Belgium are headed to a World Cup semifinal for the first time since 1986 after knocking off Brazil, a side which hadn’t lost a game — competitive or otherwise — in nearly 13 months, in Friday’s thrilling quarterfinal clash in Nizhny Novgorod.
Kevin De Bruyne scored the latest stunner in a 2018 tournament full of them (WATCH HERE), to add to an early own goal, before Brazil fought back valiantly but ultimately fell in the end, 2-1.
Fernandinho opened the scoring, into the wrong goal, in the 13th minute (WATCH HERE). Vincent Kompant, Fernandinho’s teammate at Manchester City, rose above the scrum to get his head to Nacer Chadli‘s corner kick, but didn’t make the cleanest of contact. The ball appeared headed across the six-yard box, until it made contact with the arm of Fernandinho and eluded a flailing Alisson in goal.
The 1-0 scoreline didn’t last long, as Belgium doubled their lead just after the half-hour mark. Romelu Lukaku picked the ball up inside his own half and surged forward, past a handful of defenders, before the ball was knocked away but fell to De Bruyne to Lukaku’s right. Three touches later, De Bruyne had the ball on his right foot with far too much sight of goal. The laser which ensued was un-savable (WATCH HERE).
For the ensuing 45 minutes, the Belgian defense appeared impermeable, thwarting anything and everything Brazil through at them. Even a pair of penalty-kick claims, from Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, fell on deaf ears.
Everything changed in the 76th minute, when Philippe Coutinho curled the perfect ball toward te penalty spot where Renato Augusto was waiting and anticipating. The Beijing Guoan midfielder applied every bit of contact and power he could muster with his head to beat Thibaut Courtois inside his left-hand post.
Fewer than five minutes later, it was Augusto who had Brazil’s first golden opportunity to draw the five-time world champions level, but he dragged his shot wide from just outside the box, letting the Belgian backline off the hook for a failed clearance.
Coutinho badly skewed Brazil’s next chance high and wide. Neymar beat his man to the endline and cut back inside before laying the ball back for the late-arriving Barcelona man, but Coutinho got his first-time effort all wrong and Belgium again went unpunished.
Once more, Brazil threatened in the 94th minute, but Courtois made a seemingly impossible save to tip Neymar’s curling shot just over the crossbar.
It’s still extremely early in the first half of Friday’s second quarterfinal matchup, between Brazil and Belgium, two of the more heavily favored sides remaining at the 2018 World Cup, but it’s the Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils who lead in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.
Nacer Chadli whipped in a delightful corner kick to the near post, Vincent Kompany rose highest and got a head to it, though his contact appeared to glance the ball and send it across the six-yard box. To much Brazilian chagrin, the ball came off the arm of Fernandinho, who’s starting in place of the suspended Casemiro (yellow-card accumulation), sending it past Alisson in goal.
With the Round of 16 complete, Brazil is one of the few favorites in the 2018 World Cup to have earned that nomenclature thus far. Germany slumped out in the group stage, Spain looked lost without its manager and bowed out in the Round of 16, and France still seems yet to put together a truly complete performance.
Now, staring down a quarterfinal date with Belgium’s “Golden Generation” on Saturday, Brazil faces its first true test. Manager Tite has yet to find himself truly challenged tactically over his two-year tenure with the national team, breezing through CONMEBOL qualification in a South American confederation that appears weaker than usual given its combined performance in the World Cup thus far.
Brazil sailed through qualification with a week one loss the only blemish along entire way, and to this point in the big dance they’ve done enough to push by Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia, and Mexico with few truly shaky moments. Now, Tite finds himself tasked with halting the seductively free-flowing Belgian attack that has multiple strengths with which to threaten an opposition.
In a vacuum, Tite wouldn’t have much to think about, his first-choice Brazilian side built well to handle an attacking juggernaut like Belgium. However, the numerous circumstances surrounding Saturday’s quarterfinal make this an exceedingly difficult prospect for Tite – his first truly mountainous trial.
