Cristiano Ronaldo has rare off night for Portugal: Seven Deadly Stats from latest round of internationals

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Cristiano Ronaldo's failing to score will always be a shock.

The last international break before this summer’s World Cup in Russia included some stellar fixtures, with Brazil’s 1-0 win over Germany to end the world champions’ 22-game unbeaten streak the pick of the lot.

Elsewhere, there were surprising results and some utterly shocking performances as teams looked to find their groove ahead of the summer.

Here are our Seven Deadly Stats from the latest international break.

IN-FORM RONALDO SILENCED

Nobody could stop Cristiano Ronaldo, at least not since the calendars turned over to 2018. So nobody would have backed a Netherlands team still reeling from their failure to qualify for the World Cup to not only silence the Portugal star but do so this emphatically.

The 3-0 win in Geneva was perhaps the most surprising result of this round of international fixtures. There was more to it than simply shutting down Ronaldo – Netherlands’ attack was unusually prolific – but their shackling of the Real Madrid star was impressive.

ARE PEOPLE SLEEPING ON SPAIN?

It’s not that nobody thinks Spain is a contender, or even one of the favourites. But at the moment Germany and Brazil would get most people’s guesses for who’s lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy in July.

Perhaps it’s because in the last two international tournaments Spain have crashed out despite having a more-hyped side. But their 6-1 win over Argentina was the continuation of some superb form since they were knocked out by Italy at Euro 2016.

Germany and Brazil may be the two likely candidates but Spain would fancy their chances against either in this form.

LUCAS TORREIRA’S PERFECT DEBUT

Lucas Torreira has forced his way into the reckoning for Uruguay with some excellent displays for Sampdoria, and his international debut couldn’t have gone better.

The young holding midfielder delivered a cameo that everything you could ask for from a player at his position, with his distribution completely perfect.

ARE YOU WATCHING, JOSE?

Paul Pogba isn’t in form. That’s what everyone’s been hearing for the last two months.

Someone forgot to tell him. His display against Russia was superb, as he and fellow young star Kylian Mbappe stole the show against this summer’s hosts. A stunning free-kick and a pinpoint through ball to find Mbappe meant Pogba hit a high he’d never hit for his national team before.

VAR HELPS ITALY END DROUGHT

It’s somewhat ironic that after all the VAR controversy in Serie A this season, Italy should benefit from its implementation.

Their penalty against England seemed soft at first and while plenty will still feel that way, replays showed enough evidence that the technology got the call right in calling James Tarkowski for a foul. It helped Italy not only avoid a loss to an experimental side, it helped them end a scoring drought that encompassed nearly four games.

SPAIN’S NEW STAR

Spain has had wispy passers who can find their teammates in just the perfect spot for what seems like forever, and there’s one more to add to that list.

Iago Aspas has been one of the best performers in La Liga over the last two seasons and he showed why Julen Lopetegui trusts him so much. His goalscoring form and ability to find the right pass means Alvaro Morata‘s chances of making the final World Cup are hanging by a thread.

NO MESSI, NO PARTY FOR ARGENTINA

As long as there’s Lionel Messi, there’s a chance for whichever team he’s playing for to win major honours. But Argentina showed just how much they need him on Tuesday.

In fairness the Barcelona man wasn’t the only star name who missed the 6-1 loss to Spain, but there was enough quality to avoid getting humiliated. The way they rolled over was a historic low.

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Loss to Spain shows Argentina still not good enough to win Lionel Messi the World Cup

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Messi could only watch on as Argentina crashed to their joint-heaviest defeat.

If Lionel Messi is to fill the one glaring gap in his resume, Argentina need to get their act together.

Yes, Tuesday’s loss to Spain was an outlier. Apart from no Messi, there was also no Paulo Dybala, no Sergio Aguero, no Angel di Maria – none of the star players whose names are always trotted out when Argentina’s case for being among the favourites at an international tournament is being made.

But even as an outlier, a 6-1 scoreline is galling. There was enough quality in the team to avoid getting rolled over like that. Nicolas Otamendi, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia, Marcos Rojo, Ever Banega all started and subsequently saw their country suffer its joint-heaviest defeat.

The result highlighted the same inexplicable problem that has plagued Argentina this entire decade: Messi can’t lift a side which still hasn’t figured out how to play beyond the sum of its parts.

It shouldn’t even have to – any team which has a selection dilemma of picking two out of Dybala, Aguero, Di Maria, Higuain, and Mauro Icardi to play with Messi should be tearing through opponents.

Nor is the team truly top-heavy, as the regular criticism goes. In Mascherano, Banega, Biglia, Otamendi, Rojo, and Gabriel Mercado, there is enough depth to make a serious run in the World Cup without relying solely on the talents of one man, even if that man is one trophy away from ending the debate as to who is the greatest player of all time.

Indeed, this is a team which made the last World Cup final and followed that up with two straight appearances in Copa America finals.

Yet, each time, Argentina’s success in reaching the last hurdle was down to the efforts of Messi, with nobody else playing up to par. And each time, in the final, they came up against a team more well-oiled, more cohesive, more attuned to the concept of playing as a unit, and they lost. And there is nothing to suggest that the 2018 vintage will be any different.

Consider this: in 18 fixtures during qualifiers for this summer’s tournament, all that attacking talent managed 19 goals. Messi scored seven of those in 10 appearances. Three of those came in the final qualifier via a hat-trick – and without that, Argentina wouldn’t even have qualified for the World Cup. The over-reliance on their talisman cannot be overstated.

Over-relying on Messi got them to the final in 2014 and had a few bounces gone their way against Germany that day, they would be world champions. Four years later, however, and the weaknesses which have plagued them then haven’t been solved.

