The group stage at the World Cup saw stunning performances from some of the world’s biggest players. Stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, and Isco lit up the opening round of the tournament in Russia with eye-catching displays, delivering when their teams needed them most.
Those three are among the players who make our group stage XI, which features some familiar names and a few unexpected ones, not to mention one beautiful story that gave the tournament one of its best moments.
Without further ado, here’s our full XI.
GK: Alireza Beiranvand, Iran
The Iran goalkeeper was the story of the first round. Beiranvand ran away from home at the age of 12 to pursue his football dream, and his journey to the World Cup included being temporarily homeless and picking up odd jobs like working as a car washer and a street cleaner to get by. But he put in superb displays against Morocco and Spain, and capped off his summer by saving a penalty from Ronaldo.
RB: Kieran Trippier, England
Trippier only made his England debut a year ago, but he’s made their right wingback spot his own. He delivered two solid performances for his side during the group stages, motoring up and down the right flank and showcasing his crossing ability with some pinpoint deliveries from both open play and set pieces. At 27, Trippier is somewhat of a late bloomer, but his rise has come at just the right time for England.
CB: Andreas Granqvist, Sweden
Granqvist is everything you want in a captain: fierce, vocal, commanding and with the quality to lead by example, there’s no doubt that the veteran defender’s presence lifts his Sweden side. Given his composure and leadership ability, perhaps the rarity of a centre-back being a side’s designated penalty taker – he scored two in the group stages – should come as no surprise in Sweden’s case. After all, is there anyone they’d trust more under pressure?
CB: Diego Godin, Uruguay
Like his partner in this XI, Godin is the stereotypical warrior defender, putting his body on the line and coaxing the best out of his teammates through sheer force of will and example. There were times in Uruguay’s opening two games where they were under the cosh, but Godin’s presence ensured they withstood any pressure. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani may grab the headlines, but Godin is the heart and soul of his team.
LB: Yuto Nagatomo, Japan
Japan’s veteran left-back has provided a disciplined, calm presence in a back-line that was thought to be vulnerable going into the tournament. That shouldn’t come as a surprise – six months ago, Nagatomo was scoring the winning penalty for Inter Milan in a shootout to send them to the Coppa Italia quarterfinals. The 31-year-old has been a beacon of solidity for Japan and offers plenty going forward, bagging an assist in the 2-2 draw with Senegal.
CM: Luka Modric, Croatia
Modric has been an utterly inspirational captain and player for Croatia. He ran the show against Nigeria and scored a penalty, but it was in the stunning 3-0 win over Argentina that he truly earned his salt. The Real Madrid man bossed the game, taking it by the scruff of the neck as if he’d decided there was absolutely no way he was going to lose. It was fitting he graced the occasion with a wonder goal.
CM: Isco, Spain
Isco is a magical player at the top of his game right now, stepping into his role as the team’s clear star player with authority and class. The way the 26-year-old directs Spain’s play with a simple but deadly flick of his foot is a joy to behold. Isco’s wispy running style, sublime trickery, and eye for a pass or a goal has been the outstanding, defining feature of Spain’s play at the World Cup.
CM: Philippe Coutinho, Brazil
Coutinho’s form in the group stages has prompted talk that he, not Neymar, is Brazil’s best player right now. It should be noted that he benefits from the attention his colleague draws from opposition defences, but there’s also a sense that Coutinho is loving his status as a star player for his side. Two goals – including a stunner against Switzerland – and an assist show just how much he is relishing the responsibility that status brings.
ST: Romelu Lukaku, Belgium
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Lukaku is just 25 – especially when you consider his standing in Belgium’s history. The Manchester United striker headed into this tournament already holding the title of his country’s leading scorer. Since then, he’s scored four more times, two braces apiece against Panama and Tunisia. He’s now Belgium’s leading scorer at European championships and World Cups, with a combined seven goals, and he’s a leading contender for the Golden Boot.
ST: Harry Kane, England
After he started his tournament with a match-winning brace against Tunisia, Kane said he wants to be like Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and considered among the best players in the world. For many players, that would sound like bravado, but with England’s captain there’s a sense that he’s simply always challenging himself. He’s not doing badly – a hat-trick against Panama put him atop the Golden Boot standings.
