Lionel Messi's rest could be crucial for Argentina but Brazil the team to beat at World Cup

Tom Biggs 28/03/2018
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Brazil celebrate after Gabriel Jesus scores against Germany

With no more international fixtures to be played between now and the end of the season, national team bosses won’t have another opportunity to bring their players together before naming their initial squads for this summer’s 2018 FIFA World Cup.

While there’ll be some happy managers, including Spain’s Julen Lopetegui and Brazil’s Tite, others such as Portugal’s Fernando Santos and Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli have been left with plenty to ponder following mixed results in their two March friendlies.

Here we take a look at five things to consider ahead of the World Cup following the latest round of international matches…

MESSI’S REST WILL SERVE ARGENTINA WELL IN RUSSIA 

Lionel Messi trained with Argentina but didn't play against Italy or Spain

Lionel Messi trained with Argentina but didn’t play against Italy or Spain

Will he? Won’t he? No-one was quite sure what was going on with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi during the international break, before he eventually missed both games due to a slight hamstring injury. While there’s no doubt he would have liked to have played against his Barcelona teammates in Argentina’s game against Spain, by not featuring in either of the two friendlies, Messi will have earned himself a full two-week break by the time he plays for Barcelona again. Club boss Ernesto Valverde will be happy, but so too will Jorge Sampaoli, as his key man will be fresher come crunch time in Russia.

WALKER’S THE MAN FOR SOUTHGATE’S DEFENSIVE PLAN

Kyle Walker was named man of the match for his display against Italy

Kyle Walker was named man of the match for his display against Italy

When Kyle Walker was named as the right-sided defender in a three-man backline by Gareth Southgate for the game against the Netherlands, eyebrows were raised. But the Manchester City man showed just why his national team boss has moved him away from his natural position with impressive displays against the Dutch and then Italy. Kieran Trippier will likely start at right-wing back with Walker on the cover, forming a crucial part of Southgate’s plans for England in Russia. The Three Lions will need to be brave at the World Cup this summer, and their manager is leading the way.

BRAZIL’S PROGRESS HIGHLIGHTED IN BERLIN 

Four years on from their 7-1 hammering in Belo Horizonte, Brazil beat Germany

Four years on from their 7-1 hammering in Belo Horizonte, Brazil beat Germany

Memories of that 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte will never truly disappear, but Brazil went some way to showing they’ve put that mauling in the past with a 1-0 victory against Germany. Marcelo and Fernandinho were the only two who started that loss four years ago as well as the friendly on Tuesday night, emphasising the transformation Brazil have made under Tite. This Brazil look like the team to beat in Russia this summer, and defeating Germany was a psychological hurdle which will have done them the world of good. They’re joint favourites for a reason.

FRANCE’S OPTIONS COULD BE THEIR UNDOING

France boss Didier Deschamps must decide his best XI and formation

France boss Didier Deschamps must decide his best XI and formation

Didier Deschamps is arguably blessed with more strength in depth than any other national team manager. The French boss certainly has a plethora of options in every area, but that could well cause problems in itself. He made seven changes from the 3-2 defeat to Colombia in the first friendly for the 3-1 win against Russia, playing two different formations. With so many options, it’s easy to understand why he perhaps doesn’t know his best XI – or even his best formation. The problem is, he’s not going to get many more chances to decide. If France are to go one step further than they did at EURO 2016, Deschamps must make some big decisions – and fast.

WORLD AND EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS? PORTUGAL CAN FORGET IT

Cristiano Ronaldo is desperate to win a World Cup, but Portugal will need big changes to challenge

Cristiano Ronaldo is desperate to win a World Cup, but Portugal will need big changes to challenge

Portugal were surprise winners of the European Championships in 2016, but two years on it’s difficult to see them replicating their success at the World Cup in Russia. A narrow win against Egypt, saved only by Ronaldo’s two injury-time headers, and a 3-0 defeat to an experimental Netherlands side, don’t make for ideal preparation and confidence. Very few expected Fernando Santos’s to win EURO 2016, but there’ll be even fewer believing they can enjoy a positive World Cup. With aging central defensive options, Ronaldo’s goals will be more important than ever.

