Posts tagged FIFA
The Counter Press EP 33

Josh and Vijay chat about all the Champions League matchups, PSG giving up 5 goals to Lille, and the Premier League.

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The Counter Press EP 31

The Counter Press is back with another episode. This time it's Puneet who joins Josh on the show. They discuss everything from Manchester United to the rumored expansion of the World Cup format.

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The Counter Press EP 28

Josh and Vijay are back to talk January transfers and more!

The Counter Press EP 24

Happy FIFA Day! Fire up your PS4 and turn The Counter Press up to ignorant levels! Josh and Vijay are back with friend @MindofDharma to talk about the opening month of the soccer season, from Champions League to domestic cup failures in England and a whole lot more!

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The Counter Press EP 20
2018 World Cup Final preview: France vs. Croatia
Photo Credit: AP 

Photo Credit: AP 

We have arrived at the final destination - Moscow, home of the World Cup Final, pitting two teams in France and Croatia who both deserve to be in this position. This past month of soccer madness has flown by with heart-stopping turns at every point. It's been a thrilling tournament and one of the best we have seen so far this century. Plenty of drama, stoppage time goals, underdog stories like home nation Russia and the resurgence of England, and the powers like Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany all bowing out before the semi-finals. Now the world holds its breath in anticipation of who lifts the trophy in 2018.

Croatia

Let’s not beat around the bush here; Croatia is the underdog. When the knockout brackets were first revealed, a Croatian run to the final was something many thought might happen but nobody predicted it in the way that it did. After two back to back penalty shootout wins, Croatia needed extra time again in their semi-final matchup against England, a team with tired legs but the deserved favorites. It usually doesn’t bode well when a team who has played 240 minutes in the past two games has to play catch up, but after England took the early advantage, Croatia slowly but steadily began to inch back into the game with Ivan Perisic's second-half equalizer. England’s back three was solid for much of the tournament but they were prone to mental lapses. While it certainly looked poor on Gareth Southgate’s side to lose focus like that, credit to Croatia for pouncing on them. It sort of felt like the second leg of Juventus vs. Spurs where Tottenham had two defensive lapses and the Italian side punished them. All it took was Kyle Walker to not check who was behind him when trying to defend a cross.

From there the tide shifted as England looked mystified and Croatia was dominating in the midfield, a strategy which always bodes well for them. In extra time again you wondered how Croatia’s legs would feel but they kept pushing on when Mario Mandzukic found the back of the net in the 109th minute for the winner. England's back line lapsed yet again as John Stones didn’t react quick enough to a bouncing ball in the box. It was a bizarre play as everyone on the pitch seemed to stop and watch the ball bounce towards Pickford; everyone except for Mandzukic. It was a nervy final 11 minutes as Croatia hung on to advance to their first World Cup final.

France

France faced a much tougher opponent in Belgium, but like their final opponents, they did much of the same thing they had done throughout the tournament: Grab a goal and hold steady.

France hasn’t looked too flashy in this tournament and outside of the Argentina game, their offense has looked lackluster. But it doesn’t matter to Didier Deschamps men. They just keep getting the job done and have gotten the results necessary to advance. They did the same thing against Belgium. France let Belgium dictate a lot of the possession this game and pick them off on the counter, a strategy Belgium used against Brazil, but it was a lone goal off a set piece from Barcelona center-back Samuel Umtiti that sent them through.

The game turned from there as France hunkered down and absorbed all the Belgian pressure. Belgium had a lot of chances on goal but couldn’t seem to beat Hugo Lloris and the French defense. To France’s credit, it was a tough backline to beat as Umtiti and Raphael Varane held down Romelu Lukaku and N’Golo Kante did a good job breaking up key passes while neutralizing the dangerous Kevin De Bruyne. It wasn’t the most pretty win or the most aesthetically pleasing win but once again, it’s just about getting the job done. Now France finds themselves one win away from winning a major tournament and can finally exercise the demons that haunted them after Euro 2016.

It’s a similar situation with France face as - like Portugal in 2016 - they face an inferior opponent in a final but they should be ready for this one. Losing at home in a European final doesn’t just wash away easily and it shouldn’t. There is a lot of those guys playing now who were there in Paris that day, watching Portugal go crazy as they snatched a cup winning goal without their best player in Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. One has to be wary about France playing inferior opponents but they should be solid.

The key in this matchup will be the midfield. It’s Modric and Rakitic versus the likely trio of Pogba, Matuidi, and Kante. Simply put, whoever controls the middle wins, but this one is much more crucial for Croatia, especially since their wings will have to defend a lot more with Mbappe and Griezmann able to leak out for counters. Strinic can’t be left alone against Mbappe as we saw what happens when you give the wonderkid any sorts of space. This will force Perisic to track back and at least account for Mbappe presence, so a lot of the offense will come through the middle of the park with the Croatian duo springing passes to unlock the French defense. France has three high motor players of their own with two of them having enough offensive quality to scare Croatia’s backline. If Matuidi and Pogba are able to get up in attack with Giroud being the holdup man and occupying the center-backs, Croatia could be in for a very long night.

Croatia will have to play a lot of defense while somehow making sure that they have enough time to get Rakitic and Modric going. This opens up Mario Mandzukic as a key man for Croatia as he alone will probably be up in attack unless Andrej Kramaric starts as a CAM with the duo in a double pivot behind him. But you could see Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic in a pivot with Modric up top. There is a lot of shifting which could go on in the Croatian midfield as manager Zlatko Dalic has a lot of options.

