The Nations League is a stepping stone for England

The UEFA Nations League landed on English shores on Saturday night with England taking on Spain at Wembley. But what can this new competition do to help propel Gareth Southgate’s new look England outfit to the top?

Increased competition

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard about the UNL and the motivations behind creating a new competition to be played during domestic football’s international break.

For quite some time many football fans have bemoaned the onset of the international break, not least in disrupting their team’s progress in the domestic league, but also because of the borefest friendly matches that it often brings with it.

For some time now England have been caught between two posts

Up until now the highlight of the international break is undoubtedly when big teams get drawn against each other in qualifying for major tournaments, but this often doesn’t happen. While we’re all delighted that England have managed to qualify for major tournaments with standout success, it’s not until they get to said tournament, like a World Cup or European Championship that England have really been able to test their mettle.

Glancing back over England’s qualifying groups over for the last four major tournaments it’s easy to see that England have been outright dominant - and therein lies the problem. For some time now England have been caught between two posts: dominating in qualifying and facing below par opposition where there’s no real test, to underachieving in major tournaments where the opposition in unmanageable.

England's last four qualifying campaigns

WC QF 2018

  • Games played: 10
  • Number of points: 26
  • Finished: 1st

Euro QF 2016

  • Games played: 10
  • Number of points: 30
  • Finished: 1st

WC QF 2014

  • Games played: 10
  • Number of points: 22
  • Finished: 1st

Euro QF 2012

  • Games played: 8
  • Number of points: 18
  • Finished: 1st

Perfect timing

The UNL couldn’t come at a better time for England. With a manager who is attempting to shake things up with a new philosophy and an eager, young squad well and truly behind him, the UNL is a welcome addition to England’s international calendar.

The very nature and structure of the UNL means England will get to meet stronger opponents in a competitive setting, to gain much needed experience outside of major tournaments. Because the UNL puts teams into leagues and groups according to their strength does away with having to face less skilled opposition.

It represents a better chance than anyone else in Europe to utilise it for their own gain

England are drawn into a three team group alongside two world class sides in Croatia and Spain. Because the groups are small means that the competition is fierce, to battle for only a limited number of points available. The winners get a chance to compete for a trophy against Europe’s best, and the losers get relegated. The stakes are high.

True, you could argue that the UNL’s League A, comprising Europe’s 12 best sides including England will sharpen everyone up, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But for a young and progressive England that’s on the ascent and are looking desperately for chances to improve, it represents a better chance than anyone else in Europe to utilise it for their own gain.

England put some impressive moves together against Spain

Three successive defeats

The English press are at it once again, they build you up only to knock you down. They love it, and there are headlines being bound around that following a 2-1 defeat to Spain at Wembley in the inaugural match of the UNL, it’s the first time England have lost three successive games since 1988.

The closer you fly to the sun, the greater your chances of getting burned

Three successive defeats? Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill here. It isn’t a problem. These three defeats have come against Croatia, Belgium and Spain in the semi-final of the World Cup, the third-place playoff and in a ferocious group in the UNL. The closer you fly to the sun, the greater your chances of getting burned.

Spanish lessons

England went up through an early Marcus Rashford goal on Saturday night, only to squander a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1, having a goal disallowed in the dying minutes of the game. Southgate himself has admitted that England were ‘disjointed’ in their attacking play, and that they struggled to push forward against a team that also wanted to press.

It's a process of developing tactical flexibility and awareness

There were other problems that were acutely apparent as well. England’s defence struggles to deal with set pieces, which is ironic considering that was their very modus operandi at the other end of the pitch in Russia. The question of having a world class midfielder to dictate play in the centre of the pitch needs to be answered as well.

But the very fact that Gareth Southgate said in his post match press conference that he couldn’t have asked more of his players goes to show where England need to improve. The manager obviously believes England have the talent and the capability in their ranks, but it’s rather a process of developing tactical flexibility and awareness.

