Embrace the absurd: Say the 2014 World Cup was drawn today …

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Let me pre-empt your comment and acknowledge: I know this is completely pointless. And in a way, that is the point.

I want to embrace the absurdity of looking too deep into early qualifying results. I want to see what the world would look like if Mexico kept struggling, Ghana didn’t get out of their group, or Portugal doesn’t track down Israel in Europe.

I want Uzbekistan’s name in draw, Venezuela in a finals, and nations like Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina to breakthrough.

Most of all, I want some kind of reward for all of the international soccer we’ve been subjected to over the last five days. I want to know this is leading somewhere – that these constant jumps from the club world into this alternative reality will be rewarded. The only way for my frustrated, fatigued little mind to grasp the implications is to draw out the 2014 World Cup.

So here’s what I did: I took the current standings from qualifying tournaments around the world, assumed the teams’ points-per-game rates played out, and then “qualified” the appropriate teams for Brazil. When playoffs were needed, I went with FIFA’s higher rated team (for no other reason than to take my preferences out of the equation).

Beyond using FIFA ranking as a tiebreaker, I didn’t assume the good teams would automatically make it. Think Panama’s going to fade? Too bad. They’re in first now. Montenegro’s not going to win their group? Then they won’t part of the last time we do this exercise eight months from now. We’re living in the present, baby. Embrace the now!

Once the 32 teams were decided. I pulled out Brazil and the seven seeded teams (by FIFA ranking), and conducted the draw by normal procedures. The way it ended up after playoffs, eight European teams formed one pot, the African and South American teams formed another, while the Asian and CONCACAF teams formed the last.

And this is how it played out.

AGAIN, this is not meant to be anything other than a fun exercise. I don’t intend it to be predictive or in any way a reflection of anybody’s analysis. It’s just a goof.

Group A Group B
Brazil
France
Cote d’Ivoire
South Korea
Spain
Switzerland
Algeria
Uzbekistan
Group C Group D
England
Greece
Zambia
Honduras
Italy
Croatia
Venezuela
United States
Group E Group F
Netherlands
Belgium
Chile
Panama
Germany
Russia
Ecuador
Australia
Group G Group H
Colombia
Montenegro
Nigeria
Japan
Argentina
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Tunisia
Costa Rica

Perhaps once we’re further down the qualifying road we can put some analysis in this space, but we’re still a little too far down the road to be taking this too seriously. For now, it’s cool to seem some of the new names and potential groups …

… but for now, I leave the analysis to you.

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

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Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.