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Analysis of Kylian Mbappe as France teenager scores two but is far from fluid in 3-1 Russia win

Matt Jones 27/03/2018
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Kylian Mbappe bamboozles the Russia defence to open the scoring in Saint Petersburg.

France earned an entertaining 3-1 win against World Cup hosts Russia as teenage starlet Kylian Mbappe grabbed a brace.

The Paris-Saint Germain man opened the scoring just before the break and then sealed the win late on after Paul Pogba had rocketed in a sublime free-kick. Fyodor Smolov made it 2-1 for Russia as they threatened a comeback, but France’s quality eventually told.

Here, we analyse the performance of Mbappe, who endured a mixed evening.

30-SECOND REPORT

A cursory glance at the scoreline suggests this was a good night for a man deemed the future of French football. But we got to see both sides of Mbappe’s game – the good and the side that reminds us he’s still only 19 and learning the game.

He had missed a glorious chance to open the scoring when faced with a presentable chance following a move sparked by Paul Pogba, before then linking up with the midfielder to open the scoring in style.

His pace and quick feet posed the hosts problems all night and it was those feet that bamboozled his marker late on as he fired in the game-clinching third goal, even though his goal owed a lot to a grisly error by Russia goalkeeper Andrey Lunev.

GOT RIGHT

Work rate – Despite his obvious talent, going to Paris-Saint Germain has meant Mbappe has had to quickly adapt to contributing in a team full of stars.

With Edinson Cavani and Neymar alongside him in attack in the French capital, the teenager is not always the leading light. Like at club level, he played a lot on the flank here and got through his work to make life difficult for Russia’s right-sided wing-backs Aleksandr Samedov and Igor Smolnikov.

Poise – Say what you want about Mbappe’s dip in form in the last few months, but he has definite presence in front of goal.

With his confidence shaken and a glorious chance missed, you might have expected the 19-year- old to wilt under the pressure. But instead he perservered and given a second sniff of goal, finished emphatically.

Collecting Pogba’s perfect pass, cutting past a defender and firing in at the near post.

GOT WRONG

Finishing – He showed how clinical he can be with a composed finish to break the deadlock, but he wasted a few guilt-edged chances to give his side the lead prior to that.

Maybe it was a case of his recent lack of form in front of goal weighing on the youngster’s mind, but a man of his talent should have buried the opening chance that dropped into his path in the 27 th minute, sidefooting tamely into the goalkeeper’s arms with the goal at his mercy.

Focus – Mbappe switched off in the second half and was one of many culprits Didier Deschamps will point the finger at for a drop in intensity as Russia threatened to get back into the game.

They had plenty of joy down their right flank, France’s left, with Mbappe guilty of failing to give left-back Lucas Hernandez adequate cover, with right wing-back Smolnikov pressing forward and crossing delightfully for Smolov’s goal.

In Focus Kylian Mbappe

KEY MOMENTS

11th min CHANCE: Pogba and Mbappe link up really nicely before the latter holds it up and sends it out to Martial on the left. The Manchester

United man whips it in looking for club-mate Pogba but it’s just out of reach and Lunev gathers.

27th min CHANCE: Pogba’s chip over the defence finds Kante. He tees up Martial whose shot is blocked into the path of Mbappe. He has a clear

sight of goal and really should score, but sidefoots tamely at the keeper.

40th min GOAL: Pogba is again the architect as his slide rules pass splits the Russuian rear guard. Mbappe races onto it and coolly cuts inside his marker to fire low past Lunev at his near post.

43rd min CHANCE: Good feet by the teenager, who receives the ball in the box, then glides by his marker and centres for Martial, who prods goalwards, but Lunev saves.

52nd min YELLOW: Mbappe is in the book for going down too easily. Replays suggest there was contact but no way was it a penalty.

83rd min GOAL: He’s had a mixed game but somehow he’s got two goals, but Russia stopper Lunev won’t want to see this again. Great footwork by Mbappe who gets a sight of goal and fires at the Zenit man, who allows the ball to trickle through his legs.

VERDICT

Mbappe came into the game on the back of a few things he perhaps hasn’t quite been used to in his fledgling career. Criticism and a dip in form.

The former Monaco man has scored in his last two games for PSG but had previously gone seven games without finding the net and even the man himself admitted “it’s not the best period of my career”.