“Brave enough to stick to our principles”

This is where the UNL can work to England’s advantage. Already after a tough match up against top quality opposition in Spain, it’s clearer to see what England need to work on. With matches coming up thick and fast against Croatia home and away and Spain away, don’t expect it to get any easier, but certainly don’t lose heart either if it appears difficult. As Southgate has said himself, there’s no going back to the old ways. This is an enlightened England that’s emerging. Expect there to be bumps along the way, but be certain that the UNL will work positively for their development.

England take on Switzerland in a friendly on Tuesday 11 September at the King Power Stadium in Leicester (KO: 20.00 BST)

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Where To Get Your Footy Fix

It’s already been over a week since the World Cup ended in French victory, and you’re probably already desperate for club football to make its way back. Unfortunately for all of us the big European domestic seasons don’t start up until mid-late August. Nightmare! Or is it?

Football fanatics shouldn’t fret and can breathe a sigh of relief - there’s plenty of football already underway to get you through the summer until we hit the professional club season.

International Champions Cup

(20 July - 20 August)

The International Champions Cup (ICC), a super-charged pre-season friendly tournament the likes of the world had never seen until only recently has already begun. This year’s tournament is the most expansive iteration to date, since the inaugural tournament began in 2013. This year the ICC is played over 22 venues across three continents, featuring some of Europe’s top clubs.

We can all admit that friendly games often don’t mean much, but this isn’t just an opportunity for far-flung fans to see their favourite teams before they head home to their respective leagues. The ICC is also a brilliant opportunity for football fans to see the biggest teams display their new signings and get a taste of how they’re bedding in.

Teams Competing in the ICC
  • Arsenal (ENG)
  • Chelsea (ENG)
  • Liverpool (ENG)
  • Manchester City (ENG)
  • Manchester United (ENG)
  • Tottenham Hotspur (ENG)
  • Atlético Madrid (SPA)
  • Barcelona (SPA)
  • Real Madrid (SPA)
  • AC Milan (ITA)
  • Inter Milan (ITA)
  • Juventus (ITA)
  • Roma (ITA)
  • Bayern Munich (GER)
  • Borussia Dortmund (GER)
  • Lyon (FRA)
  • Paris Saint-Germain (GER)
  • Benfica (POR)

It’s true many of the biggest stars of the game who featured in the World Cup are enjoying some much needed downtime after a hectic summer in Russia. Players like Neymar, Ronaldo, Mbappé, Griezmann and Lewandowski are yet to join up with their respective squads but should be back for selection relatively soon.

The upside to not seeing the superstars just yet? It’s a great chance to see the future stars of tomorrow. With the big guns missing for the start of the tournament, managers pick the cream of the crop from their academies to blood youngsters in, to see what they’re made of, and to give them a chance to play with more senior players.

Yes, the ICC while not quite the pinnacle of footballing competition, has plenty for you to get your teeth into.

Branch out and go further afield

With the domestic season in Europe not beginning for another few weeks, this is the perfect opportunity for earnest football fans to explore what else there is to offer from around the world. In other parts of the globe, domestic leagues work to different schedules and are played at different times of the year. Let’s take a look at some of the best picks to supplement your footballing repertoire.

MLS (Major League Soccer)

Despite cynics questioning its reputation, the premier North American league is serious business these days. Fans of European football will be quick to point fingers at how the older statesmen of European football still depart European shores in the twilight of their careers for the MLS, to make mere cameo appearances.

Maybe a statement such as this was true of the 1970s when Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Pelé moved to the states to kickstart the game across the pond. We can still draw a parallel in that the bigger stars from Europe like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, or most recently Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic made the move late in the game. But the MLS is anything but new and is now an entrenched feature of the sports landscape of the US and Canada.

Without the distractions of the European leagues, give the MLS a shot and you’ll be seriously surprised. It’s much more competitive than many leagues in Europe, and there isn’t really a dominant team has been able to consistently emerge as victor, although LA Galaxy are trying. The MLS is the perfect thing to keep you from going crazy now the World Cup has come to an end.