Prediction

Croatia has been fun and like France, they haven’t been flashy but they are effective. This team won’t quit and I see them coming back in this one to equalize some time in the game. But then France is going to get a winner in the second half and hold on. It will be a World Cup to remember for Les Blues.

2-1 France

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-final preview: Belgium v France
Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

Belgium v France can arguably be considered the final of the tournament. Belgium has eliminated Brazil and were resilient in their comeback again Japan. France has been dominant with a solid mix of youth and experienced European club-talented players. How do both teams match-up against each other? Let’s preview their chances and see who has the best chance to move forward

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

What makes Belgium dangerous is their ability to win games  They dominated Japan in possession and shots, but needed to come back from down 2-0 to advance. Their resiliency set up a quarterfinal match-up with Brazil. They made changes to their starting XI to counter Brazil, and their strategy paid off in a 2-1 win.

Belgium will have to play a similar style to beat France and advance to Sunday's final. Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba are France’s key threats up top - Belgium needs to keep them at bay and win the battle in the midfield to move on. Belgium also needs to do work offensively. They only had three shots on target against Brazil, although they managed to score twice. The French backline is young and capable of making mistakes; finishing from Lukaku and its other attacking players must be an area of focus.

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

France has been waiting for this moment since 2006. It's their first semi-final since finishing as the runner-up in the 2006 tournament. Their generational talent is just as important as Belgium’s, and this won't be the last World Cup we see with this youthful squad together.

Olivier Giroud, Griezmann, Mbappe, and Pogba have been pivotal for the French attack. 19-year-old Mbappe has been the darling of the tournament; just think, he'll be in his peak the next two World Cups. His runs have been nightmare for defenders who can’t seem to deal with his speed. Pogba and Griezmann have also demonstrated their leadership, controlling the tempo of the game. They were the more accurate team in terms of passing against Uruguay last round, controlling a large portion of the ball. They didn't score as frequently against a more disciplined Uruguay team than they did against Argentina, but they did show they can beat you on the ground or in the air, with a nice header from Raphael Varane.

Les Bleus seems confident they can contain Hazard in a similar fashion they did to Lionel Messi. This is not the same squad as Argentina however. Belgium has French legend Thierry Henry on its bench creating an intriguing match-up and is highly disciplined and deadly on counters. France will have to be in top form to beat this Belgium side who will seek to reach their first ever final.

Prediction: France 3 - 1 Belgium

The Counter Press - World Cup Quarterfinal preview
World Cup Round of 16 Preview: England vs. Colombia
Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

 

Colombia vs. England

 

It’s a shame that both teams won’t have a chance at making the semi-finals but that’s the luck of the draw. Sometimes you will get some really even matchups in the Round of 16, and this time it’s between two countries who have something to prove.

England finished second in Group G and wasn’t really that bothered. It was tough sledding for around 60 minutes against Tunisia as a penalty led the African team back into the game. But England kept pelting the Tunisian goal with chances and eventually one went in. It just happened to take place in stoppage time, off a set piece, and scored by Harry Kane. They went on and crushed Panama in the next game and didn’t look back.

With six points, they had already clinched qualification to the next round before their final game against Belgium. Both teams benched a majority of their top name players as Gareth Southgate used this match to rest and play some of the guys who weren’t going to normally play in the World Cup to begin with. It was a game which England controlled for a majority of it. But it was the Belgians who got ahead thanks to a wonder goal by Adnan Januzaj, setting England up for a match with Group H winners Colombia. This will be the hardest team they have faced yet, and England will have to make sure they have a solid structure in defense, especially with the back three, as Colombia will threaten to pounce on any mistake.

Colombia won a chaotic Group H (which was my favorite group). Their campaign started off on a tough hill as an early red card against Japan in their first game saw them go down 1-0. Colombia got the equalizer before the first half ended but the second half provided a different story. Japan got a great chance on goal with a man advantage and converted, resulting in a shocking 2-1 win. In a must-win game, Colombia battered a dejected Poland squad 3-0 with stars James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao leading the way. Both were super instrumental in all of Colombia’s goals with James providing the assist of the tournament so far with a great outswinger towards Juan Cuadrado as he raced past the Polish backline. Colombia controlled its own destiny heading into the final game, and a header by Yerry Mina in the second half was enough to see them past a sneaky Senegal team. Just like that, even after the debacle in the first match, they were through.

Now Colombia moves onto face England and it will be a big test for them. Yes, Colombia has been here before but this English team is well drilled and dangerous. They might not look the most flashy but they get the job done. Colombia is more of the opposite. It’s more about the flair and the creative powers of their top two midfielders in James and Quintero. If neither of those guys can get it going, it will be tough sledding. The health of James is also key. He limped off after 30 minutes against Senegal and his status for the game is in question. In all honesty, this will be the difference in the game, if James can’t play you honestly can’t give Colombia a shot. Not like a team against England.

Prediction: All reports have made it seem like James will play. Colombia’s attack is dangerous and even though England’s is too, Colombia’s are way more dynamic and creative. I expect this to be a shootout and one of the better games in the tournament. Dele Alli will be the key for England. If he can be a big presence in the midfield and slow down James, England will have an easier time controlling the game. When the pace of the game is slow, it fits England. If they start running around all over the place, the edge goes to Colombia

This is going to be a wild game.

3-2 Colombia

FIFA World Cup Round of 16 Preview: Brazil-Mexico and Belgium-Japan
Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Brazil v Mexico

Mexico seeks to not only defeat Brazil for the first time in history but also score their first goal against the Seleção. Will Brazil continue on to capture its record sixth FIFA World Cup trophy? Let’s review what each team has done in the group matches, and its chances of moving forward.