ST: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Ronaldo’s penalty miss against Beiranvand and Iran is the only thing that has him trailing Kane in the Golden Boot race. He can be forgiven the occasional lapse, however, when he produces performances like his hat-trick against Spain, sealed with a stunning 88th minute free-kick that salvaged a draw. His team may depend on him too much, but he backs himself to deliver under the pressure that brings – and why would anyone doubt him?
Arrogant. Complacent. Meek.
Pick one, and it will apply to Germany’s 2018 World Cup team. Reigning champions and among the favourites to lift the trophy this summer, a first group-stage exit since 1938 was unthinkable.
This is the first time since Euro 2004 that Germany won’t reach the semi-finals of an international tournament. That’s six straight tournaments where fourth-best was the worst it got. In Russia, they’ve finished bottom of a group that included Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea. With all due respect to those three sides, that’s unforgivable.
Much will be made of the fact that Germany have become the third straight World Cup holders to crash out at the group stage, and fourth straight champion from Europe to do so, after France in 2002, Italy in 2010, and Spain in 2014.
Comparisons to Spain are the most valid, simply for how clueless a side that had been dominant four years earlier looked as the world caught up to them. The sides are so similar stylistically – relentless possession, precision passing, and ruthless finishing – that the Germany of 2014-17 essentially looked like the next stage of evolution of Spain from 2008-13.
The Germany of 2014 were what the Spain of that year were supposed to be. The Germany of 2018 are what the Spain of 2014 actually were.
It’s easy to say in hindsight that the signs were there. They had a five-match winless run at one point during World Cup preparation, their worst run since 1931. There’s a pattern here.
After scoring a whopping 43 times in 10 World Cup qualifiers, they scored four times in that five-match run. Their scoring record in Russia? Two goals in three games. The goals had already begun drying up.
At each turn, it seemed as if there was no cause for concern. Uninspiring during pre-tournament friendlies? Germany will flip the switch for the tournament proper. Shock loss to Mexico? They’ll respond against Sweden. A fraught, fortunate win over Sweden, weaknesses still apparent? Well, they fought like champions. They’ve arrived.
In truth, they never had.
Mexico’s stunning win over the champions laid bare Germany’s deficiencies. But while Hirving Lozano’s goal to give Mexico their historic win began the nightmare for Germany, the image of their World Cup should be the final goal they conceded. South Korean star Son Heung-min poking the ball into an empty net, the goalkeeper nowhere to be seen.
No team has made more errors leading to goals (2) at the 2018 World Cup than Germany.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 27, 2018
☑️ Toni Kroos
☑️ Manuel Neuer
Both came today against South Korea. pic.twitter.com/zerNzBwzFy
It can be argued that at 1-0 down, needing two quick goals to stay alive, Manuel Neuer‘s decision to vacate his goal and play as an auxiliary midfielder and striker was a necessary, albeit desperate, gamble. What difference would it make if they lost 2-0 instead of 1-0?
Neuer’s ploy was only going to work if his presence further up the pitch led to a goal. And sure, to an extent, the level of confidence he had to think that it could is admirable. If it had worked, he’d have been hailed as a hero.
But there’s gambling and then there’s gambling. This was going all-in on a nothing hand, hoping for the other side to fold, or a miracle. This wasn’t confidence. It was somewhere between irresponsibility and utter cluelessness, a desperate attempt to make something happen purely because Neuer, Germany’s captain, had no idea what else to do.
Champion teams don’t hope for miracles, they produce them. To a man, Germany failed.
Sami Khedira, his side’s loan defensive midfielder, should be ashamed that Mesut Ozil, of all people, was the only attacking player who got back to help defensively for Mexico’s goal. Jerome Boateng may have gotten sick of being overrun in defence by the end of the Sweden game, but getting sent off at 1-1 when his team were chasing a win was irresponsible.
Toni Kroos, one of the best passers of his generation, can still be excused for misplacing a pass, but making no attempt to get back defensively as Sweden scored from his mistake was inexcusable. At least he later produced the winner – though he would then assist South Korea’s first goal in the next game.
What about everyone else? Where was Thomas Muller, he of 10 World Cup goals? Where were Timo Werner and Mario Gomez, the two strikers missing gilt-edged chances against South Korea? The utter lack of responsibility was shocking.
