Underachievers’ playground, favourites’ nightmare

July 05, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 04:05 am IST - Kazan

The likes of Sweden and Russia have shown that there is no room for their cocky counterparts; Japan nearly pulled off the impossible against Belgium

I feel it in the atmosphere

Feeling the times change like waves of sound

A new day’s already here

It comes into the light from underground

DJ Vice is the last person you’ll expect to perfectly sum up the happenstances of a World Cup. But the underachieving nations of the footballing globe seem to have picked Russia 2018 as the time and place to show their cocky counterparts that this world is indeed their playground.

The tournament, left with only its final eight games, has witnessed a rapid change in the world order, with teams like Croatia and Sweden replacing the traditional superpowers of football. Sweden — celebrated for its meatballs and IKEA — had already accounted for Italy in the UEFA qualifiers, and moved to the knockout rounds at the expense of defending champion Germany, which was slayed by South Korea in its last group game.

Janne Andersson, who also engineered the downfall of Switzerland — ranked No. 6 in the world — has forged a highly functional team that is quick on the counter and is expected to pose a challenge to its quarterfinals rival England, which has already started dreaming of a final.

“We have worked this way throughout. What other teams and countries think about is not terribly interesting to us,” Andersson said. “We are a team starting out and building. It’s just full steam ahead and, God dammit, we are going to put in a bloody good match. We are not satisfied with this. We want to win the next match.”

Perhaps more surprising has been host Russia’s ascent to the last eight, with the Cup’s lowest ranked team defying the bookmakers and pundits to seal a win over Spain. The Spaniards’ penalty shootout defeat can be an apt lesson for the fancied teams as the likes of Isco, David Silva and the rest looked more than happy to keep circulating the ball while ignoring football’s ultimate aim of scoring goals.

The Russians — who have run themselves ragged, covering 477.08km in their four games — might find it hard to deal with the creativity that Croatia brings to the table. The Luka Modric-led side was the standout team of the group phase, humiliating Argentina 3-0 in its second game. The Croats, however, showed familiar failings in the round-of-16 and a bout of nerves almost saw it eliminated against Denmark. “The victory said a lot about our spirit. Since 2008 we had never passed the first knockout game and it was very important for us to take the monkey off our back. And we did it,” Modric said.

France, too, will fancy its chances against Uruguay, which shares the best defensive record in the tournament with Brazil. The young Kylian Mbappe has already anointed himself as a future star with his superlative display that ended Lionel Messi’s World Cup. The Paris Saint-Germain player has forged a wonderful working relationship with Antoine Griezmann, and the South Americans, still in doubt over Edinson Cavani’s fitness, will try to absorb the French pressure and hit the opposition on the counter, banking on the guile of Luis Suarez.

The match in Kazan, perhaps, offers the best contest, with Brazil — ticking again under Tite — locking horns with Belgium’s once-in-a-generation talents. While Eden Hazard and his men grazed through, recovering from a two-goal deficit against Japan, the Brazilians dismantled a stubborn Mexico, with Neymar contributing with a goal and an assist. The game has the potential to be a goal riot with a variety of attacking players on display. The summer temperatures in the south-west city can also play its part with the tournament already witnessing a spike in the number of goals scored in the second half.

We will, however, stay away from the hazardous job of picking favourites because this World Cup has already showed that it can always be anybody’s game.

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