Away from the painful soft rock, exhibition of soft power from omnipotent Russian President Vladimir Putin and Diego Maradona’s startling yellow bowtie, last night’s World Cup 2018 draw presented football’s pair of behemoths with the perfect platform to unleash a – potentially final – bid for the defining major honour which eludes them.
For the morbid who tuned in to witness a ‘Group of Death’, they leave disappointed.
Portugal and their resident superstar could not have hoped for a better way to build on Euro 2016’s unlikely victory. Argentina and Messi will aim to build momentum after a harrowing path to qualification and the residual disappointment from losing Brazil 2014’s final.
Ronaldo’s solipsistic personality will see him relish the challenge of facing Spain, his country of employment, in an intriguing opening Group B-fixture.
Welcoming clashes against the defensively-diligent pair of Morocco and former mentor Carlos Queiroz’s Iran then follow, prior to meeting opponents from a Group A which must rank as one of the weakest assembled in the modern history of the competition.
On the opposite side of the sport’s great schism, Messi will be feeling similarly confident. Iceland may have stunned a sorry England at the Euros but they remain substantial underdogs as the World Cup’s smallest-ever entrant by population size.
Croatia are a team full of artisans undergoing group therapy after the fractious reign of Ante Cacic and there will be no surprises against Nigeria. La Albiceleste have beaten them in all four previous finals matches.
To concentrate solely on this duo, yet again, is to be guilty of navel-gazing. A movement away from football’s interminable two-headed narrative could be upon us.
Messi will turn 31 before the opening stage winds down. Ronaldo has only two goals from nine La Liga appearances in 2017/18 and will be 33 when he steps foot in Russia.
Enter swashbuckling Brazil, a country whose wounds from the 7-1 ‘Mineirazo’ mauling by Germany have been healed by the inspirational Tite. An attack of Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus and Paris Saint-Germain’s €222 million (Dh970.9m) Neymar demands success after they waltzed through South American qualifying.
England will dare to believe if Harry Kane forgets the trauma of Euro 2016 and France boast gluttonous depth. Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba can place this competition in his thrall and there is no end to the excitement surrounding enfant precoce Kylian Mbappe.
Belgium do not appear the happiest of camps, yet in Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne they possess attackers gifted with the ability to wrought devastation upon any opponent.
This is all without mentioning holders Germany. Head coach Joachim Low was afforded the luxury of experimentation at last summer’s Confederations Cup and still won it.
Away from Die Mannschaft’s plethora of established names, Schalke attacking midfielder Leon Goretzka and jet-heeled RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner look poised to inherit Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez’s mantle as the World Cup’s breakout star.
The next generation are charging through. Watching whether Messi and Ronaldo can still set the pace will be this World Cup’s most intriguing storyline – on the pitch, at least.
Spain and Portugal have been paired in the same group, alongside Iran and Morocco, in an exciting draw for the 2018 tournament in Russia on Friday.
Neymar’s Brazil meanwhile will have to negotiate a group including Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia.
Holders Germany will face Mexico, Sweden and South Korea as they try to retain the title for the first time since Brazil in 1962.
Lionel Messi and his Argentina team, which struggled to qualify, will play European debutants Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria.
England must negotiate Kevin de Bruyne’s Belgium, surprise packages Panama and Tunisia after they were placed together in the draw in the Kremlin.
Spain’s other opponents in a tough-looking Group B are Morocco and Iran.
France will play Australia, Peru and Denmark in Group C.
Host nation Russia will face Saudi Arabia in the tournament-opening match on June 14 in Moscow.
Five-time champions Brazil were paired with Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia in Group E at the World Cup draw in Moscow on Friday.
The first game pits the Costa Ricans against Serbia in Samara on June 17, with Brazil kicking off against Switzerland in Rostov-on-Don the same day.
Alexandre Lacazette offers yet another attacking threat, a top-class goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris and depth at virtually every position, France coach Didier Deschamps will approach Friday’s draw in Moscow with confidence.
“I think France will be very strong. When you have a trio like Griezmann, Lacazette and Mbappe, you have a strong team. The experience that the team has from a generation of veteran players, backed up by these young players, makes them a candidate to win the title,” Brazil coach told Canal Plus TV ahead of the draw.
Yet Deschamps will recall that since he himself lifted the trophy after the glorious victory on home soil in 1998, France have suffered as much World Cup pain as pleasure.
In 2002, Zinedine Zidane limped into South Korea with a hamstring injury and never looked the player who had inspired the victory over Brazil four years earlier. France, thoroughly humiliated, crashed out in the group stage.
Zidane was back stronger and fitter four years later though, driving his team to the final against Italy in Berlin only to infamously lose his cool with a headbutt to the chest of Marco Materazzi. He was sent off and France lost.
In South Africa in 2010, France self-destructed amid a players’ revolt against idiosyncratic coach Raymond Domenech.
In 2014, eventual winners Germany sent them home after the quarter-finals.
France made heavy work of a relatively lightweight qualifying group for the 2018 tournament, with a 0-0 draw against tiny Luxembourg one of the most baffling results.
That is perhaps why Deschamps refuses to make rash predictions – he just wants his team “to go as far as possible” in Russia.
Midfield livewire Blaise Matuidi said the team realised they sometimes failed to amount to the sum of their parts, but he predicted that the big guns would be wary of them.
Speaking after a 2-2 draw in a friendly against Germany on November 14, Matuidi said: “Of course we can always do better, but we showed tonight that we are a force to be reckoned with at the World Cup, and Germany will have taken note of that.”
And the talent just comes coming, with that offensive unit complemented by Nabil Fekir, who has shone for Lyon this season, while many coaches in the world would like to build their team around midfield powerhouse N’Golo Kante.
So when Russia 2018 dawns, France’s prospects would appear to largely depend on whether the players are in the right frame of mind.
On connaît les 4 chapeaux pour le tirage au sort de la Coupe du Monde 2018 qui se déroulera le 1er décembre ! 🇫🇷pic.twitter.com/fFn2SuiIFI
— Equipe de France (@equipedefrance) November 16, 2017
Provided by AFP Sport