Soccer

Messi's men can emerge as Qatar heroes

Michael McWilliams

Michael has worked at The Irish News since 2003, bringing experience as a sports reporter and columnist with a passion for golf and soccer. He holds a BA Hons in English Literature and a Post-Grad diploma in Newspaper Journalism from the University of Ulster. McWilliams is a member of the NUJ.

Lionel Messi has become used to lifting trophies with Argentina over the last couple of years, winning the Copa America and La Finalissimo, and he could get his hands on the World Cup as well come December 18 Picture by PA
Lionel Messi has become used to lifting trophies with Argentina over the last couple of years, winning the Copa America and La Finalissimo, and he could get his hands on the World Cup as well come December 18 Picture by PA Lionel Messi has become used to lifting trophies with Argentina over the last couple of years, winning the Copa America and La Finalissimo, and he could get his hands on the World Cup as well come December 18 Picture by PA

THINK of World Cups gone by, and a certain romanticism will surely take over the minds of anyone who was as sports-mad as I was growing up.

The glorious moments, stunning goals, even the controversies, provide a touchstone to what was going on in our lives back then.

From Diego tearing England and the rest apart, to Packie’s save, O’Leary’s penalty and Gazza’s tears.

Zidane using his head to superb effect in ’98, to losing it completely eight years later, and redemption for the Ronaldo in between – the memories instantly evoke a nostalgia for times gone by.

All of those – it seems now at least – were played out against the backdrop of summer sun, in the host countries and for us at home.

It just doesn’t seem right to stand on the brink of another World Cup with the dark nights all around us, but then again the romance was cast aside the minute Sepp Blatter opened an envelope to reveal ‘Qatar’ written inside.

Football was the last thing in the thoughts of those who wisely awarded the game’s biggest competition to a tiny Gulf state, a place too hot in the summer to get your breath, forcing the switch to winter. The build-up has been dogged by one controversy after another, while the players have been tasked with swapping club duties for international action at the drop of a hat.

Qatar sticks in the throat, and yet for the next month, right up to the final on December 18 at the Lusail Iconic Stadium in Doha, most of us will be glued to the action, hoping our bets come in and the Christmas presents will make a slightly smaller dent in the bank balance.

It is a World Cup like no other, and none of us really know what to expect, even those charged with preparing the elite nations for global combat.

If the bookies are to be taken at their word, there are nine such countries, all of whom will harbour dreams of being crowned world champions next month.

That group goes from 4/1 favourites Brazil down to 18/1 shots Belgium, with France, Argentina, England, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal all priced somewhere in between.

The other 23 nations may as well go home, although Croatia struck a blow for the dark horses by reaching the final in Russia four years ago, while Denmark and Uruguay may fancy their chances of bloodying a few illustrious noses.

The Brazilians have been put up by many as the team to beat, and a look at the attacking riches at the disposal of manager Tite gives plenty of cause for optimism that they can lift the trophy for the first time since 2002.

Neymar is the star name, but Vinicius Jr is fast becoming a superstar at Real Madrid, and Richarlison and Raphinha have become proven performers at international level.

They are serviced by a functional midfield, patrolled by Manchester United pair Casemiro and Fred, while Thiago Silva is still going strong at the back and Alisson is as good as it gets between the sticks.

They should win Group G handily enough ahead of Switzerland, Serbia and Cameroon and whoever beats Brazil will certainly take some stopping, but there are slight concerns about their depth defensively and arguably they are going out of their group into the tougher side of the draw.

That half will almost certainly include Argentina (11/2 generally), and possibly France (15/2, Unibet) if they start slowly and fall foul of the Danes in Group D.

If we are judging on depth of talent, the French may as well just keep hold of the trophy won without breaking sweat four years ago.

Kylian Mbappe (below) served notice of his promise then, and while he flopped at the Euros last summer, the PSG man is back to his best, and his partnership with Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema could tear the tournament apart.

Didier Deschamps can call on quality everywhere, but that has been a slight issue of late as he doesn’t know his best team, whereas the success in Russia was built of a settled side.

Key midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante are out, while Raphael Varane is carrying an injury, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is increasingly becoming a liability.

The French are capable of retaining their crown, but they were poor in the recent Nations League, and went out in the last-16 of Euro 2020, so I’m not capable of backing them.

Argentina might be slightly shorter with most firms than the French, but there is a great deal more to like about them, not least the sense of unity brought about by manager Lionel Scaloni.