The biggest concern Tite must to overcome is the loss of central midfielder Casemiro to yellow card suspension. The World Cup’s excessively strict yellow card policy sees players who accumulate a second caution before the semifinal suspended for the subsequent match, and thanks to Casemiro’s booking in the 59th minute of the 2-0 win over Mexico for a foul on Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Brazil is without the Real Madrid rock.
Casemiro is essential to Brazil’s structure and shape, and protects a back line better than any number 6 in the world. His performance against Mexico was as stout as any, but it’s not a good illustration of his true abilities given how Mexico intentionally targeted Brazil’s flanks as their preferred outlet of attack. Instead, one should look to Brazil’s comfortable 2-0 win over Serbia to discover Casemiro’s true worth. Against the big, physical presence of Serbia’s attack, Casemiro was vital in preventing them from circulating through the middle. The 26-year-old completed six of eight tackles attempted, contributed four clearances, recovered nine balls, and went toe-to-toe with Serbia’s exceptionally physical presence winning three of his seven defensive aerial duels. He effectively forced Serbia’s attack out wide, where they are not nearly as dangerous. Below is their attacking dashboard, where you can see the void in the middle as opposed to the traffic out wide.
As you can see, they were completely neutralized in the center of the pitch. With this in mind, Serbia was forced to take a mammoth 26 crosses, of which they successfully connected on just four.
Casemiro’s suspension will be a massive loss for Brazil against Belgium’s impressive attacking assualt. In the Red Devils’ 5-2 demolition of promising African nation Tunisia, they were relentless down the middle. Roberto Martinez has Kevin De Bruyne playing in a deeper midfield role with Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens ahead of him in the attacking midfield, and the Manchester City playmaker has been able to marshal the Belgian buildup from deep. Against Tunisia he created five chances and was given free reign through the middle of the field to control the pace of play. That ultimately saw Belgium’s attack bask in plenty of sunlight through the central areas.
With this in mind, Tite will be forced to counter the loss of Casemiro. With Paulinho deployed next to Casemiro thus far throughout the World Cup, it’s unlikely Tite would want to leave him on an island against Belgium. The most likely scenario is the addition of Fernandinho in Casemiro’s place, with the Manchester City holding midfielder a fitting selection to deputize against his Belgian club teammate with the Premier League title winners. Fernandinho was fabulous last season for his club, a big reason why Manchester City was able to win a championship in record-setting fashion. He was the 12th best player in the Premier League last season according to Squawka Statistics as he executed Pep Guardiola‘s tactics to perfection. However, the biggest weakness for Fernandinho is his defensive ability, with the 25-year-old making 5.3 defensive contributions (tackles, interceptions, clearances, blocks) per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season compared to Casemiro’s 9.1 in La Liga play.
Instead of Fernandinho, we could see the likes of new Manchester United signing Fred or veteran Renauto Augusto if Tite wants to be more aggressive, which may be a preferable tactical choice given Belgium’s weak defensive midfield that Japan exploited in the first half of their Round of 16 meeting, before Roberto Martinez shored things up with the introduction of Marouane Fellaini.
Another conundrum Tite must solve is the looming question up front: what to do with Gabriel Jesus. The 21-year-old attacker impressed in his first season in England, but has proven underwhelming in Russia this summer. He has been upstaged by Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino late in World Cup games, most recently watching from the bench as Firmino iced the Mexico game with a late goal. There are calls to replace Jesus with a more centrally inclined striker like Firmino in the starting lineup, and it is Tite’s job to deduce whether Firmino is a fitting replacement for Jesus from the get-go, or if his success is molded by his use as a late sub against tired legs. If his Champions League performances are any indication, Firmino is more than capable of causing problems for opposition defensive structure for an entire 90 minutes at a high level, and his World Cup performances seem to suggest he has a better understanding with Neymar than Jesus has shown.
