Contrasting international form for Real Madrid stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane

Alex Rea 25/03/2018
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Real Madrid duo Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo

With a World Cup just around the corner the international break provides an avenue for a collective forensic eye on the tactics, style and personnel teams will be looking to adopt in Russia.

Indeed, positions can be won and lost in these penultimate fixtures ahead of the summer tournament and naturally some players have grabbed their opportunity while others may have let it slip.

With that in mind, we look at some winners and losers from the initial set of matches.

WINNERS

CRISTIANO RONALDO

Portugal v Egypt - International Friendly

Mohamed Salah 1-2 Cristiano Ronaldo. Salah may be the ‘Egyptian King’ but it was a Portuguese prince who claimed sovereignty as two stoppage-time headers from Ronaldo graciously rescued his nation.

Egypt went ahead through a typically sharp Salah strike and Hector Cuper’s organised and resilient unit frustrated a confused Portugal side.

But in Ronaldo, Fernando Santos possesses an equaliser and a player capable of papering over his obvious tactical inadequacies.

This won’t be the last we hear of Ronaldo and Salah being central figures for their nations.

MARC-ANDRE TER STEGEN

Germany v Spain - International Friendly

Toni Kroos considers ter Stegen to be a “perfect goalkeeper” and it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Aside from Lionel Messi, the 25-year-old has been Barcelona’s most outstanding player this season, emerging as one of the world’s most premier keepers.

Bayern Munich star Manuel Neuer remains sidelined through injury with his absence opening the door for ter Stegen to get vital minutes as Germany No.1.

And he is more than proving an able deputy, producing a stunning point-blank stop to deny Isco in the pulsating 1-1 draw with Spain.

If Neuer isn’t able to get games under his belt ahead of the summer, Joachim Low has a big decision to make.

HAKIM ZIYECH

Every World Cup has one team or player who emerges from the shadows of relative obscurity to global prominence. This year’s edition could be a seminal moment for Ziyech.

Morocco are a talent-rich side and Ajax star Ziyech hallmarks their precocious ability. AC Milan and Roma are beginning to take notice and while Justin Kluivert has commanded plenty of attention this season, it’s Ziyech who has provided much of the Dutch’s side attacking thrust.

That same responsibility is shouldered at international level and the 25-year-old has translated his club form for the African nation.

He was instrumental in the 2-1 win over Serbia, handing his side the lead with a 29th-minute penalty before delivering an exquisite cross Khalid Boutaib to easily head home the winner.

LOSERS

DANI ALVES

FBL-FRIENDLY-RUS-BRA

Dani Alves moved up to third in Brazil’s list of most-capped players with his 106th appearance in the 3-0 win over Russia.

It was, however, one of his most unsettling displays. There is growing concern among the Selecao camp that the Paris Saint-Germain full-back may be past his prime.

The 34-year-old’s degeneration was all too obvious in the first-half and it seems what was once his finest quality is now his biggest vice – speed.

He would cut-in an occupy the spots required for Brazil’s central playmakers and then struggled to return to his right-back slot with ample space left to be exploited.

Against any side with pace, the weakness could be Brazil’s undoing and there are calls for Corinthians right-back Fagner to replace him.

RAPHAEL VARANE

FBL-FRA-COL-FRIENDLY

France on paper have one of the deepest squads in terms of talent but the reality is several stars in key positions are in poor form.

There are serious question marks of Hugo Lloris in goal, Paul Pogba’s struggles are well documented while Varane has looked increasingly erratic for Real Madrid this season.

He did little to dispel the anxiety around his form in the 3-2 defeat by Colombia. Though they are notoriously harsh markers, L’ Equipe’s 3/10 rating for Varane was justified.

For all three Colombia strikes, both he and Samuel Umtiti were caught napping. Positionally, he’s borderline negligible at times and his athleticism repeatedly papers of the cracks.

He’s far from convincing and with the likes of Presnel Kimpembe and Laurent Koscielny available, his place in the starting XI for the World Cup is in serious jeopardy.