The league is split up into two regional conferences, the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference, and with around 20 games already played, the fight for an all-important top-6 playoff position is well underway on both sides of the continent

In the Eastern Conference new kids on the block LA FC have been upsetting the establishment, edging just in front of local rivals LA Galaxy, while FC Dallas are storming ahead at the top. In the Western Conference the New York teams are in the mix as per usual, while unlikely leaders Atlanta FC sit astride top spot.

Campeonato Brasileiro Série A

Amazingly the Brazilian national championship only took a three week break for the World Cup, and it already started up again on Thursday 19 July, playing two rounds of games to date. With the biggest and most popular team in the country Flamengo leading the line, everyone in Brazil is already transfixed despite it not yet being even half way through the season.

Played out in the southern hemisphere, the Campeonato Brasileiro is played at the opposite time of year compared to the majority of Europe’s leagues, meaning they’re in full swing during our off-season.

Why not give yourself the opportunity to see the next Neymar, Ronaldinho or Ronaldo by watching Brazil’s premier football league. The Brazil national team is famous the world round for their silky skills and offensive football play, but it has to start somewhere. Despite European clubs poaching talent ever earlier nowadays there’s still a wealth on offer. Only this month, the hotly-tipped Vinicius Junior transferred from his native Flamengo to Real Madrid for a reported £40 million at the tender age of 18.

The Brazilian league combines fast and skilful football with scrappy defensive displays, and often full force tackling, not of the like you’ve come to expect from the country’s national side.  There’s no shrinking violets in this game, that’s for sure. But the depth of talent in this footballing behemoth is often unbelievable. More importantly it’s spread more evenly than in many European leagues and makes for a much tougher, tighter and tense competition.

With such a passionate fan base and an unpredictable league, Brazilian football still has a lot to offer despite losing their premier talents ever earlier on. The league is dominated by southern teams from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro who have intense and entrenched rivalries, and their teams are widely supported throughout the country. It will come as no surprise that names such as Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo, Corinthians and Palmeiras will be familiar to you.

Despite regular inter and intra city derbies occuring fairly regularly, if you find yourself dipping into Brazilian football you won’t be disappointed with the passion, the intensity or the quality of South America’s best domestic league. Tempers run high south of the equator and don’t be shocked if you see an on-pitch brawl either.

European Qualification

For the big boys the world’s premier club competition, the Champions League begins with the group stages in September and ends in an illustrious final of epic proportions in June. Some of the world’s heavyweights with the best players from around the globe fight it out for the ultimate title in club football.

In contrast, smaller clubs from some of European football’s more modest leagues must first prove themselves worthy of a place in the main competition by playing up to three qualification rounds. It begins a lot earlier and often a lot less glamorously for some of Europe’s smaller sides and already we’re well underway with the first legs of the second round of ties being played next week over Tuesday 24 July and Wednesday 25 July.

Some of the teams you might want to take a peak at have illustrious histories and are already fighting it out. They’re after financial benefits that qualification to the main competition can bring, but also the prestige, the chance to test their wits against stronger sides from Europe’s bigger leagues, and of course for the enjoyment of their fans.

Some of the names you might be familiar with that are already vying for a spot in the Champions League or will enter in the third round include: Celtic, Ajax, FC Basel, Malmö FF, Red Star Belgrade, APOEL Nicosia and Rosenborg. It might not be the pinnacle of European football, but it’s certainly the most competitive football in Europe over the summer with many teams fighting for their lives to get that all important spot in the Group Stage of the Champions League. Expect there to be some intense matches being played out.

Community Shield

(5 August)

Regardless of whether you count this as a real trophy or not, the Community Shield ushers in the new season as we all wait will bated breath, Not to mention it’s often the only chance we get to see the Wembley turf baked in sunshine until end of the season as the FA Cup comes to a close.

This year it’s runaway champions Manchester City against FA Cup Winners Chelsea who go up against each other. A lot of questions are still to be answered, and this one will mostly likely bring up more queries than answering any questions. Can Pep Guardiola and co continue to dominate, and how will new Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri adapt to life, and football, in England?

