World Cup holders Germany have signed off their preparations for this summer’s event with a 2-1 friendly win against Saudi Arabia – their first triumph in five matches.
In the absence of controversially cut Manchester City winger Leroy Sane, a tap-in from Timo Werner and own goal from Al Nassr centre-back Omar Hawsawi earned a 2-0 half-time lead.
But the Green Falcons – preparing for a first global tournament since 2006 – remained undaunted. They gained respectability through veteran Al Ahli Jeddah midfielder Taisir Al Jassim’s 84th-minute rebound from Al Nassr striker Mohammad Al Sahlawi’s weak penalty after Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira’s trip on the former.
Here are our player ratings for the hosts at Leverkusen’s BayArena:
Manuel Neuer – 6: A gentle 45 minutes of work for the returning Bayern Munich No1 after last term’s injury disaster. Graver tests will await in Russia.
Joshua Kimmich – 7: Chipped up a fantastic ball from centre field to spark Germany’s opener. Was also given a decent test by Saudi Arabia left winger Yahya Al Shehri.
Jerome Boateng – 6: Very little to report from the Bayern man’s half on the pitch as defending was largely left to his club-mate, Hummels. Should still retain starting spot ahead of another colleague in Niklas Sule.
Mats Hummels – 7: The pace of lone striker Fahad Al Muwallad kept Hummels honest. Was required to make several stretched challenges. Forced an early save in other penalty box.
Jonas Hector – 7: Showed alertness – piqued many times before in Cologne’s dismal Bundesliga campaign – to block Salem Al Dawsari’s inviting low centre for Al Muwallad in the first half.
Sami Khedira – 6: His 75th international cap featured a shot against the crossbar and later felling of eventual goalscorer Al Jassim for Saudi’s penalty.
Toni Kroos – 7: The Real Madrid metronome seemed to play within himself, yet still gained easy midfield domination in the first half.
Thomas Muller – 7: Was really up for this World Cup showcase. His drive inside from right side forced Omar Hawsawi in to his own goal. This was a player preparing, as usual, to come into his own during tournament play.
Marco Reus – 8: Handed a central role by head coach Joachim Low because of Mesut Ozil’s nagging injury. Repaid the faith with a first international assists in 1,736 days for Werner. A major role could away after years of injury torment.
Julian Draxler – 6: Another to play with the brakes on. Yet his class is undeniable and he gave Al Hilal right-back Yasser Al Shahrani a torrid time.
Timo Werner – 7: Makes international goalscoring look utterly effortless. Instincts were on show to get in right place to lash home Reus’ cross. Eight goals in 14 run-outs for Die Mannschaft speaks for itself.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen – 7: Didn’t have to strain himself to keep out substitute Mohammad Al Sahlawi’s central penalty-kick. Just couldn’t get it to safety.
Niklas Sule – 6: Kept the Saudi attack quieter, though rolling changes helped colossal Bayern centre-back.
Ilkay Gundogan – 6: Lively form from City looks to be taken into the summer. Almost barreled home a first international goal since 2015.
Mario Gomez – 6: Germany’s penalty-box predator didn’t get a chance to add a 32nd international goal to his collection.
Julian Brandt – 5: Not the most-convincing run-out after Low’s public vote of confidence.
Matthias Ginter – N/A: Precious little to do.
The 7-1 semi-final humiliation to eventual winners Germany four years ago at Estadio Mineirao was meant to create scars that would last a generation.
A ‘Mineirazo’ to match 1950’s devastating ‘Maracanazo’ (The Maracano Blow) when Uruguay claimed final victory in Rio de Janeiro.
History appeared to be repeating itself when the record five-time winners found themselves down in sixth during CONMEBOL qualifying, with a third of the campaign gone. Out went Dunga – for a second time – during June 2016 and in came the inspirational Tite. They haven’t looked back since.
A ceaseless run of 10 wins and two draws followed to seal their flight to Russia with four games remaining. When this form is allied with recent friendly victories against the likes of the Germans, plus the ascension of the magical Neymar, it is clear to see why the Canarinha are expected to take flight this summer.