In its first match, Mexico beat defending champion Germany 1-0, giving them confidence that they can the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986. A brutal 3-0 loss to Sweden has now changed their trajectory, and instead of facing Switzerland in the round of 16, they will now face Brazil.

Juan Carlos Osorio shut down his doubters as Mexico conquered the Germans and then played great in the South Korea win. He's stuck with almost entirely the same players and substitutes, which was a fear among some fans who were not pleased with his rotations. Mexico struggled to score in matches prior to the tournament, but they were able to capitalize on enough chances in their first two matches. In their loss to Sweden, they managed to possess the ball 67 percent of the time, and outshot Sweden, who finished atop the group. Luck and crucial mistakes can change the course of not just one game but the entire tournament. Mexico learned that the hard way, and will now have to beat Brazil to get to the Round of 16.

Brazil arguably had its best showing in its final group stage game against Nigeria. The Seleção hasn't had their star, Neymar, at 100 percent, but Philippe Coutinho has been brilliant, demonstrating great control of the ball and the game as his passing and scoring ability has been on display. Brazil will play openly against Mexico, leaving them open to Mexico’s counters, so they'll need to rely on their midfield to outplay El Tri. Mexico has been lacking a solid defensive midfielder; instead Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera have had to both share duties there. That vulnerability will leave Coutinho free to roam behind as a 10, and Neymar to cut in the middle of the field if Mexico gets caught off guard.

Brazil has a few injured players to keep an eye on like Neymar, Douglas Costa, and now Marcelo. Brazil should be favored, but several of the favored teams in this tournament are either already eliminated or have not had the start they envisioned.

Prediction

Brazil 3 - 1 Mexico

Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Belgium v Japan

Belgium is the dark horse many predicted to win the tournament. They swept the group stage, including five goals against Tunisia. Romelu Lukaku is tied for second with four goals in the tournament, Eden Hazard has been great as a leader and also scored a fantastic goal in their match against Tunisia, and Kevin De Bruyne has continued the success he's had with Manchester City.

Lost in it all has been the play of Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel, and others who have made the team appear like a machine this tournament. Belgium played mainly reserves in their clash with England as they valued rest, injury, and fair play over who they would face. Ultimately, Belgium defeated England with a great goal from Adnan Januzaj, who has been relegated to a bench role, scored the lone goal against England, a great shot to put them atop the group and set the stage for a meeting with Japan, who they're heavily favored against. Expect Hazard and De Bruyne to generate much of the attention and create most of the opportunities, leaving a player like Mertens to take advantage of the opportunities his opponents give him.

Japan was lucky to advance to the knockout phase. A tie-breaker between them and Senegal ultimately came down to fair play rules. Nonetheless, they are here and have the chance to spoil Belgium’s pursuit of their first ever title.

This Japan team does have talent, led by several players with European club experience like Makoto Hasebe, Shiniji Kagawa, Yuya Osako, and Keisuke Honda. They'll be heavily attacked by Belgium’s attacking front, and head coach Akira Nishino will be responsible for creating a plan to stifle Belgium’s combinations. They'll have to beware of Lukaku’s ability to put himself in positions to score, De Bruyne’s long passes, and how best to counter attack their opponents.

Prediction

Belgium 3 - 0 Japan

FIFA World Cup Round of 16 preview: Spain-Russia and Croatia-Denmark
Source: Paul White/AP Photo

Source: Paul White/AP Photo

Spain v. Russia

La Roja against the hosts of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Russia has played in several of the most entertainment matches in what's been the most exciting tournament in years. On the other side, Spain thrilled us with the 3-3 tie against Portugal in their opener, finishing atop their group to set the stage for Sunday.

Spain captain Sergio Ramos has spoken on the improvements his club has to make in the knockout stage, sentiments that were echoed by his teammates. Thiago Alcantara spoke on several issues the team got wrong and how they will need to correct their faults as the competition gets fierce and the stage becomes win-or-go-home.

Spain was able to maintain an average of over 70 percent of possession in their three group stage matches, yet only managed one victory. There is context behind that statistic, but Spain has shown that they can manage the ball and make a record-breaking number of passes but not create much fear or danger with the ball. Spain has lacked some penetration, creativity, and a playmaker on their XI, making La Roja not much of a threat with the ball.

Russia bulldozed its way through their first two matches, appearing like somewhat of a dark horse team before crashing down to Earth against Uruguay. Russia was completely outmatched. Their midfield just wasn't impressive, and they were hardly able to generate any fear in their South American opponents. The Russians only generated three shots in the entire game. They did play with 10 men for a majority of the game, but by this point were already down 2-0.

The host country will have the benefit of playing behind its fans, but will likely be looking for a counter against Spain considering their opponent’s style of play. Russia will have to capitalize on the mistakes Spain creates, like the miscommunication between Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta in their game against Morocco.

Prediction

Spain 2 - 0 Russia

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

Croatia v. Denmark

Two national teams that have yet to suffer defeat in the 2018 tournament. Croatia has won all three of its games, including a masterful performance against Argentina, while Denmark managed to beat Peru in its opener, before tying against one against a potential favorite to win the tournament, France.

Before the tournament began, Croatia had one of the best midfields to play in this tournament, and those players have lived up to the billing. Luka Modric has been phenomenal for his national team just as he has been for Real Madrid. Ivan Rakitic has been great as well in this tournament, and for Croatia to go far, they both have to be better than their counterparts. Mario Mandzukic was a workhorse in the Argentina match, continuously pressuring the defense, looking for open spaces. Croatia have been able to create several chances in all three of their matches, and they have a chance to go far in the tournament.