ADIDAS TELSTAR

U21 Germany v U21 Israel - 2019 UEFA Under21 European Championship Qualifier

David De Gea, Pepe Reina and Marc-Andre ter Stegen all lined up to slam this year’s World Cup matchball.

“It’s really strange,” De Gea said. “It could have been made a lot better.”

His understudy Reina weighed in and added: “I bet you as much as you like that we’ll see at least 35 goals from long range in Russia, because it’s impossible to work out.

“It’s covered in a plastic film that makes it difficult to hold on to. Goalkeepers are going to have a lot of problems with this ball.”

“The ball could be better; it moves a lot. But I think we’re just going to have to get used to working with it and try to get to grips with it as quickly as possible before the World Cup starts,” ter Stegen told AS. “We’ve got no other option.”

It’s not a good look for adidas who will desperately hope their Telstar iteration doesn’t follow the infamous Jabulani matchball in stirring up controversy.

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Lionel Messi trains at Real Madrid training ground following hamstring injury

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Messi in action at Valdebebas on Sunday.

Lionel Messi is training at Real Madrid‘s Valdebebas complex ahead of Argentina’s friendly against Spain on Tuesday.

The Barcelona icon has stepped behind enemy lines in preparation for the mouthwatering friendly clash at Atletico Madrid’s home stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano.

Messi missed Friday’s match against Italy due to a hamstring problem, which he admitted he had been carrying for some time.

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi takes part in a training session in Madrid on March 25, 2018 ahead of an international friendly football match between Spain and Argentina. / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Real rival: Blaugrana legend Messi trains in the Spanish capital.

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Brazil much better now than in 2014, says Toni Kroos

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Toni Kroos rates Brazil “two grades” higher than when Germany hammered the Selecao 7-1 at the 2014 World Cup.

Kroos scored twice in the Belo Horizonte semi-final at Brazil 2014 when Germany blitzed the hosts, who were missing superstar forward Neymar, with five goals in a dramatic opening 30 minutes of what became the heaviest home defeat in Brazil’s history.

Ahead of the teams’ meeting on Tuesday, Germany midfielder Kroos is not expecting a repeat: “When I look at the current team in comparison to 2014, they are two grades better.

“They have really good people, my (Real Madrid) team-mate Casemiro is doing well – they have come together well.

“Brazil are definitely one of the World Cup favourites.”

Germany face Brazil at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium after the Selecao beat Russia 3-0 in Moscow on Friday, with Neymar again sidelined by injury.

Second-half goals by Miranda, Paulinho and a Philippe Countinho penalty sealed the win at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, which hosts the World Cup final on July 15.

The Germans warmed up with a 1-1 draw against Spain in Duesseldorf to extend their unbeaten run to 22 matches.

Rodrigo Moreno’s goal after just six minutes was cancelled out by Thomas Mueller’s superb first-half strike on Friday.

With one eye on their World Cup defence, Joachim Loew consoled himself with the “very, very important lessons” Germany learnt, but his senior stars were unhappy.

Centre-back Jerome Boeteng said “everything” was wrong in the opening 20 minutes when Andres Iniesta gave the German midfield a masterclass as Spain dominated.

“Our pressing didn’t work, then they played cat and mouse with us,” Boateng fumed.

“We wanted to play better from the back, use our chances, pass well, not lose the ball so fast.

“Our counter-attacking game must be better, we were hit three or four times on the counter, you can’t have that.

“It’s not all bad, but we have a lot of work and we must come together as a team.”

Kroos agreed: “In the first 20 minutes we were just chasing after them.”

The Spanish provided Loew with the tough test he wanted as Germany count down to their first World Cup match against Mexico in Moscow on June 17.

“It was worth the risk, even when we didn’t always manage to put pressure on them up front,” said the Germany boss.

Now comes another ‘outstanding test’ in the shape of Brazil.

“These are the teams who want to – and can – play a decisive role at the World Cup,” said Loew.

A win over Brazil would boost German confidence following recent draws with top teams England (0-0), France (2-2) and now Spain.

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