A dazzling array of talent will take to the field against Switzerland on June 17 when Group E kicks off in
Tite’s midfield general from Corinthians, Paulinho, is reborn alongside the latter at Camp Nou. Vitally, such
players now operate in a 4-3-3 formation that has been honed to perfection by the new boss. He’s also instilled the swagger of old, but with a healthy dose of pragmatism to get the job done through the likes of Real Madrid midfield battler Casemiro and outstanding Internazionale centre-back Miranda.
Paris Saint-Germain’s €222m forward Neymar is unquestionably the first among equals – his form is intrinsic to genuine hopes of success. But whereas injury during the previous tournament sent Brazil into a tailspin, a sublime support cast is in place to prevent national panic despite his recent recovery from a fractured metatarsal.
Live up to his exalted billing and he will join 2002 champion Ronaldo on the rung just below the ineffable Pele in the nation’s passionate affections. But Neymar’s petulance taps into concerns about the side’s temperament.
It is up to the intelligent Tite to make sure a wonderfully gifted group does not implode against the competition’s finest.
Defensive doubts about rampaging Marcelo and whomever replaces the injured Dani Alves – potentially Corinthians’ Fagner – must also be assuaged.
After the Swiss test, Brazil wind up against Costa Rica in Saint Petersburg on June 22 and Serbia in Moscow on June 27.
A gentle start that could be a springboard to cathartic success after the horrors of World Cup 2014.
A nation took a collective breath in February when the PSG forward suffered serious injury. Yet, Neymar should be rested and raring to go in Russia. His array of skills are unmatched in world football, while more than 50 international goals aged 26 points to his fearsome ability.
Tite was happy to bide his time for this job. After domestic, continental and world titles were claimed at Corinthians, he took time off to carry out an in-depth study of elite European football. Brazil are benefiting now from a cerebral and popular figure.
Tite’s revolving policy with the captain’s armband makes prediction difficult. But if it goes to 33-year-old Miranda, it’ll be worn by one of the game’s best centre-backs. Miranda is a pure defender, his skills honed by Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid.
In 2014, head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari could only turn to journeymen such as Fred and Jo. No wonder Brazil floundered. For this edition, a 21-year-old to potentially follow in the hallowed footsteps of Pele, Bebeto and Ronaldo is in place.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– 7, goals scored by Gabriel Jesus in qualifying – one more than Neymar.
– 20, games played by Cafu at World Cups – a Brazilian record.
– 67.3, win percentage for Brazil during 104 matches at the World Cup.
86 DEF 85 MID 87 ATT
World Cups competed at
21 (First in 1930)
World Cup record
P104, W70, D17, L17
Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 & 2002)
P18, W12, D5, L1
Alisson (Roma), Ederson (Manchester City), Cassio (Corinthians).
Miranda (Inter Milan), Marquinhos (Paris St Germain), Thiago Silva (Paris St Germain), Pedro Geromel (Gremio), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Fagner (Corinthians), Danilo (Manchester City), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid)
Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Paulinho (Barcelona), Renato Augusto (Beijing
Guoan), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), Willian (Chelsea) Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk),
Douglas Costa (Juventus).
The combination of Tite and Neymar looks to be a winning ticket. Easy group means they can grow into the tournament – a fearsome prospect
The very best teams at the World Cup may make their opponents weak at the knees but, dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find that even the big boys are facing big questions.
Here we probe the elite’s frailties and potential solutions starting with the top contenders from Groups A through D: Spain, Portugal, France and Argentina.
Problem: Choosing the most effective striker
The era of Fernando Torres and David Villa this is decidedly not. Such is the murkiness around Spain’s best forward options that it was judged more than a mild shock that a misfiring Alvaro Morata was deemed surplus to requirements.
Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo have all had their moments in a Spain shirt but none of them fit like a glove around La Roja’s sleight of hand. Costa started the friendly draw with Switzerland and though he dwarfs his midfield minions in physicality, too often he scuppers attacks with a sub-par first touch.
Aspas – once a figure of fun at Liverpool, now a 20-plus goal-a-season marksman for Celta Vigo – and Valencia’s Rodrigo are both in their element when playing off the last man as opposed to playing pinball in the final third.