Denmark has struggled with possession in all three of their matches so far in the tournament, a trend that will likely continue Sunday. However, in a one-game scenario it's all about scoring on the moments you are able to create. Croatia is not a far and away favorite in this game, but even with Denmark having the talents of Christian Eriksen and Thomas Delaney, Croatia will still command the better midfield.

Eriksen, who plays for Tottenham, has praised Modric, who had a positive spell with the club before joining Real Madrid. He is now an experienced player himself, with the ability to create moments of brilliance just like Modric and Rakitic. He scored an incredible goal against Australia and while he should not be relied on to score, his playmaking will be crucial for Denmark's success.

Prediction

Croatia 2 - 1 Denmark

FIFA World Cup Round of 16 preview: Argentina-France and Uruguay-Portugal
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Round of 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup begins today and we have some top-tier matches to kick off the knockout stages. Four powerhouses take center stage Saturday and there will be stars all over the pitch. We have a good ol’ slug out between Uruguay and Portugal on the tail end of the doubleheader, but before that Messi and Argentina meet one of the more complete teams in the tournament in France. It’s arguably the best day in the Round of 16. Get ready.

France vs. Argentina

On paper, this might seem like a close match-up but we might get a completely different result on the pitch. Neither squad has been overly convincing; one of the teams is in shambles right now while the other is still trying to find their identity. It’s one of the best players in the world versus one of the more talented teams in the world.

France qualified at the top of Group C and it was relatively easy 7 points, winning their first two games against Australia and Peru before a scoreless draw against Denmark, arguably the most boring match of the tournament. But wasn’t a dominant French performance overall. They struggled to find goals on Austrailia and it took two wonderful moments from Paul Pogba to generate goals. In the Peru match, they got a deflection which got behind the Peruvian goalkeeper and right to the feet of Kylian Mbappe. France was the stronger side in each game, but you didn’t walk away from those matches thinking they put on a grand show.

Like Brazil, France are not expected to just win. It’s especially evident with all of the young talent they boast at every position. It’s also troubling to see the French attack only score three goals in the group stage. With the likes of Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele up top, France has looked mediocre and have failed to score more than one goal in open play so far.

Argentina had a much more difficult time making the knockout rounds. In the group of death, Argentina was put through the ringer but somehow escaped. After a disappointing draw against Iceland, Leo Messi and company were thrashed by Croatia 3-0, a result both sides deserved. Argentina was outclassed and Messi was nowhere to be seen in the second half. Behind Luka Modric, Croatia bossed the game and won deservedly. Needing a win against Nigeria, an early Messi goal gave them the spark they needed, but it was canceled out by a dumb penalty by Javier Mascherano, which allowed Nigeria to equalize.

When all hope seems lost, Marcos Rojo volleyed home a shot in the box to give them the lead and send Argentina to the round of 16. They finished second in Group D, which was a result few saw coming. They weren’t one of the best teams to make it to the Round of 16 and the group stage was just pure chaos. Argentina got lucky in order to advance and they will need more of it against France.

France’s offense has been lackluster so far but Argentina’s defense is very shaky. Mascherano has looked his age and the centerbacks are thrown into the fire every time an opposing team gets the ball. If there was a game where France will want to see their attack get revved up, it’s this one. The formula is simple for the underdogs, everything will have to funnel through Messi and Ever Banega. Those two are the players for Argentina that are going to create things for others. It was the duo who combined for their first goal against Nigeria with Banega sending a beautiful ball over the top. With France’s defense centered on stopping Messi, it will likely take a world-class performance from Banega to unlock them.

N’Golo Kante and company are going to make life tough for one of the best players in the world and these are one of those cases where team trumps talent. Messi can’t do it all for Argentina and despite the talent he has around him attacking-wise, it won’t make up for the rest of the field and how good France are. Kante is a one-man destroyer in the midfield and if Messi is kept in check, it will likely be because of him. With Pogba and Blaise Matuidi bossing the midfield, France will control the game and force Argentina to hunker down and play on the break. Argentina can counter attack, but the question is how long can they keep France from smashing the ball into the back of the net? My guess is not long.

Prediction: France are the better side and although Messi will likely produce a wonder goal against them, they will be too much for the Argentine defense to handle.

France wins 2-1.

Portugal vs. Uruguay

If the first game will be attack-minded, this one will be the exact opposite. This game will be an absolute war between two sides who aren’t afraid of making a game mucky and terrible to watch. Both Portugal and Uruguay are content to sit back, defend, and let the talisman up top do their work. There will be a lot of hard tackles and we might even get some tension in this game. This will be good.

Uruguay, as everyone expected, finished first in Group A with nine points. But like France, they weren't as dominating as they could have been, with the exception of the second half against Russia. It took a Gimenez header in the 90th minute to beat Egypt and a Luis Suarez goal off a corner to beat Saudi Arabia. The floodgates opened up in the final game against Russia, but it was thanks to the host nation’s own doing. An own goal and a red card practically sealed Russia’s fate, but it did give Uruguay a boost heading into the knockouts.

It also gave Edison Cavani a goal which might help his confidence in this game against Portugal. They have looked sturdy in defense but the midfield still needs to answer some questions. Youngster Lucas Torreira has looked like a solid player in the midfield and is the only one who can play as the link between the back line and the duo of Suarez/Cavani. What Uruguay has missed for so long is a player who can do it all in the midfield and Torreira has shown some potential to do that. But it seems unlikely he will start for them in this game.

