Saturday 23 February 2019

World Cup all the poorer for Japan's exit

LATE HERO: Nacer Chadli is congratulated by his Belgian team-mates after scoring the winning goal in Monday night’s World Cup last-16 win over Japan.
LATE HERO: Nacer Chadli is congratulated by his Belgian team-mates after scoring the winning goal in Monday night’s World Cup last-16 win over Japan.
RISING SONS: Japan’s Genki Haraguchi, right, celebrates with team-mate Yuya Osakohis after scoring his side’s first goal during the last-16 clash with Belgium in Rostov

This may seem like a big thing to say but in a World Cup of unpredictability and inconsistency among the favourites, Japan turned out to be the team with the best balance so far.

Add a decent goalkeeper to the team which gave Belgium a bit of a lesson in the Round of 16 and there's a good chance that Japan would still be in this competition.

I know some would say they were naive to pile forward in the dying moments looking for a winner against Belgium and left themselves wide open for the counter-attack which settled the game, but they were simply doing what they have done from the first minute in this tournament.

It was brave, great to watch and the tournament will be the poorer for them leaving it at this stage.

Not that the same can be said for Spain, Argentina, Germany and Portugal, they're all out on the beach now and could have no gripes about their elimination.

We saw the last of Lionel Messi and it was a pretty miserable way for him to step off the stage, let down by his manager and the rest of his team-mates.

The Spanish shot themselves in the foot before a ball was kicked and we will never know what they might have done with Julen Lopetegui in charge.

They looked like a tired team against Russia and in many ways, it was a sad end for some great players but such is football. It spares nobody.

My own pick Brazil are improving steadily rather than in visible leaps and I still have a big niggle in the back of my mind which finds it hard to resolve the problem they have with creativity in midfield.

Paulinho and Casemiro are good, solid defensive midfielders with hardly a creative bone between them and it is difficult for me to imagine a Brazil team winning the World Cup without a spark of genius in the middle of the park.

Against that, Brazil's record at the back is very good over a long period of time and when Neymar behaves himself and Coutinho is firing, they are a handful up front.

But they have no midfielder like Luka Modric who didn't play well against Denmark but helped Croatia get over the line with a brave second penalty in the shoot-out after Kasper Schmeichel saved the first in normal time.

I was impressed with France in their fairly comprehensive win over Argentina and obviously enough, delighted to see Kylian Mbappe emerge as a global star.

Oddly enough, his outstanding two-goal performance and the bright spotlight which has settled on him could help France in the long run.

There's every indication that he is a humble young man who takes advice and understands how lucky he is and long may that continue.

The boost he gives France comes through his goals and the fact that Paul Pogba is now firmly in Mbappe's shadow. I have seen very little written about him and nothing much from Pogba himself. This has to be a good thing and I would say Didier Deschamps is very pleased.

I have to say, I'm still not sold on Deschamps and I'm still convinced that he doesn't know what his best team is. France will get a true test from Uruguay.

I mentioned at the start how Japan opened up Belgium at times and that has to be a worry for Roberto Martinez who underlined the certainty that all ducks are swans for managers when he tried to sell the win as a triumph of determination.

Belgium were lucky to go through and on the surface, it looks like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne are not getting on.

Neither are close to their best form and anything less than that will be exposed when you get to the quarter-final stage of the World Cup where, in this case, Brazil lie waiting.

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