Analysis: Gap closing as outsiders stake their World Cup claim
By Dominic Unwin
All hail the rise of the minnows! Well, maybe they aren’t minnows in the traditional sense of the word but in the modern age of football where national squads can more closely resemble stock portfolios than actual teams, the achievements of a select group of nations is worth taking notice of.
Heading into Russia 2018 the usual suspects of France, Germany, Brazil and Spain were in the title conversation. However, after the group stage, it is the nations outside that elite group making waves.
Portugal and Croatia were undefeated in the group stage while Mexico and even Russia laid down some early markers before losing their final group stage matches.
To use a European club football analogy, these countries are like Europa League teams – close to the elite but not in the same company.
Croatia in particular has set a high standard with three wins from three including a thumping 3-0 over Argentina. A very winnable round-of-16 encounter with Denmark looms and, from there, anything is possible.
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Portugal also pose a threat through Cristiano Ronaldo and co, going goal-for-goal in their opener against Spain and getting the job done against Morocco.
Mexico needs no introduction having shocked world champions Germany in their opening game and then taken care of Korea Republic. This current crop of Mexican players will be aiming to be the first El Tri Mexican side to make it into the last eight.
The above nations stand in contrast to the traditional ‘big dogs’ and pose a question to the international game: is the gap closing?
The ‘gap’ itself is a tricky thing to define. Going off rankings, Portugal sit in fourth spot and notwithstanding Ronaldo’s presence, clearly are not the fourth best team in the world.
Belgium, another side to have started strongly, is ranked third yet few would consider them the third best.
Instead it is only the traditionally strong nations, with strong national leagues, that are considered part of that elite, possibly World Cup-winning group.
Italy would fall into this despite missing out on Russia. The heavyweights are seemingly under siege, and not just in Russia. Portugal took out Euro 2016, and Brazil and Argentina have failed to win recent editions of the Copa America.
The in-form teams in Russia are not heavyweights. Their domestic leagues are largely considered second-rate yet they have displayed more tactical proficiency and execution than any of their ‘bigger brothers’.
We could still yet see a favourite go on and win the title but if this tournament has taught us anything, it is that the gap is well and truly closing.
Being a traditional behemoth of the game counts for very little these days. Just ask Germany. The world game is changing.