A new “next Messi” has been found but Dybala hasn’t hit the heights of his club career for his country. Higuain hasn’t been relied upon as a consistent scorer, after famous misses in tournament finals, despite his form at club level since. Aguero hasn’t even been a guaranteed starter, depending on the formation used by whoever was coaching.

Current manager Jorge Sampaoli says the World Cup is like a gun pointed to Messi’s head in terms of the pressure it brings.

But the rest of the team is doing nothing to release that weight of expectation, and Tuesday’s loss was the latest example. Spain found it too easy to retain possession, Argentina withered in the face of their opponents’ press, and an utterly embarrassing result followed.

Put them against any of the other favourites for Russia, even at full strength, it’s difficult to see Argentina coming out on top. Brazil beat Argentina 3-0 during the qualifiers even with Messi on the pitch. Spain would back themselves to repeat Tuesday’s performance against Argentina’s first-choice midfield. Germany at their best look like a side in total control, as good as the 2010 Spain side that never let anyone else touch the ball.

And Germany showed in the 2014 final that there is a way to contain Messi. Unfortunately for  La Albiceleste, until someone else on the team shows they can step up on the big occasion, that will be enough to derail their World Cup hopes.

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Jorge Sampaoli must ensure Argentina are not over-reliant on Lionel Messi at the World Cup

Tom Biggs 28/03/2018
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Argentina's Lionel Messi talks with his coach Jorge Sampaoli

With just three months to go until the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and following the conclusion of the final mid-season international friendlies, we take a look at four bosses who still have plenty of work to do ahead of the start of this summer’s tournament in Russia.

We’ve picked out two key areas that each manager must focus on between now and June if they are to enjoy a successful World Cup campaign.

JORGE SAMPAOLI – ARGENTINA

Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli watches on against Spain

Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli watches on against Spain

Over-reliance on Messi

When you have a player capable of producing magic every time he touches the ball, it’s difficult not to try and build your team around him. But Jorge Sampaoli appears to have forgotten that those accompanying Lionel Messi for Argentina this summer aren’t at the level of his Barcelona team-mates. Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala are both likely to be left at home this summer, simply because Sampaoli believes they do not fit Argentina’s style. But what is the style he talks about? Messi’s magic, but as has been the case previously, he can’t win a World Cup on his own.

Playing out from the back

While Argentina are blessed with a plethora of options going forward, the same cannot be said defensively. While Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo and Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi are likely to form the heart of Sampaoli’s defence, his options are limited elsewhere. Trying to get his side playing out from the back complicates matters further. Sampaoli must find a way to shore up the defence and not be the creators of their own downfall.

FERNANDO SANTOS – PORTUGAL

Fernando Santos may have won the European Championships, but Portugal have problems

Fernando Santos may have won the European Championships, but Portugal have problems

Aiding aging central defenders

With no more international breaks between now and the end of the season, Fernando Santos looks likely to rely on experienced central defenders this summer. Jose Fonte, Bruno Alves, Pep and Rolando are all over the age of 30, but look like they will be heading to Russia at the end of May. The Netherlands made light work of Portugal’s defence on Monday night, and Santos’ primary focus must be ensuring his aging central defenders get the cover and support required. An extra defensive midfielder may provide that, but creativity going forward could be seriously impacted.

The Ronaldo conundrum

Cristiano Ronaldo has shown his quality as a central forward for both Real Madrid and Portugal this season, but his switch from a wide position gives Santos a problem. His side severely lack natural width, and with Ronaldo and Andre Silva in attack, as was the case against Egypt, Goncalo Guedes and Gelson Martins – two players with genuine pace – would miss out to make way for more secure midfield options. Santos must decide whether he wants Silva to support Ronaldo, or whether players who provide width and speed is the way to go.

DIDIER DESCHAMPS – FRANCE

Didier Deschamps doesn't know his best team – and that's a problem

Didier Deschamps doesn’t know his best team – and that’s a problem

France’s fine margins

Such is the strength of France’s pool of talent heading into the World Cup that Didier Deschamps’ biggest problem comes in the form of selecting his 23-man squad for the tournament. The French boss admitted during the international break that these friendlies were designed to give everyone playing time, but many of his counterparts chose to go as close to full strength as possible in at least one of the two games. Deschamps has to ensure that France aren’t left behind in their preparations.

Pogba’s creative presence

France’s attacking possibilities are endless, but the importance of Paul Pogba cannot be ignored. With the likes of N’Golo Kante, Adrien Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi as alternative midfield options, Pogba’s creative ability from deeper positions could be vital in games in which the opposition afford France plenty of possession. That’s likely to be the case in all three group games, against Australia, Peru and Denmark, meaning Deschamps must ensure Pogba is firing come the summer – even if his frustrations at Manchester United continue between now and May.

GARETH SOUTHGATE – ENGLAND

Gareth Southgate must find a creative spark and decide on his number one

Gareth Southgate must find a creative spark and decide on his number one

Creativity is key

Gareth Southgate has moved to lessen the blow of a lack of creativity in midfield by switching Kyle Walker into the heart of the defence and asking him to step out with the ball and get the team moving forward. But that tactic will only get England so far up the pitch. Without a creative midfielder who can unlock defences regularly, the Three Lions will struggle to score the goals they need to challenge this summer. Southgate must hope either Adam Lallana or Jack Wilshere can find some regular form and game-time between now and the end of the season.

Guessing the goalkeeper

Does Southgate really know who he will start in goal when England take on Tunisia in their opening group game? No-one can be sure, with both Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland getting 90 minutes each in the two friendlies. Southgate must decide who gets the nod sooner rather than later to allow the goalkeeper enough time to prepare himself fully, while also giving the defence the chance to build a strong understanding with the man behind them.

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