The one-time West Ham right-back is possibly the most popular Lionel in his homeland these days, a product of forging a team to get the best of out his namesake, Messi.

Scaloni ended a 28-year wait for silverware by winning the Copa America last term – beating Brazil in the final – with Messi leading the scoring charts.

The challenge now is to take it up a notch with the best Europe has to offer also in the mix, but Argentina readily dismissed Euro 2020 winners Italy in ‘La Finalissimo’ and are on a three-year, 35-game unbeaten streak.

The Italians showed the value of that type of confidence last year, and Scaloni has married a solid rearguard with a fluid attacking system with Messi at the core.

Emi Martinez is a reliable goalkeeper, Rodri de Paul and Cristian Romero bring old-fashioned South American nastiness, and Lauturo Martinez has become a classy goalscorer, while there is plenty in reserve.

Brazil may lie in wait in the last four, but Argentina have no fear after their Copa success and will attack the tournament with relish, a kind Group C with Poland, Mexico and Saudi Arabia giving them the chance to ease themselves in.

There are very few weaknesses, and while the price has been backed in, Argentina are the best bet at 11/2.

I’d certainly rather be on them than England (9/1), and it is hard to escape the feeling the end of a successful Gareth Southgate era is close.

He has guided his team to a World Cup semi-final and Euro final, based on a togetherness and picking players who are fit and on form.

Southgate has gone against that mantra now, and there are too many concerns about key defenders like Harry Maguire and John Stones, who can’t get club game-time.

England has great attacking options in Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount, but Southgate’s natural caution hasn’t always got the best out of them, and England come into the tournament without win in six games and on the back of a Nations League relegation.

They should top Group B ahead of Wales, USA and Iran, but once the quality ratchets up they’ll be found wanting and a last eight place might be their ceiling.

Belgium are the easiest of the ‘big nine’ to dismiss even though Thibault Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne are world-class talents.

The rest of Roberto Martinez’s key men are past their prime, while Romelu Lukaku has been injured all season and isn’t the type to hit the ground running after a lay-off.

Portugal (18/1, Unibet) are harder to get a handle on as there is so much talent in their squad, but the likes of Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Rafael Leao may only reach their international potential when Cristiano Ronaldo retires.

‘CR7’ is an all-time great, but there are feelings in his homeland that he should no longer be guaranteed his place, and there is a chance he hinders this campaign, while I’ve a suspicion Uruguay could pip them to top spot in Group H, thereby throwing Portugal under the Brazil bus in the last 16.

Holland (14/1, Sky Bet) are making their return after missing the 2018 renewal, and have gone back to Louis van Gaal, who delivered a semi-final spot in 2014.

The Dutch first XI looks very strong, and they have a gift of an opening group alongside Qatar, Senegal and Ecuador, but are still building and will probably fall in the last eight.

Which leaves Spain and Germany, who have been drawn together in Group E, and are hard to back outright at 9/1 and 11/1 respectively for that reason.

There is little between the sides, both of whom are starting to get things right wih a new breed of talent alongside the odd old head.

Whoever wins Group E would be on a collision course with Brazil in the quarters, while the runners-up may just have an appetising path to the latter stages.

Spain are coming together under Luis Enrique, and they played the best football of anyone at Euro 2020.

Gavi and Pedri could be the next Xavi and Iniesta, Sergio Busquets or Rodri will provide steel, while the defence is hugely experienced, if slightly slow.There might be a concern over goals, but Spain’s patient approach could pass teams to death and they will be a match for most.

Germany have something of a free hit as the focus is on a home Euros in 2024. Hansi Flick has taken the helm after Jogi Low’s reign went on too long, with the perennial contenders turned into also-rans.

Flick has a new generation to pick from, with Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala a potential star of the event, while the likes of Thomas Muller provide World Cup know-how from the 2014 success.

This Germany lacks the nous of that version, and are still finding their way, but they score goals for fun and have a classy midfield with Joshua Kimmich and Ilkay Gundogan pulling the strings.

As with Spain, I feel their chances rest on not winning the group.

I’d take either of the South American giants to get the better of them, but given the draw there has to be something to be said for backing both an Argentina/Spain final, and Argentina/Germany – a repeat of three previous deciders – at 40/1 with Bet365.

SELECTIONS

Argentina, 11/2 (General);

Argentina/Spain final, 40/1 (Bet365);

Argentina/Germany final, 40/1 (Bet365)