Evaluating Russia.

The World Cup, the most glorious sought-after trophy in Sport. A sporting phenomenon that can unite a nation in the midst of all of the world’s deep-lying political madness, the competition that creates superstars on the biggest platform in the world. Just how good was the 2018 FIFA World Cup and how does it compare to the 20 previous World Cups?

Winners – France

France were hailed as one of the pre-tournament favourites, boasting world class talent such as Antoine Griezmann, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba alongside some of the most exciting young talent in the world such as Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, it was easy to see why bookies were backing Les Bleus.

Despite topping their group with two wins and a draw, the general consensus around the French squad was one of mild disappointment, considering the attacking and exciting potential that the 1998 World Cup winners had at their disposal. Didier Deschamps ditched his lethargic, sluggish system and introduced a new system which would ultimately unleash players such as Mbappe and Pogba.

A thrilling 4-2 win over Argentina was followed up by a comfortable 2-0 win over a stern Uruguay side.

Deschamps reverted to his slightly negative approach for a semi-final with Belgium, in which they ran out 1-0 winners to seal a third World Cup final in 20 years.

The shackles were unleashed in the final, as France ran out 4-2 winners over Croatia, with Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba on the scoresheet.

France seemed to become more fluid and more frightening as the tournament progressed, whether it was Pogba’s dictating from midfield, Mbappe’s marauding and penetrating dribbling or Varane’s incredible defensive display. France seemed to be the most complete squad in the tournament, and were the most consistent team in the tournament.

Biggest Overachievers:

When it comes to overachievers, it is very hard to look past world cup finalists Croatia. Zlatko Dalic’s men were placed in arguably the most competitive group of the tournament, alongside Lionel Messi’s Argentina, a young hungry Nigeria side and perennial underdogs Iceland.

Croatia spearheaded by midfield maestro Luka Modric, topped Group D with a 100% win rate, coasting past Iceland and Nigeria as well as stunning Argentina in a 3-0 hammering which was the most shocking result of the group stage.

Whilst the likes of Mandzukic, Modric, Perisic and Rebic stole the headlines during the group stage, Croatia had Danijel Subasic to thank in their next two games, with a penalty-saving masterclass against Denmark and then Russia as Vatreni advanced into the semi-finals for the first time since 1998.

England stood in the way of Croatia and a first ever World Cup final. Despite being on the back foot for the opening half, Croatia advanced to the final and rightfully so as goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic condemned England to semi-final defeat in extra time.

Croatia’s golden generation have underachieved in recent years as managers past and present have failed to get the best out of the variety of midfield talent at their disposal, however Dalic seemed to stumble upon the almost perfect midfield formula this tournament, with Brozovic, Modric and Rakitic being at the heart of everything good.

Whilst Croatia’s golden generation may have missed their chance to earn international glory, there are certainly encouraging signs for Zlatko Dalic’s men.

Biggest Underachievers:

When looking at the biggest underachievers of the tournament, there is plenty of options to choose from, Spain disappointed with a timid last 16 exit to Russia on penalties. Argentina underwhelmed throughout the tournament, winning just one of their three group games before being dumped out by France in the last 16. But when it comes to the biggest underachievers of the competition, it is hard to look past the 2014 World Cup winners; Germany.

Over the years Germany have established themselves as one of the most efficient, hard-working, feared teams in International Football. However, the stereotypical normalised excellence of Joachim Low’s Germany must’ve not boarded the plane to Russia this summer. Die Mannschaft shocked the footballing world when they opted to omit highly-rated Manchester City wide-man Leroy Sane from their 23 man preliminary squad. They were then stunned by Mexico in their opening game of the tournament as they went down to a hard-working, well-drilled Mexican side who ran out 1-0 winners. Despite being on the back foot and the brink of elimination for the best part of 90 minutes, Joachim Low’s side demonstrated their efficient nature by stealing three points from under Sweden’s nose, as Toni Kroos’ 95th minute free-kick kept their World Cup hopes alive. However, their joy was short lived as bottom of the group South Korea eliminated the champions at the group stage just days later with a 2-0 win, the Germans were eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage for the first time in 79 years.