Finally, Tite has issues to solve on the back line as well. Injuries have decimated the Brazilian full-back ranks, and while it appears those injured may be somewhat subsiding, there are still lingering questions. Danilo was reportedly fit for the Mexico game, but Tite stuck with understudy Fagner at right-back, who was subsequently torn to shreds by Carlos Vela early and Lozano as the game progressed. Vela created four chances throughout the match – three in the first half – while completing 13 of 16 pass attempts in the attacking third. Lozano, meanwhile, completed six of 10 take-ons including five of his first seven before Brazil’s pressure became too much for Mexico to handle. Meanwhile on the left flank, Filipe Luis was troubled by Mexico’s wide attack as well – although not to the extent of Fagner – and while Marcelo’s presence in the Brazilian lineup would seem a given if healthy, some believe Filipe Luis has performed well enough to keep his place in the eleven.
Brazil has passed every test to this point, but in a World Cup full of chaos and upsets, Tite cannot afford to underestimate any personnel choice or tactical decision, no matter how small. His conclusions over the next few days will shape the 2018 World Cup’s first true heavyweight bout.
1) The World Cup is here and the United States men’s national team is guaranteed to go unbeaten. Jokes aside, how do you feel about the tournament now that it is here and absent the USMNT?
Joe Prince-Wright:It still just doesn’t feel quite right. Sure, big teams have missed out over the years but the USA have been at every World Cup since I’ve been alive. It’s tough to fathom what kind of impact this will have on soccer in the USA overall but I feel my overall mood is a begrudging acceptance that the USMNT simply weren’t good enough to be there. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Nicholas Mendola: In longish form, here. But here’s a point I didn’t hit in the piece. I largely feel sympathy for a lot of the players who I believe were put in a poor spot — and continue to be — by Bruce Arena. That’s not to excuse Jurgen Klinsmann, who put different players in similar binds, but Arena had a “We’re too big to fail” element about him that pervades into his book tour (which isn’t doing anyone favors). It occurred to me while interviewing Omar Gonzalez last week that these questions aren’t going away. Even if the USMNT were to win the 2022 World Cup, most of the 2018 qualifying bunch would face questions about how it feels to be redeemed by others.
Kyle Bonn: I’m very excited. Not only have I purged myself of the stink of T&T and am ready to move forward with a promising group of young kids in the USMNT system, but I am actually excited for a tournament without a rooting interest. This is going to be a really fun month that I can’t wait to be a part of.
Matt Reed: I’d feel better if Bruce Arena didn’t keep on opening his mouth and scorching everything in his path, but I said it throughout qualifying that I wasn’t convinced this team would qualify for Russia, and they didn’t. I’ve come to cope with the simple fact that the team out on the field in those CONCACAF WCQ matches simply wasn’t good enough. Could better, younger rosters have been put out? Sure. However, you cannot turn back time, and this is a learning experience that U.S. Soccer needed very badly if it was to ever make drastic changes to its organization.
Dan Karell: It feels weird. I feel like there is less buzz for the World Cup this year. This is the first World Cup in my lifetime that the U.S. won’t be involved in, so it’s been different, for sure.
2) So, who wins the thing?
JPW: Brazil. Looking at the players they’ll have on the bench, let alone the ones they left out of their squad, that tells you all you need to know. Plus, any team that breezes through the ridiculously tough South American World Cup qualifying like they did have to be the favorites. Also, defensively they look solid with Alisson and Ederson as goalkeepers and Fernandinho shielding the defense. The fact that Neymar is back to full fitness and looks totally refreshed after a few months off is also a huge reason why they’ll get it done.
KB: I’ve gone back and forth a bunch with this, mainly because the top teams haven’t exactly looked convincing in the run-up to the tournament, but then again, nothing matters less than Spring Training, right? Can’t look past Germany and Brazil, I just can’t. What an epic final that would be! It’s very realistic, with the winners of groups E and F on opposite sides of the bracket. I like Germany to win that one and repeat.
MR: Spain. Between it likely being Andres Iniesta’s last hurrah and the simple fact that they are really, really deep in the midfield and attack, I think La Furia Roja can take home their second World Cup in eight years.
DK: I have Brazil over Germany, in a massive revenge-fueled win in the final. 1-0. I just think Brazil is the deepest team and they have players all over the park who can create goal-scoring opportunities as well as defend them. Tite has the balance right and his team are humming along very well.
3) How many CONCACAF teams make the knockout rounds? And who goes the furthest?