Some blame should fall on manager Joachim Low. He couldn’t figure out how to shake his side out of their uninspired, listless state, and never settled on his best XI. He’s considering his future after this shock exit, as he should be, even if he’s just signed a contract extension and the German federation said, before the South Korea game, that Low’s job was secure even if Germany failed to qualify.
But ultimately, champion teams are built on champion players. Germany’s barely showed up.
Perhaps they thought just showing up was enough to win.
Arrogant. Complacent. Meek.
Here, we take a look at three burning issues ahead of the game.
DEFENSIVE DUO ARE CENTRAL TO URUGUAY’S HOPES
Uruguay probably aren’t the prettiest side to watch in world football, but they’re effective. And while they’re trademark is grit and tenacity rather than flair and craft, they also possess some pretty special attacking players.
Suarez and Edinson Cavani both got on the scoresheet in their final group game as Russia were put to the sword, and the fact that those two are starting to stir – combined with their rigid defence – is not an encouraging sign for European champions Portugal.
He’s now one of the father figures of this Uruguay side bursting with exciting young talent, but Diego Godin remains a man with a celestial presence for La Celeste.
He has arguably the country’s biggest burgeoning young talent beside him in the heart of defence to do the sprinting and nullify the speed of pacy opposition strikers.
But whatever Jose Gimenez brings to the partnership, it pales in comparison to what the young man is learning off his veteran skipper.
The 32-year-old master and 23-year-old student form the foundations of a formidable defence at Atletico Madrid and that has been translated to the international arena, where the partnership is possibly the most solid of any nation left in the tournament.
There may be a nine-year age gap but both players are leaders and they are leading the statistics at this World Cup – the duo top among tackles, clearances and interceptions.
It’s easy to imagine Gimenez becoming national team captain one day – despite being 23 he is already on 44 caps.
Godin still has a few more years left in him of course, but Uruguay have a ready-made replacement ready and waiting and right by his side.
WHO WILL WIN BATTLE OF TWO TOTEMIC FORWARDS?
Two heavyweights in every sense of the word square up in Sochi, which should serve up a tasty appetiser as the business end of the tournament starts on Saturday.
And while most would probably pick Real Madrid powerhouse Ronaldo if given a choice between him and Barcelona hitman Suarez, Portugal fans may well worry about the form of their charismatic captain coming into this last 16 clash.
He started the tournament with a bang, rocketing in a hat-trick in a rampant one-man display of real class in the thrilling 3-3 draw with Spain.
He scored again in a nervy 1-0 victory over Morocco, but was abysmal in the final group game with Iran, as the European champions ultimately scraped into the knockouts. His pass success rate of 74.2 per cent was the worst of anyone in Portugal’s starting XI and his penalty miss encapsulated his miserable day – it would have been summed up had he been red carded in a decision that was referred to VAR.
Meanwhile, Suarez is strolling into the last 16, much like La Celeste, in fine form. The Barca forward was at his brilliant best as Russia were ravaged 3-0 in the final group game – one in which his fine opening free-kick set the tone as Uruguay breezed to victory.
In form and firing, he could cause massive problems for Portugal.
MOUTINHO MUST BE RECALLED
Adrien Silva endured a mixed outing when he came into the Portugal line-up in place of Joao Moutinho against Iran.
On the one hand he was on the ball far more than any colleague – playing 106 touches, 21 more than any teammate. His pass accuracy of 94.3 per cent was also the best of the rest of his colleagues, while he delivered two key passes (only Joao Mario’s three proved superior).
But he still wasn’t able to truly get a grip on the game as Portugal were made to sweat on their last 16 spot, with Iran equalising from the penalty spot and squandering a golden opportunity to sneak a 2-1 win which would have sent them through and Fernando Santos’ side home.
The Leicester City man was also dispossessed three times and registered two unskilled touches. And after Iran manager Carlos Queiroz altered his tactics and put striker Sardar Azmoun on the case of pressurising Silva’s midfield partner William Carvalho, it led to Iran gaining a grip on proceedings and Silva’s influence fading further.
Moutinho was strangely left out despite being Portugal’s best player against Morocco.
Admittedly they shrunk to the sanctuary of the shadows after Ronaldo headed them into an early lead, but Monaco’s Moutinho was still a menace.
Two key passes – including swinging in the cross for the only goal – plus a second highest pass completion percentage of 84.2 and the third most touches. With a titanic tussle expected, expect Moutinho to be recalled.