Cup big guns fail to fire as lesser lights shine
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[June 19, 2018]
By Toby Davis
SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) -
Traditionally the stage on which the biggest teams parade their
talents, this year's World Cup has seen the Goliaths of
international football stumble when faced with industrious opponents
of a lesser stature.
Brazil, Germany and Argentina have lifted 11 World Cups between
them, but all failed to win their opening games in Russia, prompting
questions about whether this was a temporary blip or indicative of a
major shift in the balance of power.
Add in 2010 champions Spain failing to beat Portugal and France's
struggle to overcome one of the supposedly weakest Australia sides
in recent years and a pattern emerges.
Germany's 1-0 defeat by Mexico was not unprecedented, but was still
The holders have lost their opening game before with Joachim Loew's
side joining Spain (2014), France (2002), Argentina (1990 and 1982)
and Italy (1950) in suffering that ignominy.
Yet this was Germany's first opening-game defeat since 1982 and the
only time in World Cup history that they, Brazil and Argentina had
all failed to win their first matches.
Not everyone is convinced a competition that has only had eight
winners in its 88-year history has suddenly witnessed a leveling of
the playing field -- Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is
firmly in the blip camp.
"They all will qualify and the best of these top teams will come in
the knockout," the Portuguese said.
To do that, however, they will need to reassert their superiority
against lesser sides on paper who seem to have collectively settled
on a blueprint for frustrating more talented opponents.
Argentina, who were held to a 1-1 draw by tiny Iceland, and Brazil,
who shared the spoils with Switzerland, both came up against teams
happy to sacrifice attacking intent in favor of rigid defensive
organization and Herculean levels of industry.
Mexico took it one stage further, combining a defensive wall with a
rapid-fire counter-attack that left Germany's aging rearguard
Manning the barricades is not a new idea for smaller countries
hoping to upset the odds.
Costa Rica showed four years ago in reaching the quarter-finals that
the ability to frustrate opponents with a far greater pedigree can
take you a long way, while Iceland's run to the quarters at Euro
2016 was the latest example of how caution has become a reliable
means of over-achieving.
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Argentina's Lionel Messi has a penalty saved by Iceland's Hannes Por
Halldorsson REUTERS/Albert Gea/File Photo
Germany's efforts to break down Mexico seemed particularly futile --
the more resources they committed to attack, the more they looked
vulnerable to the counter-punch.
Even their own players could see they had fallen into carefully laid
trap, with center back Mats Hummels saying Germany's failure to plug
defensive holes had been the subject of "internal" discussions.
Breaking down a heavily-manned defense is of course harder when your
star turn does not join the party and Brazil and Argentina will want
to see more from their talismanic talents.
Lionel Messi, the game's master magician who is yet to lift a senior
international trophy, looked like the weight of the world was on his
shoulders as he missed a penalty against Iceland.
Brazil's Neymar, the most expensive soccer player on the planet,
fared no better as he made his competitive return after a lengthy
injury absence against Switzerland.
The Paris St Germain forward spent much of the match rolling on the
floor as the Swiss, who committed 19 fouls, 10 of which were on
Neymar, tested his injured foot.
With players like Neymar and Messi under-par, the fear of facing
Brazil or Argentina is somewhat lessened.
As the tournament wears on it will become apparent whether it has
gone for good or will return with a vengeance.
(Reporting by Toby Davis, editing by Ed Osmond)
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