On an individual basis there were a few contenders for biggest disappointment of the tournament; Timo Werner who was a strong contender for Golden Boot winner pre-tournament epitomised Germany’s World Cup campaign, flat, underwhelming, uninspiring.

Gabriel Jesus was also tipped as one of the favourites to win the Golden Boot, following an excellent domestic campaign with Manchester City where he racked up 17 goals and five assists in all competitions, Jesus was expected to be a focal point in a red hot Brazilian attack that were expected to win the competition for the first time in 16 years. However, Jesus just didn’t turn up in Russia, whilst he was leading the line with aggressive pressing, he fell short in the key areas. The 21 year old struggled to contribute to a goal or assist throughout the tournament, perhaps this World Cup may have fell one tournament to early for the Man City forward.

After their 7-1 embarrassment on the global stage last world cup, Brazil were keen to put their demons of yesteryear behind them by suffocating them with echoes of glory in Russia. The key man for Brazil would be Neymar, hypothetically. However, for all of Neymar’s clear and genuine ability he became a laughing stock in front of the world. The Paris Saint-Germain forward will not be remembered for his performances, and impact on the Brazil side during this world cup, he would be remembered as a show-pony who seemed to place more emphasis on play-acting, diving and quite simply cheating than carrying the hopes of one of the greatest footballing nations in the history of the game. Whilst the 26 year old didn’t have a terrible tournament on paper, he disappointed greatly. Watching a player of Neymar’s ability is a pleasure at the best of times, he carries an aura of a top player and can change the complexion of the tournament at a simple kick of the ball, however all his hard work and ability seems to have been overshadowed by his ridiculous diving. The most expensive player in football history spent over 14 minutes on the floor at the World Cup this summer, and whilst this statistic highlights how talented and dangerous he is, it also exposes how frustrating he can be to watch and how he can undo all of his own hard work with ridiculous play acting.

Goal of the Tournament:

When it comes to goal of the tournament contenders there is plenty of variety to choose from. Angel Di Maria’s thunderbolt against France? Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp free kick against Spain? Jesse Lingard’s long range curler against Panama? But for me, the goal of the tournament was scored by France’s make-shift fullback Benjamin Pavard.

France had just gone behind for the first time in their campaign so far, following Angel Di Maria’s corker from range which looked to be sending Les Bleus home prematurely, this was until Stuttgart defender Benjamin Pavard levelled proceedings with a stunning effort from range. A loose ball on the box fell to Pavard whose half-volley arrowed aesthetically into the far top corner past Willy Caballero to level proceedings. This goal was not only beautiful, but vital, this goal got France back in the game and had reignited their hopes of World Cup glory.

What did we learn?

Following the horrendous misuse of VAR in the Bundesliga, Serie A and FA Cup within the last 12 months, football fans may be excused for being sceptical of the idea of a World Cup which included Video Assistant Referees. However, this summer showed that maybe just maybe VAR isn’t as counterproductive as it once seemed.

VAR helped clamp down on the blatant wrestling approach at set-pieces that most teams in world football that have seemed to approach in recent times. The normalised grappling at set-pieces was finally exposed this tournament with the help of VAR, whilst I personally do not welcome the idea of VAR in football, even I am open to admitting that this refereeing approach does hold some significance in the game. The incompetence of VAR that we as football have become accustomed to in recent months have been directly down to refereeing errors instead of the structure of VAR. Maybe VAR isn’t dead, and in time we could find it working efficiently within each top division in Europe.

One of the main successes of this Russian World Cup has been the overall atmosphere of the locals, and the real Russia that we have openly been exposed to this summer.

After Russian hooligans made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in Euro 2016, media outlets outside of the host country may have been forgiven for expecting a lot of off the field troubles in Russia. A lack of hooliganism, and general misbehaviour has been a pleasant surprise throughout the tournament. In hindsight, it is clear to see that outside media outlets were perhaps wrong to generalise a few hooligan Russian fans to an entire nation.

What are your thoughts on this? Let us know in the comments below!