The World Cup always springs a few surprises and the early departures of Argentina, Spain and Germany from this summer’s tournament were certainly not expected. It wasn’t just a case of hotly tipped teams playing below par though, as the Russian summer also produced its share of sides that vastly exceeded the expectations people had for them. It is those sides that we are going to take a look at in this article.
The hosts hit the heights
Going in their ranking was 70 – the lowest of all – and you had to go all the way back to the 1966 tournament to find the last time that Russia reached the later stages of a World Cup. Prior to the tournament, observers were predicting that they would become the first host nation to fail to make the knockout stages since South Africa in 2010, and even their manager Stanislav Cherchesov was downplaying their chances of doing anything. As it was, they did ride their luck at times in getting out of their group; what with Egypt’s star striker Salah playing injured and the injury to Dzagoev that let Cheryshev shine. Few thought they would have a chance in the last 16 against Spain – one of the favourites to win the trophy. Russia’s odds before the beginning of the World Cup were 40/1 and most people would have felt that this was being rather kind to a limited side. The team were even referred to as the worst Russia has ever had, but this made their battling display to see off Spain on penalties all the more impressive. They went out of the tournament at the quarter final stage, after a defeat to Croatia on penalty kicks, but their 2-2 draw after extra time ensured that heads were held high.
Croatia are perhaps the team that showed the single biggest improvement in the 2018 World Cup, as a nation of just four million made it to the final of the tournament. At the centre of it was brilliant midfield maestro Luka Modric – who claimed the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player – having produced two assists and one goal during the seven matches. Croatia won every game in their group, which included a 3-0 demolition of Argentina that ranked among the most dominant performances of the competition. They needed penalty kicks to overcome Denmark and Russia in the first two knockout rounds, but the way they overcame the loss of an early goal in the semi final against England showed their ability to gradually assume control of matches and made their pre-tournament 33/1 odds look silly.
England doesn’t expect
England fans have often been accused of arrogance, but expectations for this World Cup were very low, despite 16/1 odds. They were handed a comparatively easy group, but the professional manner in which they negotiated it still represented an improvement – from the tenacity that produced a last minute Harry Kane winner against Tunisia to the 6-1 drubbing of Panama. It was in the knockout stages that they really showed mettle though, demonstrating new-found mental strength to win a penalty shootout against Colombia in the last 16, before easing past a decent Sweden in the quarter finals. Croatia had too much quality in the semis, but this England side grew into itself and performed well above expectations.
All three of these sides will now be looking forward to the future with a great deal more optimism than they had before the World Cup began, thanks to the demonstrable improvement they showed in the tournament.
Tagged World Cup