; their performances were extremely one dimensional from an attacking perspective.

The onus is on Toivonen and Guidetti to provide the goals upfront; otherwise Sweden will look to score from the set piece. 50/50 call with Mexico on whether they qualify for the second round.

South Korea

The underdog of the group. South Korea need to be organized in their defensive duties but questions abound on the quality of their goalkeeping and back line options to offset the threat of the other three teams in the group.

South Korea will look to their players who are plying their football careers in the UK and Germany. Heung-Min is an excellent attacking player and he will need the service from Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yueng to impress.

The rest of the side need to be compact and solid and hope that this is enough to advance. However, with Brazil and tweak tough Serbia and Switzerland for company, an early exit looks on the cards!