Start dates for major European leagues
  • Premier League (England) 10-11 August
  • La Liga (Spain) 19 August
  • Serie A (Italy) 18-19 August
  • Bundesliga (Germany) 24-25 August
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Smells Like Team Spirit

It’s quarter final time and there are a number of un-familiar faces up for a semi-final spot. Is it a fluke that’s brought these teams this far or is there something else at play?

The World Cup in Russia this summer has definitely not disappointed. VAR has rained down penalties on us like we could’ve never have imagined. There have been upsets that we’ve all relished and revelled in, with the Germans crashing out in the group stages for the first time in over half a century. The Spanish failed to meet the grade against hosts Russia in the last 16, and Argentina were downright woeful. All of these teams have individuality quality but none have performed as a team.

The stand out feature is togetherness, comradeship and team spirit

The stand out feature of this year’s World Cup isn’t the frivolity you seen on fans’ faces in the stadiums and streets of Russia, or the plethora of penalties, or even of England winning a penalty shoot out for the first time in their history. The stand out feature is the success, and indeed, the importance of togetherness, comradeship and team spirit that is seeing teams we would’ve never given the slightest chance of success actually succeeding. This comes in contrast to ‘bigger’, more established teams having fallen by the wayside, either crashing out of the competition earlier than expected or looking distinctly lacklustre.

A different competition

It’s true the way the World Cup draw has played out has left the knockout stages a little bit topsy turvy, but that’s also been aided by the likes of Germany surrendering their top group spot to the likes of Sweden. What we’re faced with now is a different kind of World Cup than we expected.

Normally the opportunity to see heavyweights knocking the stuffing out of each other, the desire to see world class talent, or of relishing a team’s potential national embarrassment on the world’s stage is what gets us going. Instead we have a set of teams that are an unexpected success, and yet we’re still brimming with anticipation. That’s what the World Cup is about.

Solid Swedes

Let’s start with Sweden, they’ve been one of the real success stories up to now. They managed to top their group with stellar performances against all three of their opponents in Mexico, South Korea and Germany. But they haven’t done it with a world class team of big name players. Far from it actually, even with Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic missing for the first time in over a decade.

Cowering behind Ibrahimovic two years ago they failed to score a goal from open play

Though therein lies the key. With Ibrahimovic stepping to the side, it has seen the emergence of a team of fairly average players who admittedly have a wealth of experience in their ranks. They no longer lump the ball up to their main man and expect magic to happen. Instead they have to take more ownership for their actions, and ultimately the outcomes.

Under the guidance of Swedish championship winning Janne Andersson and rock-hard captain Andreas Granqvist they’ve managed to turn it around only in the space of two years. Cowering behind Ibrahimovic two years ago they failed to score a goal from open play. Dismally, their only goal in a draw against Ireland was an own goal. Admittedly they’re not playing the best football, but they’ve ushered a collective rallying cry. They play a compact and solid game, and you’ll be lucky to nick a goal against them.

Many will talk about the importance of having a core of players to be a bond and direction in a national side, such as Spain’s team have with a number of players from Real or Barça. Look how much good that’s done them. In contrast, Sweden’s players play as far afield as Seattle, Krasnodar, Toulouse and the UAE, but they’ve come together as a unit in Russia and they definitely don’t want to go back home any time soon.

It's coming home

Another team that’s turned it round in the last two years are England. After a disappointing exit four years ago in the group stage and going out to minnows Iceland at Euro 2016, the Three Lions looked to be heading for another national embarrassment when newly appointed manager Sam Allardyce was sacked after he was caught negotiating dodgy under the table dealings.

In his wake the English Football Association opted to appoint U21 manager Gareth Southgate who has since almost seemingly revolutionised the national feeling with his calm and measured positivity. But if Southgate is sensible then the English fans are certainly not.