Portugal had an up and down experience during the group stage. They first played a thrilling 3-3 draw against Spain in matchday 1. It was one of the best games of the tournament thus far and include everything from a Nacho volley off the post and in, to a Ronaldo free kick capping off his hat trick. They got past Morocco with an early goal but faced trouble in the final game against Iran. After Ricardo Quaresma scored a wonder goal which only he attempts, a shaky penalty call led to Iran getting a penalty kick, which they converted. It was nervy times for Portugal as another Iran goal would see them crashing out of the group stage. Hearts were in the throats of all those in the stadium when Iran had a one on one chance with Rui Patricio closing down. The shot flew past Patricio but it went on the wrong side of the post and Portugal survived.

But if there was a saying that fits this team's will, it’s “survive and advance”. We saw how Portugal plays during the knockout rounds of Euro 2016. They are willing to make the game ugly and rely on random contributions from the “other guys” if Ronaldo doesn’t show up. Against a strong Uruguay backline, Ronaldo will be the center of attention and guys like Gonçalo Guedes will have to make smart runs into the open spaces vacated by Uruguay defenders. Portugal has shown at times that they can step up when Ronaldo can’t.

This will come down to whose talisman are more lethal and can finish more chances. Uruguay has two world-class strikers in Cavani and Suarez but Portugal has a Ronaldo. It will be an all out war and it won’t be pretty, but aesthetic is what neither team is good at nor are they trying to achieve an eye appealing playing style, especially Uruguay. They play very similar to Atletico Madrid on a club level and have become a mainstay in world football by doing so.

Prediction: What Uruguay is better than Portugal at is making this game murky and hard to watch. Uruguay wins in an absolute slugfest of a game. Suarez likely bags the winner.

1-0 Uruguay

Five takeaways from the 2018 World Cup Group Stage
Photo credit: AFP

Photo credit: AFP

Thursday capped the end of the group stages of the World Cup. It was a whirlwind of a group stage as most of the games were competitive, or at least appealing to watch. Some of the groups were already decided by the final match days of this week but there were other groups that were left it in the balance all the way up until the dying seconds of stoppage time. Although the group stage isn’t always an indicator of how a tournament will play out, we can find some takeaways from it. Here are the 5 takeaways from the 2018 FIFA World Cup:

It's a wide-open race

Unlike the 2010 or 2014 World Cups, you really can’t come away with a clear answer on who is the favorite to win it all. Spain and Portugal needed some last day drama to get through, France struggled at times, Argentina were on the ropes after the drubbing by Croatia, and Brazil didn’t look all that convincing in their three games.

Belgium and Uruguay were the only countries to finish with nine points in the group stage and there are even questions about those sides. Uruguay didn’t play the most appealing football and grinded out most of their victories, as evident by their 1-0 win over Egypt on Matchday 1. They topped Group A like they were suppose to but weren’t as dominant as expected, struggling to generate a consistent attack as Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani had a rough go against Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Belgium also finished first in their group, winning handily against Panama, Tunisia, and beating England 1-0 in the game where neither country looked bothered to take the pitch. It was a really easy group for Belgium, and playing England last gave them the advantage to seal qualification before they even met. Belgium’s cause wasn’t helped when England didn’t play a lot of their normal starters. They've looked strong but we need to see how they play in the knockout stages cause the group they were drawn in really didn’t do anything to help us judge them.

If you look at the bracket from top to bottom, you can find some concern in each team. Nobody has looked overpowering yet, which just adds to the mystique of this World Cup. Having no clear favorite isn’t a bad thing. In fact, you can argue it's a good one.

Set piece madness

One common theme throughout all the games was the efficiency of goals scored from set pieces. According to the soccer stats website Who Scored, 30 goals were scored off set pieces in the group stages. It’s a staggering amount of goals to be scored in those type of situations and it was truly a wonder to see. So many teams were able to generate offense from set pieces, especially the likes of England and Uruguay, who each generated four goals in those situations. Russia and Colombia were right behind them with three each. Every dead ball situation has brought chaos and nervy moments for defending teams. Even though it’s not always ideal to see goals not scored in open play, it has been thrilling to see some wonderful goals come off set pieces.

The reason for this sudden spike in set-piece goals? You can point to the fact that international football teams don't have that much cohesion to begin with. It’s not like they are club teams where the players have tons of chemistry and play with each other almost every day. Pre-World Cup preparation is usually a scramble for managers to try and implement their tactics while mulling over their best XI.

With that in mind, set pieces are usually put on the back burners. Specialists are put on the ball and although some plays are created, it’s not always well drilled. This hurts more on the defensive end as guys can easily get confused and lose markers if not everyone is on the same page. We saw this against Serbia when Nemanja Matic completely lost Thiago Silva on a corner and the PSG captain thumped the ball into the back of the net.

Along with the increase in calling penalties due to holding in the penalty area - *COUGH* Javier Mascherano - set pieces have become ever more important in this World Cup. If your team isn’t at least competent or know what they are doing defensively, it can be disastrous.

This isn’t the same old England

Despite being in an easy group, the soccer world were mostly uneasy about England's chances in the World Cup. Given their reputation, it was easy to doubt them. Yeah, they were the second-best team in their group, but expecting them to bottle a game wasn’t out of the cards.

The first half against Tunisia didn’t help those fears as a stupid penalty by Kyle Walker led to a Tunisian equalizer. As the game wore on, it felt like it was the same old England energy and they just couldn’t get things done, despite being the better side. But it all went away in a snap when Harry Kane headed the ball into the left corner off a well run set piece and England escaped. From there, it felt as the roof had been lifted on.

Despite finishing second in the group, England has shown some real promise. Gareth Southgate has this team well drilled in their formation and on set pieces. The latter has proven to be crucial as England have generated A+ chances on a lot of the set piece plays they ran. Southgate knows how crucial set pieces are and has clearly put a lot of the training sessions to practice them.

