Russia was always going to be ruled by three of the dazzling players in the world amidst the frenzy and vibrancy amongst the fans in the ongoing FIFA World Cup 2018. From base camps and small towns to the hustle of the cities on match days, the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar continued to dominate the headlines.
With the focus mainly having circled around Messi and Ronaldo – Neymar, one of the world’s top players, is definitely in the conversation alongside the two legends. Ronaldo and Messi have been knocked out with their respective sides in the round of 16, but Neymar hangs on with his side taking on Mexico.
Let’s look at how the three players performed and what’s the impact they have had in the 21st edition of the World Cup.
The story so far
Messi and Argentina
Argentina came into the World Cup 2018 after having scraped past the Qualifiers on the final day as Lionel Messi downed Ecuador. Messi didn’t look at his best and neither did Argentina. Although the side did manage to reach the round of 16. Messi’s brilliance came at the moment where he scored his only goal versus Nigeria.
Argentina suffered a massive blow after Croatia decimated them 3-0 last week. Prior to that, they drew 1-1 against Iceland. Messi was hardly involved in that game. The Barcelona star touched the ball only 49 times in 90 minutes. Croatia stood tall in defence and for Argentina which leads their attack through Messi, it made them look predictable.
They beat Nigeria in the final game in a dramatic fashion with Messi scoring one of the best goals initially. Nigeria equalised before Marcos Rojo smashed home the winner. But against France in the round of 16, they were ousted 4-3 in an evening bossed by Kylian Mbappe, despite the Argentine providing two assists.
Ronaldo and Portugal
Portugal qualified for the knockouts after finishing second in Group B. They did not show great combination to score enough goals, but one should give Ronaldo the credit for standing up to the cause in the first few games. Ronaldo made a strong start to the World Cup scoring four goals in two games. But his form went down in the next two.
Ronaldo had a very different role for Portugal, then what he had earlier. He mainly stayed up front and one no longer saw him running all over the pitch. Against Spain, he scored one penalty, one free kick, one and one with a shot that David De Gea should have saved. Ronaldo made Spain pay for the mistakes and in the end, it was a well-taken point. Against Morocco, a goal from a corner was enough to get a win.
He missed a penalty against Iran that could have won Portugal the game, before not being able to get past the Uruguay defence.
Neymar and Brazil
Brazil had a slow start to this tournament after Switzerland showed courage to come with a plan. They escaped with a draw and then beat Costa Rica at the death in the injury time. They went on to beat Serbia 2-0 next to qualify for the round of 16 and now they are set to face Mexico.
Neymar arrived with the tag of being the focal point, but instead, it has been Phillipe Coutinho that has gained the limelight.
Brazil needed to pass the ball around a little faster and play with a lot more width. There were too slow and predictable against the Swiss but were better against Costa Rica. The final ball evaded them. Against Serbia they bettered themselves. Neymar showed he needed a game or two to find to find his groove.
Against Costa Rica, he missed a glorious open chance and would have been the talk of the town, had Brazil failed to win. But the simple tap-in, in the end, gave him a lot of confidence. His show against Serbia was decent if not notable.
Did they deliver as per expectations?
Messi had a big opportunity to help his side beat Iceland, but a second-half penalty miss saw the match end at 1-1. The miss got the better of Messi, who had a subdued demeanour ahead of the kick-off against Croatia. Earlier, Jorge Sampaoli’s 3-4-3 formation against Croatia did not work and Messi was never allowed to attack. He did not have a single shot on target.
But his moment came against Nigeria where the team finally found the perfect pass to find Messi, whose control and presence of mind helped him to net his first goal. Against France, he provided two assists, but also missed a glorious chance with a weaker right foot. Perhaps things came too late.
View: Messi looked broken by the weight of a whole nation’s expectation. Messi dreamed of matching those demands but was once again unable to conjure his masterful best when it counted most.
Ronaldo’s mentality and celebrations after his goals show that he enjoyed the start. Ronaldo’s individual brilliance upfront gave Portugal the hope, but it all changed in the game against Iran, where he could have won the game.
In the round of 16, Uruguay blunted his foray of shots and Ronaldo did not have a night he will remember for long. His wait for a goal in the knockout stages continue in the World Cup.
Earlier, getting an unlikely draw against Spain and scoring a hat-trick highlighted Ronaldo’s strength in knowing what to do. He dazzled all night despite the team not playing high tempo football. But neither the side nor Ronaldo went on to reach those heights.
View: Ronaldo was left a sorry figure with his team not providing him with the chances as he would have expected.
The tears post the game against Costa Rica could easily be interpreted as being prompted by relief. Reasons surrounding this is the win, VAR (Video Assistant Referee) that ruled out his penalty. Though his frustration threatened to boil over late in the game, overall Neymar was more tactically disciplined than versus Switzerland. Against Serbia, he once again couldn’t rise to the heights.
His only decent display came against the Swiss. The introduction of Douglas Costa helped Neymar and Coutinho finding those pockets of space centrally for the duo to exploit. Overall the player hasn’t been on top gear, and he is always looking to work the system and gain an advantage for himself by unscrupulous means. His constant playing for fouls is a worrying trend.
View: He has often slowed the game down when Brazil build the attack. Not quite at his best yet.
Everyone knows that the burden, the focus, the debate – was on Messi. Argentina is heartbroken after being ousted in a dramatic fashion. The team did not stand up to the task. The South American giants were always going to come across like this if one saw how the Qualifiers went about. So a round of 16 finish was deserving.
On the other hand, Messi’s great rival Ronaldo who looked like soaring to ever more stratospheric heights, too saw his campaign come to an end. Ronaldo created the buzz all around post the Spain game, but failed to stand up from there on.. Some of the comparisons with Messi throughout was unfair.
Neymar saved himself post the goal against Costa Rica. Unlike 2014, he hasn’t got off to a great start, but the depth of the team means he will get to have his moments. The game against Mexico is crucial.
There will forever be a regret and a sadness that a player as talented as Messi looks likely to have one thing missing: a World Cup he defined, which is exactly what Diego Maradona did in 1986. By the time the next World Cup comes up, Messi will be 35. So probably this was his last.
Like Messi, Ronaldo too missed out on the coveted trophy. he could go on till 2020 until the Euro Championships, before calling it a day.
Brazil, on the other hand, is in a strong position. Tite has a strong squad at his disposal, and despite the slow start, he knows he has the individual talents in the side to spark that moment of magic that will come handy in pivotal situations. Neymar will be wary about his performance and knows he just needs to stick on to get his side further in Russia.