Picked on the basis of form and merit during the season a team of talent and grit has emerged

The positive passing play of a more youthful and exuberant England side that has been picked on the basis of form and merit during the season has seen a team of talent and grit emerge. And it’s a team that has captured the hearts of the nation. Although with what England fans have had to put up with over recent years, you can hardly forgive them for getting carried away.

Admittedly, England have a lot more to do to really impress during the competition. Their ability to grind out results in the face of difficult opposition and play good football will serve them well going forward in the tournament, but also in years to come if success is going to be the name of the game from now on.

Iron Curtain raisers

The likes of Russia and Croatia have also successfully negotiated their passage to the quarter finals through a mixture of teamwork and with a positive attacking mentality. Admittedly though Croatia have a little more in the way of talent with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic among their ranks.

They’re a real danger to any one who comes up against them

Even so both teams go up against each other in a quarter final match up that has seen them navigate tricky teams along the way. Croatia have swept aside Nigeria, Argentina, Iceland and Denmark to get where they are. This is no mean feat considering each opponent demands a significant switch in tactical setup. The one enduring quality they’ve taken into each game is teamwork. Coupled with the quality they have, they’re a real danger to any one who comes up against them.

This is no more apparent than for next opponents Russia. They’ve exceeded expectations for sure, but it’s not likely that their fans will see a quarter final exit the same way. To make it past the Croats they’ll have summon everything they’ve got and work together to get it.

This year’s World Cup could still be won by one of the heavyweights in Brazil or France, or even by Belgium who all have a wealth of talent at their disposal. Yet they’ve all failed to gel, to impress, and to ultimately set the tournament alight. Regardless of who lifts the trophy in Russia, the emergence of teams built on a common bond, rather than sheer individually supremacy has made this year’s World Cup refreshingly positive.

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Nobody's Safe in Russia

Prior to the start of this year’s World Cup a huge amount of focus was being paid to the question of fan safety in Russia. Russia’s domestic leagues have a bad reputation for hooliganism and organised bands of Russian gangs set upon England’s fans two years ago in France. In contrast, we’ve not seen a modicum of negativity coming out of Russia, especially in such an age of social media transparency.  

The fans may be having the time of their lives; partaking in the revelry, experiencing Russia at it’s best, it’s most open, and it’s safest but it’s a whole different situation for the players themselves. There isn’t a single team that can go to sleep at night in full confidence of what lays ahead of them and who they will have to meet if they are to lift the trophy in July.

Failure to break down

If this World Cup in Russia has taught us anything it’s that the gulf of quality and ability between teams has vastly reduced on the whole compared with previous years. Defences have tightened, tactics have become more fluid, and it’s difficult to break teams down. Even if teams are still not evenly matched on paper, the underdogs have certainly wised up.  

Many have been quick to laud the fact that up until the final round of group games when France met Denmark, there wasn’t a single game that had ended in 0-0. True, but this fact masks something that is being experienced throughout this year’s tournament, and that’s the diminished ability of teams to break down their opponents and score an early goal.

Regardless of the favourite in a match, tactics are sharper

This has been evident in the amount of games that have failed to register a single goal in the first half which is climbing up towards 20. It’s only been in the last couple of games that teams have started to score an increased amount of goals in the first half. It shows us that regardless of the favourite in a match, tactics are sharper and it takes the half time pause for coaches to have a word in the dressing room, and to switch it up to make a breakthrough. But does it take away the entertainment value? Obviously not. We’ve barely even noticed.

Crunch matches

It’s true we are starting to see things open as we near the end of the group stage. Teams are beginning to come into form, to find their rhythm and to find their identity. But what we’ve been lacking as well as first half goals is an absence of the absolute destruction of teams. Only a handful of games have been won by more than two goals. Russia’s opener against Saudi Arabia was an early exception to the rule, being followed more recently by England’s 6-1 demolition of Panama.  

