Neymar has support while Xherdan Shaqiri is on his own in Brazil and Switzerland key match-ups

Chris Bailey 16/06/2018
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The World Cup hasn’t truly started until Brazil come to the party and they face a stubborn if unimaginative Switzerland first up in Russia.

Neymar, fully fit after his injury worry, leads a scary looking line-up but the Swiss have a habit of making things tricky – having conceded just seven goals in 10 qualification games.

Below, we outline some of the key match-ups set to play out in the Rostov Arena on Sunday.

NEYMAR v XHERDAN SHAQIRI

16 06 2018 key battles WC 1

Fractured metatarsals have scuppered numerous superstars in World Cups gone by – not Neymar.

The Samba Boys have already benefitted from his dancing feet as he scored in a cameo against Croatia and again versus Austria, on his first start for club or country since the injury with PSG in February.

Four years ago Neymar was suffering under the burden of an average team and an entire nation before his back literally gave way in his home World Cup.

Now that Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus have emerged as bonafide superstars, not to mention Roberto Firmino on the bench, Neymar can operate without such suffocating pressure.

That attacking triumvirate’s ease at pulling out wide into channels or dropping off at will is certain to rip open pockets of space for the main man.

Xherdan Shaqiri was at the epicentre of an uncharacteristically entertaining Switzerland side in 2014. Sadly for him, if he had truly kicked on since his exploits in South America, he wouldn’t be playing for a relegated Stoke.

The 26-year-old has been dubbed in some optimistic quarters ‘the Alpine Messi’ though his proclivity to slalom in and out of games is evidence of the Kosovo-born Shaqiri’s Swiss upbringing.

Alas, the reported Liverpool target is just about Switzerland’s only source of ingenuity, stationed wide on the right, and his battle with an exploitable Marcelo will be intriguing.

Coach Vladimir Petkovic though will first and foremost be looking for work-rate, a common black mark against Shaqiri’s name. With Marcelo and Neymar in his eye-line he can’t afford to switch off.

CASEMIRO v GRANIT XHAKA

16 06 2018 key battles WC 2

If at his best, Brazil have themselves a protector of a realm that delights in flair and fun. If at his worst – and he’s certainly plumbed depths with Real Madrid this year – Casemiro will be too busy tripping over his own feet than looking after his Samba Boys.

Having emerged as an immovable anchor in Real’s run to three Champions League trophies in a row, he was as culpable as anyone for their sluggish start to the season: misplaced passes, rash decision-making and a general air of fatigue.

His form recovered well enough as Real completed their European treble in May, though he doesn’t have the assuredness of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos (when in form) in front of him for Brazil. The defensive responsibility is that much more acute.

While Casemiro relishes playing the enforcer, Granit Xhaka has been a faux hard man in a difficult first two seasons with Arsenal.

Xhaka has a semblance of physicality about him, unlike much of the Gunners midfield, and thus was forced into playing more of a defensive role than he was accustomed to at Borussia Monchengladbach.

He’s much better with the ball at his feet, equally adept at long, raking passes and the pin-point short stuff. Given that he made seven goals in the Premier League last season too he was more effective in an attacking sense than he was given credit for.

It’ll be interesting to see who is played as the midfield pivot alongside him – Valon Behrami’s savvy but waning physical powers, or Denis Zakaria – an up-and-coming defensive midfielder but who is prone to moments of madness. Ill-discipline against Brazil would spell disaster.

MARCELO v STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER

16 06 2018 key battles WC 3

Another Real Madrid versus Arsenal match-up here after Unai Emery made Stephan Lichtsteiner his first signing as Gunners boss.

Lichtsteiner, at 34, was used sparingly by Max Allegri at Juventus last season though he was the catalyst behind one of the most effective substitutions of the campaign.

With Tottenham set to boot the Old Lady out of the Champions League in March, the Swiss captain came on to replace Andrea Barzagli at right-back and was responsible for Paulo Dybala’s first in a 2-1 comeback victory.

Despite his advancing years he’s not afraid of a raid down the wing and his link-up with Shaqiri will be intriguing.

All that nous acquired over a long and successful career will be needed to stymie Marcelo, too.

It’s impossible to predict what you’ll get from Marcelo defensively game to game. He can be outrageous – in either sense of the word – and his powers of recovery aren’t what they used to be at 30 years old.

Further up the pitch though and that’s where he finds some consistency. He has one of the best first touches in football and adds even more width to a team who love stretching defences to the seams.

Alex Sandro, Lichtsteiner’s erstwhile team-mate at Juventus, does not even get a look-in for the Selecao down the left flank.

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World Cup history is made as VAR verdict gives France penalty

David Cooper 16/06/2018
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In World Cup Group C, Uruguayan referee Andres Cunha awarded France a controversial penalty on Saturday after consulting with the VAR method.

Defender Josh Ridson was adjudged to have brought down Antoine Griezmann when the French forward was bearing down on goal.

The VAR team in Moscow were summoned into action after the referee enacted the video hand gesture having allowed play to go on.

Griezmann converted the second-half spot-kick on 58 minutes before Mile Jedinak equalised four minutes later following Samuel Umtiti’s handball.

The match is currently 1-1.

It is the first time VAR has been used in World Cup history.

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Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo says hat-trick against Spain was "the work of many years"

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Cristiano Ronaldo lines up his match-defining free kick

Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, the hat-trick hero in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Spain in a Group B World Cup clash in Sochi on Friday night, said that his extraordinary achievement was the “work of many years”.

Playing in his fourth World Cup, the 33-year-old Real Madrid striker became the oldest player to score a hat-trick at the tournament as he opened and closed the scoring.

“It’s the work of many years, I’ve always believed in myself,” he said after the match. “I’m very happy, it’s my first hat-trick at a World Cup,”

Two of Ronaldo’s goals came from set pieces – a penalty for the opener and a wonderful 88th-minute free-kick for the third – while the second was a gift from Spanish keeper David De Gea who allowed a tame shot to trickle through his hands.

Despite being down 3-2 with just minutes left, Ronaldo said he and his team-mates never gave up.

“We never lose face in a game until the final,” he said. “Spain had chances, but the result was good for us.

“We’ve drawn with one of the favourites to win the World Cup. We’re happy because we’ve managed a draw in the end.”

The Portugal captain was quick to point out that the World Cup has a long way to go but he firmly believes that his country cannot be ruled out of lifting the Jules Rimet trophy on July 15 in Moscow.

“You have to give the team credit, we had faith and made sacrifices,” he said. “The World Cup has just started, the first objective is to get through the group stage and then we’ll see.

“We’re candidates [to win the World Cup], but not favourites.”

Portugal now face a heartbroken Morocco at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow next Wednesday, who need a victory to stay in the race for the knockout stages after their last-gasp defeat to Iran.

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