Liverpool star Roberto Firmino should start ahead of Gabriel Jesus for Brazil at the World Cup

Alex Rea 5/06/2018
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Brazil forward Roberto Firmino

The final set of friendly fixtures before the World Cup are close to completion but there are tactical tussles still to be settled among several major nations.

Indeed, attention is now squarely fixed on Russia but there are still positions which can be won and lost even after the final 23-man squads were announced on Monday.

For the most part, the majority of the starting XIs are fairly settled but there are a few positional battles to be decided.

With that in mind, we examine some of the key duels for four sides.

ENGLAND

Jesse Lingard v Ruben Loftus-Cheek

0606position battles lingard v cheek

Raheem Sterling’s evolution this season has translated onto the international stage with the Manchester City forward growing into England’s roaming No10 role.

That means behind him in Gareth Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 set-up is room for two No8s and Dele Alli’s grip on one jersey is tight.

His telepathic understanding with Harry Kane for Tottenham is a crucial avenue to goal for the Three Lions but there is a question mark over who operates in the other No8 slot.

Lingard has emerged as the more established man for the shirt and in March’s friendlies against the Dutch and Italy the Manchester United forward fitted neatly into Southgate’s system with his technical talent, opportunistic thinking and, crucially his embrace of working in between the lines to both press and carry the ball.

However, Loftus-Cheek, the man who replaced Lingard after an ineffectual display against Nigeria last week, has come into the reckoning.

Lingard on occasion has struggled for England and Loftus-Cheek is a great alternative, a two-way asset desperate to get involved in every area of the pitch who also thrives in tight spaces.

Granted, the 22-year-old is inexperienced but in his sole start against Germany the Chelsea midfielder was superb, giving a gateway to the type of impression he can make.

VERDICT

Lingard will start the campaign in the XI but if he fails to impress early on, look for Loftus-Cheek to be swiftly sworn in.

BRAZIL

Gabriel Jesus v Roberto Firmino

0606position battles jsus v firmino

Firmino is loved by Liverpool but the sentiment is not quite shared with Brazil.

Tite guaranteed his spot for Russia after an outstanding campaign for the Reds, scoring 26 goals and providing 14 assists in all competitions.

However, he will likely occupy a spot on the bench as understudy to Manchester City’s golden boy Jesus.

For the Canarinha, it appears an obvious preference lies with the 21-year-old, who is garnering plenty of endearment having remained in his homeland up until last year.

In contrast, Firmino’s formative years as a professional were spent in Germany with a natural schism forming in his relationship to a fervent Brazilian fanbase as a result.

And in spite of the fact his goalscoring exploits place him only behind Neymar as the highest-scoring Samba star last season while Jesus’ campaign was blighted by injury, Firmino will be utilised as a sub in Tite’s 4-3-3 system.

He will have helped his claim to spearhead the attack with a slick finish to round out the 2-0 victory over Croatia, albeit after lifting himself off the bench.

Thought the two forwards are exceptional Firmino is one of the most unique No9s in world football with his intelligent movement on and off the ball meaning he can lead his side’s press while also open up space for his attacking counterparts.

Given Brazil hunt the ball further up the pitch under Tite and you can marry that ability to Firmino’s unerring finishing which has been proven in the Premier League and Champions League, he should really start in Russia.

VERDICT

Tite has shown a preference for Jesus but the decision should not be that clear-cut with Firmino more than deserving of the No9 shirt.

SPAIN

Iago Aspas v Diego Costa

0606position battles costa v aspas

Coming into the tournament Spain are arguably the playing the best football of any major nation with their killer possession-based style reinvigorated rather than reinvented under Julen Lopetegui.

La Roja are well stocked with midfield creators and the emergence of Isco as a maturing goalscorer – he’s mystifying for Madrid but scintillating for Spain – has taken some heat off the No9.

Indeed, the casting process to take centre stage for Spain has returned three lukewarm reviews. Diego Costa is an uncomfortable fit with his physical prowess somewhat out of place in the fluidity of Spain’s oppressive passing style.

The Atletico Madrid striker is a battering ram but Spain are a team of subtlety substance and his inability to retain possession well and static movement can lead to the breakdown of attacks.

The alternatives are far from convincing, though. Rodrigo is vastly inexperienced at this level and is the third-choice so Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas is the obvious contender to challenge Costa.

He grabbed one goal and two assists in the decimation of Argentina and finished the league season with an impressive 22-goal haul – the best return of any Spanish player.

His skillful repertoire meshes well with their system and although the 30-year-old is also short on national-team experience with nine caps, he has scored nine goals for La Roja.