It’s not necessarily that ‘smaller’ teams are catching up, but that they’re getting better at matching up

A testament to the entertainment value of this World Cup despite the aforementioned patterns, is that people simply aren’t noticing the lack of goals in some games. The trend has been that teams will win 2-1 or 1-0 rather than seeing games such as Portugal and Spain knocking lumps out of each other to finish 3-3.  

It shows two things. Number one is that World Cup matches have become a tighter affair. It’s not necessarily that ‘smaller’ teams are catching up, but that they’re getting better at matching up. They have an ability to setup in a way where they feel more confident and comfortable. Secondly, the lack of a predominant method or theory across the board such as the counter attack, the tiki-taki, or the lamp-it-upfield-and-chase-it method shows we’re experiencing a much more globally representative game this time round.

Set piece sensations

A not so silent menace has been steadily creeping back into this year’s tournament, something we thought was gone from football forever, something that plagued us all eight long years ago. That’s right, the vuvuzela can be heard at some games much to the dismay of everyone, everywhere.  

The vuvuzela is an annoyance but one thing we should be grateful for is that goals are being scored from dead ball situations. This comes in contrast to South Africa 2010 when there was a distinctive lack of free kicks scored, largely blamed on the Jabulani ball. Now with the help of VAR we’re getting penalties like it’s Christmas Day everyday, and free kicks are raining in from masters like Messrs Ronaldo and Kroos.

You ain't seen everything yet

It’s true, there has been no single stand out team that we can point to and say ‘they’re gonna win this one’ (despite what England fans might think). No team, whether pre-tournament favourite, world-class squad, plucky underdog or dark horse has shown themselves to be capable of unequivocal praise or removing of doubt.  

France don’t seem to have realised they’re at a World Cup, and who knows what Spain are doing

Heavyweights Argentina have made it through but are falling apart at the seams. England look dangerous but have yet to meet a real test. Germany have blown hot and cold. Brazil are struggling to score and knit together effective play. France don’t seem to have realised they’re at a World Cup, and who knows what Spain are doing.  

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Teams from Group H who nobody gave a fighting chance like Colombia, Japan and Senegal are playing great, expansive football. The hosts Russia look like they could run for days. Portugal look weak as a team but you can never doubt Ronaldo. Even Switzerland look up for it.  

We’ve starting to see games open up, and more space is being created both on the pitch and in the difference in scorelines. We’re even seeing the match ups for the round of 16 take shape. But bear in mind the knockout stages will be a whole different kettle of fish. The knockout stages will sort the contenders from the pretenders.

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Round One Round Up: World Cup 2018

Time flies when you’re having fun, and that’s certainly been the case for this year’s World Cup. The first round of games is already over and it certainly hasn’t disappointed.

Goals Galore

This year’s World Cup in Russia has started off with a bang. There hasn’t been a single game that’s ended in a 0-0, and most teams have already registered at least one goal which will give them confidence to push on into the second round of games. We’ve seen a number of strong performances from teams that, even if they don’t play well, have a certain exuberance about them going forward, that will surely lead to more goals. Even teams like Denmark and Peru went out at each other with a hammer and sickle even though it only ended in a 1-0 result for Denmark.  

Spain and Portugal kicked us off in a heavyweight clash that saw six fabulous goals, in a game that’s already being tipped as a World Cup classic. It wouldn’t have looked out of place as a match up for the latter stages of the tournament.  

Atmosphere that is being garnered from players, travelling fans and locals alike

A total of nine penalties were awarded in the first round of matches alone which is surely on its way to smashing the previous record in any previous World Cup.  

There has been a wave of negativity going into this World Cup and it seems to have evaporated almost overnight with an atmosphere that is being garnered from players, travelling fans and locals alike.

Not so hotly tipped hosts

That negativity has been ruthlessly shattered by none other than the hosts themselves, both on and off the pitch. The decision to give this year’s World Cup to Russia has come under fire the closer we’ve got to cutting the ribbon. Many have called into question both the country’s regime that is behind delivering us the tournament, but also the country’s own passion and ability to deliver a positive, safe and seamless World Cup experience.  