He also has brilliantly implemented a back three where one of the CB’s is actually a right back in Kyle Walker. The attack is sturdy with Harry Kane and with the combo of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard in the midfield, England has been pressing heavy when they lose possession. Even Southgate’s subs have been good as Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have been exceptional in Russia. This isn’t the same England we saw all those previous years. They are a young team and a likable one. The youth movement has come to England and they have the perfect manager to lead them through it.

They face a tough team in Colombia, but where they are in the bracket, England could be looking at a run to the semi-finals. For the first time in a long time, England has been comfortable in what kind of team they are and a ton of credit must be given to Gareth Southgate.

This isn't the Germany of the past

As the famous saying goes, history does repeat itself. Again we see a defending champion crash out in the group stage - France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014, and now Germany in 2014. In a group where they should have easily finished first, the Germans flopped and finished last. Now, chaos awaits them back home, especially after the way it ended.

Germany needed a win against South Korea to advance, and instead walked off the pitch in defeat, 2-0. While this might sound like a simple conclusion, it’s an easy explanation for this Germany team. In a game with so fine margins Germany came ever so close, but in the end, they failed to put the ball in the back of the net and it costed them.

What also doomed this Germany side was virtually running back the same squad they had in 2014. We've seen this trend with so many championship teams trying to have one more run with the same guys who lifted the trophy the last time, and every time it's failed miserably. Father time is undefeated and bad tactics will trump star talent, as shown with Germany.

The key cog has always been the German midfield. With their ability to boss the game and take it by the throat, controlling the midfield (and controlling the flow of the game) has always been the key for Germany in their victories. By controlling the pace they are able to generate high-quality chances in the box. Toni Kroos is able to pick apart defenses with short passes and with poachers like Thomas Muller looking to pounce on every opportunity. But that was four years ago. Kroos and Sami Khedira were much younger and faster. Their age showed in Russia.

Germany again went with a two-man midfield, and with Kroos being really offensive minded and Khedira being 31 years old, a double pivot in the middle of the park isn’t going to be enough. Germany needed a destroyer in the midfield. Someone who was going to eat up space and break up attacks like Casemiro or Kante. With the midfield so up in attack a lot of the time, it left a huge gap between them and the defense. Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng had to clean up a lot of the chances. Problem is that they're old as well, forcing them to make quick-fire decisions when Germany lost possession. Forcing your two 30+ centerbacks to make decisions on the run is a risky proposition, one that backfired badly against Mexico.

There were obvious holes in this team. Timo Werner was clearly not ready for this tournament and playing him on the wing didn’t help things either. Joachim Low made some questionable decisions and left some key guys out of the squad - guys like Leroy Sane and Emre Can could have been useful. But once again we saw an aging squad and a manager who tried to do the same tactics that he won with last time. In the end, it was disaster.

Most fun World Cup we’ve had in a while

There were questions surrounding the 2018 World Cup but so far it has answered all of them. In fact, this has been the best World Cup in a long time. High scoring games, numerous chances on net, and high-filled drama at every turn. Giants falling in the group stages, two groups of death per say... Even in the final match days, there was total chaos. You couldn’t ask for much else from this tournament.

The Counter Press EP 17: World Cup Knockout round preview
The Counter Press EP 16

The Counter Press boys recap what's been a wacky second round of games and preview all the scenarios which could happen in the final matchday. They also rant about Argentina and even jump into the GOAT debate.

Follow Josh: @highbiscuits
Follow Vijay: @VJVemu

 

The Counter Press ep. 15: World Cup edition

The Counter Press boys are joined by their friend Paul to recap the madness from the first round of World Cup games. They talked about Mexico's performance, Russia showing out, and more results from each group.

Follow Josh: @highbiscuits
Follow Vijay: @VJVemu
Follow Paul: @paulmobuckets

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The Counter Press ep. 14
2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group H

Is Colombia the favorite to finish atop of this group or is it Robert Lewandowski and the Poland national team? Can Japan and/or Senegal have an opportunity to upset one of the two favorites to reach the knockout stage?

Let’s take a look at Group H, the last group of the tournament, and see who has the best opportunity to advance.

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group G preview

Source: AFP/Martin Bernetti

Source: AFP/Martin Bernetti

Colombia

After a few difficult spells for Chelsea and Manchester United, Radamel Falcao is again performing like one of the best strikers in the Ligue 1. He was instrumental in leading Monaco to finish atop of of Ligue 1 in the 2016-17 campaign and second, behind PSG, in the 2017-18 season. He was missing from the team due to a knee injury in 2014, and will look to captain Colombia further in the knockout stage this year.

The more interesting player to observe however, is James Rodriguez. He became a household name after the 2014 FIFA World Cup, scoring the goal of the tournament and knocking in both goals against Uruguay to advance Colombia to the quarter-finals, leading Real Madrid to sign him as the tournament closed. James did struggle finding minutes in Madrid, but has now proven to be an important player for Bayern Munich. His creativity, playmaking, and most importantly, versatility will be crucial to the success of Colombia. Other Colombia stars, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado, have more defined roles, while James will be tasked with playmaking for others, building chemistry between the midfielders and the attacking players, and lastly to score as well.

The defense of Colombia has players ranging from veterans like Cristian Zapata and young players like Davinson Sanchez. The defense has been mainly solid, and has demonstrated an ability to bounce back after mistakes, such as the friendly against France where they allowed two early goals.

Colombia has their best player since Carlos Valderama, performing at the best of his abilities, and we’ll await if James Rodriguez can capture the moment as he did in 2014.

