The problem for Jorge Sampaoli’s side is their possible over-reliance on Messi’s unique skills COUTINHO’S CURLING OPENING GOAL FROM DISTANCE MAY PROVE TO BE ONE OF THE BEST OF THE TOURNAMENT
Group A saw Luis Suárez’ and Christian Stuani’s Uruguay as favourites in what did not prove a difficult group for them. They won all three games, with hosts Russia surprising many by beating a disappointing Egypt, who then even lost to Saudi Arabia to finish bottom of the group. Suárez did not get off to the best of starts individually, missing several chances in the first group game against Egypt, but his relationship with Cavani improved and he scored in both of the other group games.
Spain won Group B in dramatic fashion ahead of Portugal, Morocco and Iran. Although their squad includes four Barça players, one surprise in Julen Lopetegui’s initial selection was Sergi Roberto missing out. Lopetegui was of course removed from his post for negotiating with Real Madrid behind the Spanish FA’s back, leaving former Madrid and Spain captain Fernando Hierro in charge of affairs. This is a special tournament for Piqué and Iniesta in particular, because it is their last international tournament and World Cup. After drawing 3-3 with Portugal in the opening game, Spain struggled past Iran before a late equaliser, disallowed and then reinstated by VAR, saw them on to a date with Russia in the round of 16. Yassine Bounou’s Morocco were fancied before the tournament, but lost to both Iran and Portugal.
Group C had one of the tournament favourites in the shape of a youthful France under coach and World Cup winner Didier Deschamps. Australia, Denmark and Peru were the other teams in the group. Samuel Umtiti was excellent for Barça this season, injury aside, and the tournament could prove a great opportunity for Ousmane Dembele to show what he can do and develop further as a player. Despite Umtiti literally handing Australia a way back into the first game by handling in the area and allowing the Socceroos to equalise, France won the game 2-1 and topped the group with 7 points.
Group D had one Lionel Messi representing Argentina. He will be desperate to do well after Argentina lost the last World Cup final against Germany following consecutive losses to Chile in Copa America finals. The problem for Jorge Sampaoli’s side is their possible over-reliance on Messi’s unique skills. Despite missing a penalty in the first game against Iceland, which ended in a 1-1 draw, and being thrashed by Ivan Rakitic’s excellent Croatia 3-0, Messi played a key role in his country’s 2-1 defeat of Nigeria to see them squeeze through to meet France in the next round. Potential dark horses Croatia, with one of the strongest midfields in the tournament, comprising, among others, Rakitic, Modric and Kovacic, won the group to face Denmark in the round of 16.
Group E had two Barcelona players in Brazil’s squad - Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho - and Espanyol’s Óscar Duarte for Costa Rica. After winning the South American qualifying in dominant fashion, Brazil were involved in an unexpected result from the first round of games, drawing 1-1 with Switzerland, although Coutinho’s curling opening goal from a distance may prove to be one of the best of the tournament. Tite’s side then won their next two games, with both Coutinho and Paulinho scoring, to set up a tie with Mexico. Duarte’s Costa Rica finished bottom of the group with one point.
Group F had an interesting mix of teams, with champions Germany starting as favourites. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was included in the squad, but did not start due to Joachim Löw’s belief in the veteran Manuel Neuer. The holders were the shock of the group stage as they were knocked out following defeats to Mexico and South Korea. Although Mexico won their first two games, it was Sweden who won the group by beating them 3-0 in the final match .
That is all that has been decided at the time of writing, with Thomas Vermaelen the Barça representative in Group G looking likely to start for Belgium in a game neither they nor England will want to win, given that topping the group will put them in the more difficult side of the draw. The Belgians comfortably beat Panama and Tunisia in their first game and look set for a good tournament, while England also looked in good shape, trouncing Panama to the tune of 6-1.
Group H was the only one to have players from all three top-flight Catalan clubs, with Barça’s Yerry Mina, Espanyol’s Carlos Sánchez and Girona’s Mojica all in the Colombia squad. Despite being slight favourites, Colombia lost their first game 2-1 to Japan after having Sánchez sent off in the third minute. However, they bounced back to beat a disappointing Poland 3-0 and could even top the group with a win against Senegal.
Players from local clubs at Russia 2018
Barça have 14 players representing no fewer than nine different countries at this World Cup: Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba with Spain, Ousmane Dembele and Samuel Umtiti with France, Leo Messi with Argentina, Luis Suárez with Uruguay, Phillipe Coutinho and Paulinho with Brazil, Ter Stegen with Germany, Thomas Vermaelen with Belgium, Rakitic with Croatia and Yerry Mina with Colombia. As for Espanyol, they have Carlos Sánchez with Colombia and Óscar Duarte with Costa Rica, and Girona have Yassine Bounou with Morrocco, Christian Stuani with Uruguay and Johan Mojica with Colombia.