Against Russia he was always a real threat and even though he could have had reasonably expected to net a hat-trick on another night, he was a constant menace for his markers.

RATING: 7/10

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Brazil's friendly with Germany presents chance to start process of banishing memories of 7-1 defeat

Tom Biggs 26/03/2018
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Brazil celebrate as a team against Russia

Almost four years have passed since one of the darkest days in Brazil’s distinguished football history.

Memories of the 7-1 loss suffered at the hands of a rampant Germany team on home soil at World Cup 2014 still rumble on for football’s most-successful nation.

This summer’s tournament in Russia will provide them with the chance to put those memories well and truly behind them, as they aim to win their sixth World Cup – led by the likes of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus.

But on Tuesday night they come face-to-face with Germany for the first time since that mauling in Belo Horizonte four years ago, in what could be the most important friendly in Brazil’s recent history.

“The 7-1 game is the most recent game. It’s a step that’s passed. We are in a building period and emotionally it will be important,” Brazil boss Tite – whose predecessor Luiz Felipe Scolari oversaw the infamous defeat – told ESPN recently ahead of Tuesday’s clash.

He’s right. Friendlies rarely have much importance, but there’s no doubt a clash with the world champions less than three months before the start of the World Cup presents a huge psychological hurdle for Brazil’s new-look team.

Much has changed for both nations since that semi-final clash. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose are no longer German stalwarts, while Brazil’s attacking threat won’t be reliant on Fred, Hulk and Bernard.

The weight of expectation that rested on Brazil’s shoulders four years ago has been somewhat reduced, but the belief is that under Tite they are now a much stronger side than the one that was knocked for seven by Germany.

They stormed through World Cup qualification, finishing ten points ahead of second-placed Uruguay, and look set to be able to match their unrivalled attacking flair with a defensive solidity that failed them so desperately four years ago.

Tite has already confirmed 15 of the 23 that will head to Russia this summer, dependent on injuries between now and the end of the season, meaning just eight spaces are left to fill. A somewhat surprising move, perhaps, but such is the Brazilian boss’ confidence in those he has named, there is no suggestion it could have a negative effect.

Marcelo (r) is the only one who started against Germany expected to start at this year's World Cup in Russia

Marcelo (r) is the only one who started against Germany expected to start at this year’s World Cup.

Of the 15 already included, just two players – Real Madrid’s Marcelo and Manchester City’s Fernandinho – started against Germany four years ago.

The likes of Dante, Oscar and Hulk, who all started in Belo Horizonte, are still playing regularly for their clubs. The problem for them is that Brazil have well and truly moved forward – on the pitch at least.

Tite also named his starting XI for the opening World Cup game back in February, with Marcelo the only survivor from the 11 that lined up from the start against Germany. Dani Alves, Fernandinho, Paulinho and Willian are the only others who were in the matchday squad for that forgettable night at Estadio Mineirao.

Neymar was part of the Brazil squad for World Cup 2014, missing the Germany game through injury. He will have little time to prepare for Russia because of another injury setback, but there’s no doubt he has mirrored Brazil’s progression in terms of development.

Neymar missed the semi-final against Germany after getting injured against Colombia

Neymar missed the semi-final against Germany after getting injured against Colombia

Raw and unpredictable four years ago, the PSG star has developed a ruthless edge, scoring six goals in qualifying to help Brazil comfortably reach Russia. Coupled with genuine star quality around him, Neymar has all the requirements needed to light up Russia and propel himself back into Ballon d’Or contention.

The injured forward will be missing again on Tuesday night, just as he was four years ago, but Brazil have the quality to fall back on this time around. The likes of Chelsea’s Willian and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino have been in stunning form for their clubs and will be ready to snap up any chance they’re presented with.

Douglas Costa and Anderson Talisca will also be hoping to impress and become the 16th name on Tite’s World Cup list. Others such as Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred, Manchester City’s Ederson and Real Sociedad’s Willian Jose will hope for their chance to shine, but there’s no doubt Brazil will be taking this friendly seriously.

Reading too much in to Tuesday night’s clash would be unfair, but for Tite and the Selecao it presents the perfect opportunity to begin the process of banishing those Belo Horizonte memories once and for all.

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