With the 2018 World Cup over, we rank all 32 teams from the tournament in Russia
You almost feel a little cheated by Les Bleus because even when Hugo Lloris hoisted the World Cup into the Moscow deluge, you were still left with a sense of unfulfillment.
Given their thrilling talent, the fact Didier Deschamps played one way, by sitting back and countering through the piercing pace of Kylian Mbappe, it was almost a disservice to their rich skill.
But they found a way to win at every step and that is the hallmark of an ultimate tournament team. Stylish football is left for the domestic leagues of a weekly schedule but in the international arena, gold is the only currency and the only stars which matter is the one above the badge.
No, you’re not reading this wrong, Belgium are indeed second despite exiting in the semi-finals. The justification is twofold, firstly because of their arduous route and secondly because of their progressive style and entertainment value.
The devil is in the details. The only difference between them and France was a dead ball situation and with a bit more luck in front of goal, they would have been through.
Reputations were enhanced – Martinez was acclaimed as the innovative coach he is, Eden Hazard rose to global superstar status while Kevin De Bruyne confirmed his standing as the world’s best attacking midfielder and Romelu Lukaku as a complete and deadly No9.
They were a level above England and more than a match for the champions. It’s silver from us, but in reality just a bronze for the golden generation after clinching third.
Harsh perhaps to have Croatia at third considering their remarkable run to the final but Belgium just edged it. Zlatko Dalic guided his men through a difficult group through controlled aggression. Their big stars turned up big time, too, the stock of both Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic rose exponentially.
However, take away the mighty effort of coming through three extra-time marathons in the knockouts and their route was far easier than Belgium’s. They can be immensely proud of their effort, though, and for the first-half against France they actually won the midfield battle before running out of steam.
Plenty of tears but once they are wiped, Croatia can wear a face of pure pride.
“An ugly blend of a tepid attack, fragile defence, inconsistent goalkeeping and a dull style”.
This author knows nothing. Indeed, that was the verdict predicted for the hosts pre-tournament and in my defence, no one quite expected what was to transpire. Surviving the ignominy of becoming just the second hosts to exit in the group stage was the minimum aim.
Yet through astute tactical tweaks and a star turn from Denis Cheryshev, they secured six points in the group stage, progressed to shock Spain in the last 16 before falling on penalties to Croatia. For the flip of the script alone, they warrant their place inside the top five.
Alas it did not come home but in uniting a side bursting with promise, Gareth Southgate brought a nation together. Fans back in England sang in hope rather than expectation because in hindsight, the Three Lions overachieved at this World Cup.
It is futile to mount the argument they failed to get past top-level opponents as reason for pessimism because it is the likes of Sweden and Tunisia, England have traditionally struggled to put away in recent years.
The penalty shoot-out success over Colombia felt like the closing of one chapter and the opening of another. There are plenty more words to be scribed about these young and hungry Lions.
Like a fire through a bush, pre-tournament favourites were being burnt by upsets and although Brazil made it through to the quarters, a Neymar-led side was extinguished by Belgium.
Neymar’s stock plummeted in Russia. The leading man he was, but fit for a movie screen rather than the pitch such was his propensity to dive to the deck. Philippe Coutinho had a far more positive impact and if he had the arrogance of Neymar, perhaps Brazil would have gone deeper.
Still, they were one of the best balanced sides, were a touch unlucky against Belgium and with Tite at the helm are sure to be challengers in 2022.
Were it not for the devastating injury to Edinson Cavani in the last-16 clash with Portugal, the South Americans could have been looking at the final.
The iron heart of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez led a backline which didn’t concede once in the group stages and they did a job on Portugal through Cavani’s deadly double. They lost their zip and energy when he failed to return against France and a Fernando Muslera howler hardly helped their cause.
However, a golden era is has ended and one wonders whether Uruguay will stand a better chance than this in years to come.
Sweden were without a superstar but they gained a team in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Indeed, who needs a lion when you’ve got a warrior as the rugged and tough Andreas Granqvist who was a star at centre-half. Firepower from the forward ranks was always going to be a big concern, Marcus Berg was particularly gun shy, but their blend of strength and power took them to the quarters before falling to England.
The Swedes embodied the trend of smaller nations arriving well-disciplined and in great physical condition.
El Tri pulled up trees when they eviscerated Germany with their lightning tempo and technical talents.
Then they struggled to get through South Korea and were ripped apart by Sweden. Had they have continued their aggressive style into the last-16, perhaps they could have finally rid themselves of their knockout curse but Brazil sliced through with ease and cut them out of the tournament.
Oh the pain of Spain. Tipped by many, including this humbled author, to add a second star, the acrimonious defection of manager Julen Lopetegui to Real Madrid on the eve of the tournament did indeed throw them off the rails.
They just about kept it together for the group stages but then La Furia Roja created fury with their pointless possession as they struggled to find an inroad through a resolute Russia in the last-16 before exiting on penalties. Had Lopetegui remained in charge, things may have been different but as it is, this was a tournament to forget.
Lucky colours are embellished in Japanese culture and they came to hallmark their tournament. The red card for Colombia in their opener aided them greatly, the yellow card rule saw them progress from Group H but then they were undone, albeit in heroic circumstances, by the Red Devils.
Their inventive 4-2-3-1, which morphed into a 3-3-1-3 in attack, lent well to their fast and technical players with Takashi Inui a real gem of a forward. A lot of people’s second team and justifiably so.
Only once did Colombia really produce their effervescent best and it was one of the tournament’s most outstanding performances as they ripped apart Poland.
But without James Rodriguez, a creative black hole emerged and Los Cafeteros did well to make the last-16. Without their key man, they struggled for ideas against England and save for Yerry Mina’s intervention deservedly went out. It could have been a different story if James was fit.
Initially it seemed Fernando Santos could fester another grim but effective tournament team. Cristiano Ronaldo was in fine fettle and appeared a man possessed in pursuit of another trophy, but outside of the captain, they were pretty poor. Goncalo Guedes promised much failed to deliver as he struggled as Ronaldo’s sidekick.
They were fast and furious against Spain but then barely held on against both Morocco and Iran before running into a clinical Cavani in the last 16 to bow out.
An attack stuck in neutral was the assessment of Switzerland before the World Cup but Vladimir Petkovic released the breaks and a slick outfit steered from nowhere and into the last-16.
They impressively swept aside Serbia and held a brilliant Brazil but did lose momentum to draw with Costa Rica. Yet in the end it was a shock they went out to Sweden but their displays beforehand were pleasantly surprising.
The fact you will struggle to commit a single memory of Denmark’s campaign is indicative of their tournament.
They were solid, as you’d expect, but far from spectacular with Christian Eriksen a central figure not helped by his support cast.
The win over Peru was a real snatch and grab while they drew with a poor Australia team and an already-qualified France. Kasper Schmeichel was excellent against Croatia and it’s that game alone which places them at 15.
Jorge Sampaoli lost the plot, lost control and then inevitably lost his job as La Albiceleste stumbled into the last-16 and were then wiped out by France. It is beyond belief Sampaoli was not able to mesh them into challengers with the tools of talent at his disposal but they were an utter mess.
Shapeless in midfield, his stubbornness to play from the back was suicidal while the cowardice of some players to cede all pressure to Lionel Messi was appalling.