The feeling around the Russia national team from both home and abroad has been even more soured in recent weeks, with one Russian journalist claiming that they needed a miracle to make it out of their group.  

What we are seeing so far is a fantastic tournament

That being said, the feeling abroad hasn’t been too encouraging either, and it’s likely that this could be the most unsupported host nation in World Cup memory, and quite unfairly it has to be said. Scenes from hooligans two years ago when Russia met England in the Euros, as well as Russia’s government’s actions in recent years have unfairly tarnished the country’s image as a whole  

But it’s important that fans everywhere lose that negativity or feeling of mistrust, and don’t let it colour their image of the Russian people. What we are seeing so far is a fantastic tournament set in a country many know little about.  

A World Cup is better for everyone when the host nation does well

Now that the Russian national team has finally picked up its game and is doing the business it’s important that they are supported well. At both games we’ve seen them play the fans have been nothing short of rapturous. A World Cup is better for everyone when the host nation does well, and it would be in everyone’s interest to get behind them and wish them well.

Russia Making History
  • Russia's 8 goals in their first two matches is equal to the amount of goals Spain scored to win the World Cup in 2010
  • First time Russia have won their first two games since they got to the semis in 1966 as the Soviet Union
  • First time a host has won both their opening matches since Italy in 1934

Big boys struggled

Defending champions Germany went down to Mexico in a shock 1-0 win for El Tricolor, in what was definitely the stand out shocker so far. Similarly heavyweights Argentina and Brazil struggled against lesser opposition, both only managing one-all draws in their openers.  

There are upsets every World Cup and everyone loves the occasional upset. Fans have to make the difficult choice between enjoying see the big boys go through or whether they want to see them crash out. 

History would dictate that they’ll be there at the end despite this hiccup

Having said that, it doesn’t seem likely that any of those big three World Cup staple squads will crash out in the group stages. Although the Germans don’t have as strong a squad as last time round, they do have quality in abundance. History would dictate that they’ll be there at the end despite this hiccup.  

Brazil looked impressive going forward against Switzerland but have to find their samba rhythm going into their second match, especially with Neymar looking doubtful. Argentina look arguably the most likely out of the three to go out in the group stage. They struggled to find any answers against Iceland, and with the combination of a weak and unorganised defence and their star man not doing the business it could be worrying. They were poor in qualifying and experience has shown they need Lionel Messi on form to pull them together as a team.

Germany Mexico Betting Tip

Germany will need to pull themselves together and quicken up the pace

Will VAR be the real star?

FIFA’s decision to bring in VAR for this year’s World Cup was controversial. It hasn’t been fully given the run around or road tested in enough domestic competitions prior to it’s introduction at the World Cup. It is arguably the most revolutionary thing to happen to our beautiful game since the introduction of the red and yellow card system at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.  

It’s important that officials stay on track and don’t allow that faith to be shaken

FIFA backed themselves by saying they wanted to see a ‘fairer’ World Cup for officials, players and fans alike - and for the most part it does seem to working. It has to be said that it’s never going to please everyone, but it does look like players and their technical staff are accepting decisions even when they go against them. It’s important that officials stay on track and don’t allow that faith to be shaken. The level of misplaced passion that has turned to on-pitch petulance has been growing in the game to worrying levels over recent years and so far at the World Cup it’s largely been stamped out due to VAR.  

All in all, it’s never going to please everyone but so far teams like France and Sweden have benefited from potentially controversial penalty decisions. But it does need to be 100% correct. Fairer is one thing, but it needs to be totally on the level.  

It’s not going anywhere and we’ll all have to get used to it

Previously officials could mask themselves behind simple claims that they didn’t see an incident, or just put it down to human error. Now there is no room for doubt. The referee doesn’t just have technology to help, but also the implementation of additional human checks and balances behind that technology. It still has England captain Harry Kane and his cohort of England fans scratching their heads over a number of decisions it should have fixed. It will get better over time but it has to happen quickly, because from now on it’s not going anywhere and we’ll all have to get used to it.

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