JPW: None. All three CONCACAF teams got a rough draw in the group stages and all three have been less than impressive in the warm-up games. I think Mexico will come close but expect Sweden and Germany to advance from their group. Panama will finish rock bottom in Group G. Costa Rica won’t get past Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland. A tough time for CONCACAF is coming up.
NM: All three will struggle to stay out of fourth in their respective groups. Mexico has the talent to get out of Group F, but the schedule is a nightmare. Opening with Germany could and should make the second match against South Korea a must-win. Otherwise, the third and final match against Sweden could be moot for both sides. I think Mexico finds a way, but the schedule gives me great pause.
KB: Costa Rica got a brutal draw, with Brazil, Switzerland, and Serbia. That’s a royally challenging group, and one of the most intriguing in the entire tournament. I think they get edged by Switzerland in that stacked collection. Mexico will make it out of an easier than expected Group F, but a 2nd placed finish behind Germany sees them likely matched up with Brazil, which would be a one-and-done in the knockout stage. Finally, Panama got a miserable draw as well and won’t get past England and Belgium. It will be a quick exit for the CONCACAF sides.
MR: I don’t like the way Mexico has played over the last year, but they’ll find a way out of the group stage. Costa Rica will join them, although they have been far from convincing as well. I’ll say they both get knocked out in the Round of 16.
DK: Two. I think both Mexico and Costa Rica can and will make it out of their groups.
4) Who wins the Golden Boot?
JPW: Diego Costa. Spain will put chances on a plate for him.
NM: Romelu Lukaku, as Belgium is going to feast on its group stage mates and then is unlikely to face a good defense in the Round of 16. No other strong team has as much of a goal focal point.
MR: This past season was one of ups and downs for Romelu Lukaku, but he’s been tremendous in Belgium’s tune-up matches. The Red Devils will go as far as he takes them, and I honestly believe he could end up with over five goals this tournament.
DK: Julian Green! Kidding. I think it’s got to be Neymar. As long as he’s healthy, he definitely plays and thinks the game faster than his opponents. This should lead to at least five goals in the tournament.
5) Who will win the Golden Ball?
JPW: Neymar as Brazil power to the title.
NM: It may be hard for voters to resist Neymar, with Brazil capable of capturing the imagination of the soccer world and likely to reach the semifinals at the very least.
KB: Lionel Messi
MR: Spain is loaded with talent, but there’s something about Isco that is very special. Every time he touches the ball he’s a legitimate threat on the pass or shot, and he’s one of the reasons why I’m so confident in Spain making a run at another title.
DK: If not Neymar, then perhaps another player on Brazil, such as Paulinho, or Germany’s Toni Kroos.
6) How about the Golden Glove?
JPW: David De Gea’s phenomenal form for Man United will carry over to the World Cup.
NM: I believe it’ll be Manuel Neuer when Germany wins it all, but I’ll go outside the box for the sake of variety and say Thibaut Courtois has a nice run for Belgium.
KB: Manuel Neuer because it often goes to the goalkeeper of the winning team even if he wasn’t truly the best.
MR: I love the way Alisson has played this season at Roma, and the fact that he can start ahead of Ederson speaks volumes about the type of player he is. Brazil should be involved in the latter stages of the tournament, so I’ll take the Brazil keeper.
DK: Keylor Navas carries his Champions League-winning form to help Costa Rica to the quarterfinals, saving a myriad of shots along the way.
7) How about the Best Young Player (21 and younger)?
JPW: I’m going for Ismaila Sarr from Senegal. Watch out for him.
NM: Again, going for variety here because Kylian Mbappe seems an appropriate call, so I’ll swing for the fences with Uruguay and Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Betancur. Mids who rarely score don’t get plaudits, but Uruguay really could make some noise and he’ll be a big part of it in a Toni Kroos-like breakout performance. Amire Harit of Morocco could also land some attention if Morocco advances to the knockout rounds, and I also like the idea of Ndidi (Nigeria/Leicester City).
KB: It’s cruel that Josh Kimmich’s age just didn’t work out properly for this award, because he’s the best youth product in the world and has been for at least 2 years. I love Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, but simply on the basis that Serbia won’t make it out of the group stage, he will be overlooked. The easy pick is Kylian Mbappe, and I like him over countryman Ousmane Dembele or Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus. However…the winner here will be the fabulous Trent Alexander-Arnold, who will migrate his CL form to Russia and show the world what an amazing talent he is as England makes a run.
MR: Gabriel Jesus can really take his game to the next level with a strong performance in Russia.
JPW: I would’ve said Salah, hands down, but with his injury and Egypt probably heading out to Spain or Portugal in the last 16 if they make it out of their group, probably not. Roberto Firmino isn’t a guaranteed starter for Brazil so I’m going for Sadio Mane who had a fine finish to the 2017/18 season. Mane is the main man for Senegal and I’ll think they’ll have a deep run with the Liverpool speedster leading the way.
NM: Give me Mane, if only because I have concerns about Egypt making as long a run as Senegal.
KB: This is tough, because all their situations aren’t perfect. I’m going with Salah because, he’s carrying a team on his injured shoulders and by virtue of his weak group, will likely get a game in the knockouts to state his case (Russia stiiiiiinks). Firmino will struggle for big moments in a team full of superstars, while Mane isn’t likely to make it out of the group stage.
MR: Salah’s injury scares me a bit, even though I really want to pick him. Senegal is my biggest dark horse contender though, so I’ll ride with Sadio Mane. Their attack is going to be lethal, and he’ll be at the forefront of it. There’s a very good chance that Firmino won’t see the field much for Brazil as well, simply because of how stacked the Selecao’s attack is.
DK: Great question. I’m going to say Mane. I think, considering he’s healthy and a sure-fire starter heading into the tournament, he’s set to have the biggest impact. If Salah misses the first match, he won’t be able to play in as many games, unless Egypt goes deep in the tournament. and Firmino is second-choice behind Gabriel Jesus right now.
JPW: Romelu Lukaku. He’s been a beast for Belgium and they’ll score plenty of goals in their group. Although, I do expect Rashford and Lingard to have big impacts for England too. Paul Pogba may be feeling the pressure as France’s warm-up for the tournament was far from ideal.
NM: Lukaku is my bet for the Golden Boot, but Paul Pogba is going to be unshackled on a glorious French side with N'Golo Kante among those behind him. Pogba.
KB: Romelu Lukaku is the go-to guy for Belgium, so I like the big man to have a good tournament even if Belgium disappoints again. Pogba and France are primed for a massive letdown.
MR: Give me Lukaku. When you have Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens as viable options in the attack, that takes a great deal of pressure of your shoulders. Lukaku only had one goal in the 2014 World Cup. I think he could easily quadruple that total in Russia.
DK: Lukaku. If the big Belgian striker can overcome his woes in front of goal in high-pressure games, he should have a massive tournament.
10) Outside the box: Which Premier League team’s players will have the best World Cup combined?
JPW: Tottenham. Belgium and England players galore as both will make the latter stages.
NM: Spurs, if they don’t all crush each other in a mammoth group stage fight.
KB: Great question! Gotta go with Manchester City. John Stones and Raheem Sterling should have breakout showings for England (hard for me to get higher on the Three Lions than I am right now), Argentina needs Sergio Aguero desperately, Benjamin Mendy will start for France, Kevin De Bruyne is a key part of Belgium’s success (even if Roberto Martinez insists on playing him in the hole *puke*), and I already mentioned Jesus could be a young star. All this, mind you, with Ederson stuck behind Alisson and Leroy Sane cruelly left out.
MR: Chelsea. Kante is the center piece in the France midfield, and he’s just a force to be reckoned with. Hazard and Courtois will do their parts with Belgium. Willian could be the spark that Brazil needs opposite Neymar, while Gary Cahill leads England to the knockout phase, and dare I say the quarterfinals.
DK: Probably Manchester United. Lukaku, Pogba and even Rashford can all have huge impacts and potentially make the quarterfinals.
11) Will there be a match or moment which causes many people to wonder if someone’s done something to purposely favor Russia?
JPW: Nope. It’s the World Cup with the entire globe watching. Those shenanigans won’t happen.
NM: Yes, because many will be looking for it. Whether it’s intentional is another story. Check back with me in a week or two.
KB: No, because they’re so awful they won’t even give anyone the opportunity. Look for them to get triple-blanked.
DK: I doubt it. As Ken Bensinger wrote in his new book, Russia has already won, just by winning the right to host the World Cup. Everything else is gravy.
12) Whose stock will rise the most — coach or player — following the tournament?
JPW: Coach — Tite as Brazil win it. Player — Antoine Griezmann who leads France on a deep run.
NM: Coach — Mladen Krstajić of Serbia could well have a “Chris Coleman of Wales at EURO 2016” moment. The 44-year-old is in his first managerial post and has a really talented side with both experience and potential. As for player, I’ll stay with Serbia: Newcastle’s Aleksandar Mitrovic is a loose cannon and that cost him the top spot in Rafa Benitez‘s pecking order, but he’s capable of scoring a handful of goals in Russia.
KB: Great question, because there are so many possibilities here, but I’m going to go with Raheem Sterling. The ruthless English media will be left with nothing left to criticize him about after his performances.
MR: It’s no guarantee that he’ll see a lot of the field, but Gonzalo Guedes is a star-in-the-making for Portugal. He’s represented the Portuguese at basically every level possible, and he’s only 21. Achraf Hakimi from Real Madrid is another one to watch. He’s only 19 years and could be a key piece for Morocco if the African side aims to take a spot away from Spain or Portugal in Group B.
DK: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. He’s already one of the best midfielders in Serie A but the 6’3″ center midfielder has superb skills and could show them on display for Serbia in Russia.
13) Whose will fall?
JPW: Coach — Roberto Martinez as Belgium fail to realize their potential, again. Player — James Rodriguez as Colombia don’t make it out of the group.
NM: I worry for Gareth Southgate, who could face significant grief if his back line cannot handle the speed of Senegal or Colombia in the first round. Following that logic, I remain unsold on John Stones and think he could take a hit in Russia. If Southgate deploys Jordan Henderson, I fear the same for him. The pressure will be heavy on England from the Russian crowds, too, and the Three Lions may need to follow the Liverpool attack blueprint to win.
KB: Didier Deschamps. Good luck getting another top job once a talented but disjointed France team trips over itself yet again.
DK: Paul Pogba? He’s struggled for Man United at times this season, and it’s put him out of his rhythm. He’s going to be blamed, at least in part, if France have an early exit.
14) How far does England, a.k.a. the Fighting Joe Prince-Wrights, go?
JPW: First up, that’s a solid nickname. Secondly, the quarterfinals would be a great tournament for England. I’m wary to say they could go even further but reaching the last eight is what England should be aiming for and they can easily do that given their group stage/last 16 route.
NM: See above. I worry about their first match of the knockout rounds, and getting past that means a Germany that England just might be able to upset. I wouldn’t bet on England making it out of the Round of 16, but I also wouldn’t bet against them advancing to a final.
KB: THREE LIIIIIIIIONS!!! I would love to put them all the way to the semifinals, because I think they have that talent, but the bracket sets up cruelly for them to meet Brazil in the quarters, and they won’t get past the powerhouses. It will still be a tournament to remember for England.
MR: Round of 16 seems a pretty fair bet. I think they’ll go runners’ up to Belgium in the group, before falling to Colombia in the knockout phase.
DK: As far as Joe can lead them. Haha but in all seriousness, I think it depends on how much gas is left in the tank of the backline, and if they can feel comfortable playing in a 3-4-3. Harry Kane will score goals, but can England keep other teams off the board? I think the quarterfinals is certainly possible, but they could also find a way to collapse in the group stage.
15) How big of a role will fan violence and racism play in the story lines of the tournament?
JPW: Hopefully not a big one, but I guess it all depends on how the host nation gets on.
NM: I’m worried about (hence I posed the question). The soccer world feels unstable right now, and Russia being set to disappoint at home could set the stage for the worst kind of fireworks. Then again, when a group’s character is challenged by the actions of few, that group usually rises up. I think Russia’s supporters will do that.
KB: I think there will be plenty of racist incidents, but it will be overlooked because every single tournament, the outside noise gets overshadowed by the play on the field, right or wrong. It happened in Brazil and it will happen in Russia.
MR: Hopefully not a lot, but that’s wishful thinking. Let’s just say there isn’t a good track record of fans being on their best behavior in Russia.
DK: Someone made a good point on a radio program recently that Russia’s security will certainly be beefed up for the tournament, but with Russia expected to be bounced in the group stage, it’s possible that Putin and the nation’s security apparatus loses interest in the knockout stage, which could lead to some issues down the road.
16) Will the tournament in Russia come off well for FIFA?
JPW: Yes. These tournaments always do better than expected. I’m worried about empty seats at some venues but overall I think it will be very good.
NM: It’ll be interesting to monitor, but ultimately I think the majority of people are going to be on their best behavior in the first post-Sepp Blatter World Cup.
KB: Does it ever come off poorly for FIFA? They make a killing, what else do they care about?
MR: They really better hope so, because the Qatar World Cup is already under enough scrutiny for a number of reasons.
DK: I guess, since the story will now be the play on the field (hopefully) and not any scandals off it.
17) Who has the best tournament: Messi, Ronaldo, or Neymar?
JPW: Neymar closely followed by Ronaldo, with Messi set to retire from international play as Argentina fall again.
NM: Neymar or Messi, but that’s not a knock against CR7; I have a sneaking suspicion Morocco surprises and keeps Portugal from the knockout rounds. Messi will get a bit more individual glory, but Neymar’s Brazil will advance further, so whichever of those qualifies as the best tournament in your mind.
KB: Neymar. Portugal isn’t good enough for Ronaldo to make it deep, and Argentina can never get it together in the Messi years. No reason for that to change this year. Neymar could very well win the whole thing.
DK: I think Neymar. Messi and Ronaldo could both see early exits thanks to creaky defenses, but Neymar has a real chance to lead his team to glory.
18) How far does Argentina need to go to save Messi wild grief? Better yet, what’s more important for him: individual success with Argentina stopping short of its goal, or making another final but statistically disappointing over the tournament?
JPW: They need to win it for him to not to get a bit of stick, which is crazy. Injuries haven’t been kind to Jorge Sampaoli’s team but defensively they have real concerns, as always. For Messi it’s all about trying to drag Argentina as far as he can.
NM: Seeing that people tend to forget he led them to the final in 2014, I guess he needs to win it all. That said, Argentina making a second final would be better for him than lighting up the scoresheet but losing 4-3 to a better team in the Round of 16 or quarters.
KB: They need to win it all. Bottom line, Messi needs a trophy on the shelf to quiet the noise. He’s failed too many times in finals, and it’s a massive, gaping hole in his otherwise glittering resume. He needs that trophy, and I would absolutely love for him to get it. Sadly, I don’t think he will.
MR: If you’re strictly asking me, Messi doesn’t need to prove himself to anybody. The man has accomplished nearly everything you possibly can at both club and international level. If you’re looking for something to drastically set him apart from Ronaldo though, it’s winning a World Cup. Four years ago has to still sting for him and his teammates, so I expect Messi to show up in a big way on a team that has a lot of questions heading into the tournament.
DK: It’s going to be heartbreaking either situation, knowing this is probably Messi’s last World Cup and he’ll leave without winning a title, despite coming oh so close.
19) Can you believe Bruce Arena left Landon Donovan behind in favor of Haji Wright?
JPW: Stop. It is beyond frustrating that the USA won’t be at the World Cup. And we’ve now gone full circle in this roundtable and I’m off to watch grainy video footage of the 2002 run to the World Cup quarterfinals and wonder what could’ve been. Damn. Paul Arriola could’ve been the new Clint Mathis.
NM: It was even worse that he made the players get Lee Greenwood tattoos.
KB: NICHOLAS, STOP IT
DK: Haha. I could see that happening somehow. The future of U.S. Soccer is bright!