Solution: Start with a false No.9
Spain coach Julen Lopetegui could just adapt his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with a striker who isn’t truly there – the false No.9.
If any side are set up to do just that, it’s Spain. David Silva, Marco Asensio and Isco, with one of Thiago or Koke alongside Andres Iniesta, will be able to suck defenders into the abyss.
A free-roaming Isco can open up pockets of space – he’s Lionel Messi-lite for Spain – and then La Roja, so often accused of being one-dimensional, have a Plan B (Costa) and Plan C (Rodrigo/Aspas) off the bench.
Problem: Severe lack of pace in defence
The combined age of Pepe, Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte is 105. That’s enough to make us all feel young again.
Experience only makes up for so much of this. Pepe now plays for Besiktas, not Real Madrid, Fonte’s first game for Chinese club Dalian Yifang ended in an 8-0 defeat while Alves played just 20 league games for Rangers last season.
Protecting the centre-back pairing in midfield is William Carvalho, a brute of a man who is quietly skillful yet has not been blessed with pace.
This means the back-line has to sit deep with or without the ball – such is the risk they will be beaten over the top or slow to react to a sudden loss of possession.
Solution: Play Ruben Dias
On one hand the World Cup isn’t the ideal time to introduce the next generation. On the other hand four years is a long time to wonder what could have been.
Benfica centre-back Ruben Dias, who is just 21, earned his first cap last month and has been linked with a big-money move to Arsenal.
Tender in years he may be but he has swiftly been nicknamed ‘the Bodyguard’ given his manhandling of more experienced opponents.
Dias can make up for in athleticism what the wily Pepe lacks if played alongside him. Youth worked in Portugal’s favour with Renato Sanches two years ago – fingers crossed against a similar regression.
Problem: How to get the best out of Paul Pogba
While Paul Pogba gets a new haircut each week, many of his well-wishers simply tear their follicles out in frustration.
The player who threatened to be great at Juventus has not shown a single shred of consistency for Manchester United, and crucially for Didier Deschamps, France.
Too often apologists have claimed Pogba need only play in his favoured position on the left of a midfield three but he does so for Les Bleus on a regular basis and is just as likely to gallop around aimlessly as he is to make jaws drop in the right way.
Solution: Drop Pogba
If Deschamps needs reminding, he has a coterie of talent at his disposal. While it could be argued that Pogba is the most naturally gifted of the lot there are numerous players in the squad who have enjoyed far more productive seasons.
With N’Golo Kante the forager and Blaise Matuidi yo-yoing from box to box, France need someone who can consistently make the right decisions and speed play up for Antoine Griezmann et al.
Step forward Liverpool-bound Nabil Fekir, who arrives in Russia after an incredible season for Lyon that saw him score 18 goals and set up countless more.
It’s time to put ‘reputations’ to one side.
Problem: Fixing a disjointed attack
As foolish as it sounds to criticise an attacking line-up that boasts Messi, Argentina were simply hideous on the goals front during their qualification campaign.
Jorge Sampaoli’s side mustered 19 goals in 18 games. The situation was so dire that he was forced to drop serial Serie A goal-getters Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi due to their ineffectiveness.
Only Icardi failed to make the cut but there are still concerns. Sampaoli has admitted Dybala occupies too many of the same spaces as Messi – while Higuain is now arguably past his peak as the spearhead.
To make matters worse Manuel Lanzini, a viable option as an inside forward or just behind, succumbed to a summer-ending knee injury on Friday.
Solution: Create width
Argentina have had a ramshackle build-up, playing just one warm-up game, but extra time on the training pitch should do them good (apart from the unfortunate Lanzini).
Let Messi do whatever he wants. He know better than you, me and Sampaoli. But the Chilean coach should hammer into his players the importance of width.
With Sampaoli veering towards a 4-4-2 formation, and Lanzini out, Di Maria and Dybala are now seemingly their best options on the wings.
They will naturally drift inside on occasion, of course, but not to the extent that they cross wires with Messi. And a few crosses out wide should help extract the best out of Higuain. It’ll be difficult on the right for either left-footed player. They should be talented enough to adapt.