Japan

The team selected from the fourth pot for Group H was Japan. The odds of advancing from the group stage are not likely as Colombia and Poland should be the two favored teams, but Japan has advanced to the knockout phase before, most recently in 2010, and with a tournament as unpredictable as the World Cup can be, Japan does have a shot.

The national team is filled with several veterans, including Keisuke Honda, Shiniji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Shiniji Okazaki. They are also coming off a recent victory over Paraguay were they made most of their opportunities and scored four goals. However, they did not display a dominance over Paraguay that would have been a confidence boost for the unbiased viewer to see this squad as a dark horse to advance from the group. The squad before their victory over Paraguay was coming off three straight defeats.

Japan will likely seek a tie in their first match against Colombia. A tie will give Japan hope that a victory over Senegal can keep them optimistic about their chances when they face Poland in their final match.

Source: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Source: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Poland

Making their first World Cup appearance since 2006, Poland will have one of its most talented squads since recent memory. Led by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, the Poland national team will have a great chance to advance to be one of the eight final teams of the tournament.

Poland will likely face a second match showdown against Colombia, where the winner of the match will advance to be the first placed team of the group. Key performers for Poland will include Jakub Blaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszczek, and Robert Lewandowski. The Polish squad features other prominent members, but these three will be crucial members to the leadership they will need. Piszczek is a long-time member of Borussia Dortmund, making over 200 appearance for the club, and will be needed along the wings in the advanced stage of the tournament to counter stronger team’s attacks.

All eyes will be on Robert Lewandowski. In his previous three seasons with Bayern Munich, he has close to averaged a goal per game and has been rumored with a move away from the German giants. He is a gifted scorer with much technical ability, and he will have to be one of the tournament’s leading goal scorers for the Poland team to have a chance in the knockout phase.

Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Senegal

Senegal is another team making a return to the tournament after having failed to qualify in the previous editions. In their first ever FIFA World Cup played in 2002, they did make a run to the quarter-finals in 2002. The team has a few dynamic players that can shift a match and make advancing from the group stage a possibility.

The man to look at for Senegal is Sadio Mane. He recently became the first man from his country to score in a UEFA Champions League Final. At 26, Sadio is already one of the most experienced players for the national team. Senegal has several youth players in its attack, including M’Baye Niang. Sadio will have to have several moments of brilliance for Senegal as he had for Liverpool in this past season.

The Poland team who they will encounter in their first match features several experienced defenders in the defense. For a team that does not have many players with experience playing against this level of talent, or in this big a stage, Senegal will be a great team to root for as an underdog.

Predictions

Colombia, Poland, Senegal, Japan

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group G
(Image: REUTERS)

(Image: REUTERS)

We now find ourselves talking about Group G, which is basically a two-team race between Belgium and England. Both of them will be fighting for first place while Tunisia and Panama will likely be playing for pride in this tournament.

Group A preview
Group B preview

Group C preview
Group D preview
Group E preview
Group F preview
Group H preview

Belgium

In terms of talent, Belgium is easily the top of this group. Filled with world class players all over the pitch, can this Belgium squad get it together and become real World Cup contenders?

The Belgians rolled through UEFA qualifying unbeaten, racking up 28 points. It was a relatively easy group as Belgium beat teams like Gibraltar and Estonia quite easily, winning by the likes of 9-0, 6-0, and 8-1 respectively. Other than a 1-1 draw against Greece and a 4-3 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium wasn’t really challenged in their qualifying group and honestly might not be in this group either outside of England.

Belgium's attack will be set as manager Roberto Martinez has numerous options in the squad who can put the ball in the back of the net. Romelu Lukaku will likely be the man up top for them and will look to pounce and through balls from the playmakers such as Kevin De Bruyne. KDB was one of the best players in the world this season and can take Belgium far if he continues the form he was in while playing for Manchester City. Eden Hazard is a shoe-in on the left wing and is more than capable of taking on defenders by himself. Dries Mertens, who played all of this season at striker for Napoli, can also play out on the wing or in a CAM/CF role. Martinez has a lot of options he can tinker with and can move around some versatile offensive players. The backups aren’t bad either with Yannick Carrasco and Michy Batshuayi being solid attacking options off the bench.

One of the more controversial snubs of the World Cup was Belgium leaving Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan at home, a surprising omission given how much the midfielder played for his country in the 2016 Euros, even scored the opening goal in that semi-final against Wales. The 30-year-old could have still been a solid presence for this team. He’s a solid box to box midfielder who isn’t afraid to make a tackle along with providing a blast from outside the penalty area with his right foot.

Without their best central midfielder, Belgium will rely on the likes of Moussa Dembele, Axel Witsel, and the ever talked about Marouane Fellaini. Youri Tielemans is also on the 23-man roster but given he’s only 21 and the players in front of him Same goes for Thorgan Hazard (Eden’s younger brother) and Adnan Januzaj, who can play out in the wings. Dembele is the most skilled out of the trio and had an amazing season for Tottenham in England. He controlled play whenever he got on the ball and really shined in European competition against the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid. Making sure he can be the main carrier in the midfield will be crucial for Belgium.

Martinez installed a back three for Belgium on the road to Russia, a pretty smart tactic considering how long we as a soccer community have been pointing out the lack of solid fullbacks in the Belgium team. The Tottenham duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are expected to start along with Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen. PSG’s Thomas Meunier is the only real fullback/wingback Martinez can deploy and could be played on the right wing. Thibaut Courtois is the obvious favorite to start in goal.

Belgium is the most talented team in the group and on paper, they look like a team destined to top it. But you never know with this Belgium squad. It’s always up and down with them. But given the opponents they are facing, they should be fine.