VERDICT

Costa is a useful option to bring on from the bench with his power-game but Aspas is a far better fit to start even if he lacks the reputation of his counterpart.

GERMANY

Marco Reus v Julian Draxler

0606position battles reus v draxler

That this is Reus’ first World Cup is a travesty with his injury record stripping football of one of its premier talents.

The Borussia Dortmund midfielder is arguably Germany’s most technically gifted talent, a heavyweight compliment considering they possess Mesut Ozil in their ranks.

His versatility between wide and attacking-midfield positions make him an archetypal Joachim Low player and considering his preference for inside forwards, Reus would seem like a clear candidate to take up the opposite side to Thomas Muller with Timo Werner through the middle.

However, in another chapter of the world’s most unluckiest star, Reus’ season was predictably ravaged by injury although he did come on strong in 2018 with seven goals in 11 games for Dortmund.

Ankle ligament damage cruelly ended his 2014 World Cup hopes while a groin injury saw him miss Euro 2016. Dropping him in Russia would seem implausible but then Draxler offers a different quality.

Where Reus is pace in behind and technical ability, Draxler is better a link-up man, drifting infield from wide positions just in front of the defence.

Low is a huge admirer. Suffice to say his Paris Saint-Germain career hasn’t gone as expected but Draxler has flourished with Germany under the tutelage of Low.

He thrived and embraced his role as skipper in their Confederations Cup win last summer and was the coach’s star pupil in Russia.

Of course, both could be accommodated in the starting XI with Reus central and Draxler on the left but to start Ozil, one would be dropped leaving Low with a difficult decision.

VERDICT

Reus is in his prime and this could be the tournament he bends to his will. Draxler on the bench demonstrates the ridiculous depth of talent Germany have but Reus should start.

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WATCH: Brazil legend Zico gives his predictions for the World Cup

Alex Broun 5/06/2018
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Brazilian legend Zico gives his World Cup predictions

Although he never managed to clinch the greatest prize in world football, Brazil legend Zico knows something about the World Cup having played in three tournaments – 1978, 1982 and 1986.

The 1982 side was regarded as one of the greatest Brazilian teams of all time with Zico, Falcão, Sócrates, Éder, Cerezo and Júnior – and despite Zico scoring four goals during the tournament they lost the final 3-2 to Italy.

Known as ‘the white Pele’, Zico was a creative playmaker, with excellent technical skills, vision, and an eye for goal who played 71 times for his country from 1976 to 1986, scoring 48 goals.

Watch his thoughts below on who will win the World Cup with Belgium one of his surprise favourites.

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Harry Kane says he's hit fit and ready to go for World Cup after FIFA mistakenly list his weight wrong

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Harry Kane says he's at his "fighting weight".

Harry Kane insists he is in peak condition for the World Cup after the FIFA website mistakenly listed his weight as 15-and-a-half stone.

The England captain says he is at his “fighting weight” for the tournament in Russia this month, around 89 or 90 kilos rather than the 96 kilos that FIFA stated.

“The lads came over to me yesterday afternoon and said my weight had been put at 96 kilos,” Kane said at the England media day, broadcast on Sky Sports HQ.

“I don’t know if it’s been changed but I’m definitely not 15-and-a-half-stone.

“I’m normally about 89 or 90 kilos. We weigh most days when we get up and that’s normally my fighting weight.”

Kane says he is 100 per cent fit heading into the tournament after suffering a few injuries for Tottenham last season.

“I feel really good and training has been of a high intensity,” he added.

“Obviously everyone is fighting for places and that has pushed everyone along fitness-wise.

“It’s been a tough camp and that’s what we all needed.

“It was good to get some minutes on the weekend and I’m fully refreshed.”

England failed to get out of the group stages in Brazil four years ago, but Kane says Gareth Southgate’s squad will not be thinking about past World Cup failures.

“The main thing is to believe it can be different,” he said.

“It’s been tough because for the last 50 years we haven’t won anything.

“We’ve got to stay focused on ourselves and not worry about the teams in the past.

“We’re our own team and our own identity. We’ve got to enjoy the occasion and we can’t wait to get out there and get started.”

England start their World Cup campaign against Tunisia in Volgograd on June 18.

The group also includes Belgium and Panama, and Kane revealed that the England squad have been practising penalties before the tournament.

“We haven’t been doing it every session,” Kane said ahead of Thursday’s warm-up friendly with Costa Rica in Leeds.

“But just now and then the coaches will throw it in at the end when we’re a little bit fatigued.

“That’s obviously when it’s going to happen at the end of extra-time when the lads are tired.

“We haven’t spoken about it too much because it’s about freeing your mind. Just pick where you want to go and go with it.”

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