The World Cup, so far, has depicted the top nations across the world as unconvincing to say the least. Nations that would be expected to power through the group stages haven’t but have instead progressed in a more unconventional way.
Despite all the shock results that the World Cup has thrown at us in the past couple weeks, most of the top nations are still proving their worth.
But of all the teams to top their group, who have looked the most convincing, and who else have yet to set their feet firmly on Russian soil?
Croatia have perhaps been the most impressive of all the sides competing in the group stage competitions. They have scored seven goals in their opening three games and conceded just one. Their most notable performance in the competition, so far, was their 3-0 disablement of group favourites, Argentina.
Croatia have long been given the title of the team to shock the tournament and have often failed to live up to this expectation. Perhaps their Round of 16 match-up with Denmark will prove just how seriously this young and exciting side should be considered.
Group C winners France qualified in a much less admirable way. They scored just three goals and conceded one to top the group. They needed a late goal to start a winning campaign against the unlikely challenge Australia posed as well as a less than comprehensive 1-0 victory over a fiery Peruvian side.
A 0-0 draw to Denmark in what is being described as the worst game in the tournament thus far was enough to see them through. But they got the job done and have shown the world that the side is capable of dealing with the ‘nitty gritty’ side of football. Teams of their calibre have often been criticised for their incapability to be resilient and grind out results. France will undoubtedly need to keep this same mentality and more as they head into the final knockings of the competition.
Similarly, Spain have also shown a very different style of play to the ‘tiki-taka’, free flowing style of football we all know and love. They, as many predicted, finished top of Group B but did so in doubtful circumstances. They scored six goals and conceded five. They have, at times, been split open far too easily and have conceded more goals than any other side to have topped their respective groups. They also qualified with the fewest points of any of the group toppers with five points. They only pipped Portugal to top spot on goal difference.
But by no means should anyone underestimate this Spanish side. They have the ability, skill and players at their disposal to dismantle any team in the competition and are certainly a side that are yet to show their full potential in Russia.
After a remote start to the competition, Uruguay prevailed in a group that they were expected to win comfortably. They, like Croatia, finished the group stage with maximum points after wins against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the hosts, Russia. They have yet to exploit and utilise their outstanding attacking force to its full potential but have been solid defensively and are the only team in the entire World Cup to not concede a goal thus far. Their defence has arguably been the most impressive of all 32 nations, and with the combined firepower of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, they are a team that certainly pose a major threat.
Colombia won their group in unlikely circumstances and were perhaps the most unexpected team to prevail after a very substandard beginning to their tournament. Their victory in the last group stage match was enough to send them from third place straight to the top condemning their opponents, Senegal, to third. They did so without the major influence of their superstar, James Rodriguez, who was a doubt heading into the tournament. He has suffered with an injury throughout and it has shown. It is in fact the two central defenders that have looked much the more dominant. Davinson Sanchez was at the forefront of a resilient, Colombian back-line, and his partner Yerry Mina scored two in two to earn his side top spot.
Brazil continue to grow and are beginning to look more and more comfortable as the campaign progresses. After their 1-1 draw to Switzerland, many began to question if they had yet recovered from the humiliation they suffered at the hands of Germany in their last World Cup four years ago. But after back to back 2-0 victories, Brazil look to be establishing themselves as major contenders once again.
Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho has been their stand-out player of the tournament so far as he continues to justify his recent move to the Spanish giants. Neymar Jr. has a whole other level that he must be waiting to unleash in the knockout stages.
Sweden were, without the influence of the world-renowned Zlatan Ibrahimović, expected to challenge for the second qualification spot at best. But after Germany’s demise, the side ranked 23rd in the world were able to take full advantage and top Group F ahead of Mexico on goal difference.
They lost only to Germany who eventually finished at the bottom of the Group. Many questioned if they had any attacking prowess without Zlatan in their squad—they have gone on to score in every match of the tournament so far.
The final team to conquer their group was Belgium who were one of only three teams to take maximum points away from their three matches. They did so even after a complete re-shuffle in their final match against England.
Their quality, for years now, has been unquestionable with an array of individual excellence. But the criticism of Belgium has been their inability to play as a team and show their collective excellence for all their individual skill. The side, though, seem to have abolished the preferential cliché at the perfect moment.