Panama

This is a historic World Cup for Panama as they are embarking on their first ever trip to this tournament. They finished runners-up in the 4th round of CONCACAF qualifying, and then shocked the world by finishing 3rd in the 5th round, gaining automatic qualification to Russia thanks to a 2-1 win over Costa Rica on the final matchday and USA’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

While this is their first go-around at the WC, Panama has a number of players who have played numerous games together. They have six players on their roster who have logged over 100 caps for their country and 10 players with 70 or more caps. You can’t really call it experience but there is solidarity among this team.

Now we all mostly know what is going to happen when Panama takes the field, they are going to sit deep and try to break teams with a counter attack. Panama really isn’t an attacking side as they showed in qualifying. They scored nine goals in the Hex qualifying (CONCACAF 5th round), the second-lowest total in the group. Behind the defensive duo of Roman Torres and captain Felipe Baloy, Panama will try to soak up as much pressure as possible to make the game as boring as possible. Panama can’t allow themselves to get opened up and lose their defensive shape. Otherwise, they will be picked apart by the two top teams in this group. If they do win possession, they will look to blast it forward towards either Blas Perez or Luis Tejada. Both are Panama’s top goal scorers with 43 goals each for their country. Torres is also a threat towards goal on set pieces.

This is a tough first introduction for Panama. They will be really pushed to their limits defensively against England and Belgium. Hopefully, for them, a game against Tunisia offers them a chance to win a game at the World Cup.

Tunisia

Like Panama, Tunisia had to go through two rounds of qualifying to make the World Cup. They started in the second round of AFCON qualifying and advanced to the third round by beating Mauritania 4-2 over the course of two legs. Both games ended in 2-1 wins for Tunisia as they headed into the group stage of qualifying. There they topped Group A, beating the likes of Libya, Guinea, and Congo. Thanks to a 0-0 draw against Libya, Tunisia with 14 points were able to barely edge out Congo who had 13 after beating Guinea 3-1 that same day. In the end, Tunisia went undefeated in the 2nd and 3rd round of AFCON qualifying to get to Russia.

Tunisia really doesn’t have that experienced of a squad as no player on the team have played more than 70 caps for their team. For them, it really is more about the experience and the takeaways they can learn from the World Cup.

Against the big guns, Tunisia will also sit back and try to limit the amount of pressure which will come their way. Defenders Ali Maaloul and Syam Ben Youssef are the most veteran on the backline with both having more than 40 caps to their name. An interesting prospect to look out for is Gent’s Dylan Bronn but who knows if he will see the pitch in Russia.

The main man to look out is forward Wahbi Khazri. The Rennes striker is the main man for Tunisia and everything will channel through him offensively. Having scored 12 goals for his country, Khazri is the most lethal attacker that his side has. He’s one of the only players on this team who have experience playing in Europe. Khazri has played in both England (Sunderland) and France (Rennes). He will try to use some of the experience in those moments to help.

There’s not much else to say about this Tunisia team other than to hope they can withstand the pressure from England and Belgium while looking forward to the Panama game for some reconciliation in terms of points

England

Similar to their European counterparts in Belgium, England also had a very solid UEFA qualifying campaign. They went undefeated and bested the likes of Slovakia, Scotland, and Slovenia to top the group. It seems Gareth Southgate has got this team clicking on all cylinders and when it was all said and done, they were eight points ahead of second place.

We all know this but England’s attack will rely heavily on the right foot of Harry Kane. He scored five goals in qualifying and with no other England player scoring more than one, all the pressure is onto Kane to make his presence known in Russia. But it’s not like he won’t have some help though. Raheem Sterling will look to continue his great run in form and will likely play behind Kane while also being able to be deployed on the wings. Sterling’s ability to play all over the place offensively can really help England in terms of their offensive creativity and how they can generate chances. Sterling’s pace will help attract defenders and could open up spaces for Kane to exploit. It could even open up spaces for Kane to take some time and fire a cannon into the top corner.

Dele Alli will also be deployed in the midfield to help out in attack. Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are hard workers in the midfield as well. Both are great at tracking back and helping press or break up plays when needed. With solid defensive awareness and work ethic, both can be used in Southgate’s system but also can’t be counted out when it comes to being a goal threat.

One thing which has been talked about a lot when it comes to England has been their switch to a back three. Southgate has used the likes of Harry Maguire, John Stones, and Kyle Walker at the back to protect the net. It has worked to some degree and it has a little bit of everything. Stones can provide some passing from out the back while Walker gives you some speed on that right-hand side. Maguire is a big physical defender who can get up and challenge on aerial crosses. The back three hasn’t been exposed too much since Southgate has deployed it and it honestly won’t be until they play Belgium. They have done a good job at remaining in shape and not getting caught out with silly mistakes. Particularly with Stones, who has shown the ability to try and do too much while playing in the Premier League. Too many times for either Manchester City or Everton we saw Stones be cheeky and it costed his team goals at times. But not with England, he has seemed a lot more composed and with him being the main CB in the back three, he needs to be as solid as ever.

England has gone under a lot of changes since their last time in Brazil and even the Euros. Out is the old guard and there is new life in this team. They will be trying to forget the embarrassing loss to Iceland in the Euros and focus on what’s ahead. England has a solid chance to finish first in this group with finishing second being almost a guarantee. It will all come down to how they do against Belgium.

Prediction

This is a two-team group between the two European giants. Like I’ve said earlier, the winner of this group will come down to the England - Belgium game. England has been fun to watch but this Belgium team is way too talented.

Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia