Ian Hawkey looks at some of the stories to come up from the past week's action, as well as why there is cause for optimism for Italy and Netherlands despite their absence from the World Cup
Life with no Messi tough for Argentina, Russia under pressure, and more VAR concerns: International friendlies talking points
We are now less than three months away from the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. The last week's international friendlies have given a clearer idea of how teams are shaping up for the tournament, and also those who are not, and here are some of the talking points to come from the action.
Tough going without Messi
Lionel Messi took up the wisest position for Argentina’s match against Spain in Madrid. He was in the stands, rested, at the Metropolitano area as his country suffered a painful thrashing. Messi left his seat before the end, just after Spain had scored their sixth goal of the 6-1 rout.
Yes, Argentina will be better with Messi on the pitch. Yes, he will be under huge pressure to be as much the match-winner for his country as he is for his club, Barcelona. “Catastrophe,” said one headline in Buenos Aires, after a Spain inspired by the brilliant Isco, who demoralised Italy in the qualifiers, maintained his reputation as a main man for Spain even while he struggles to make himself indispensable for his club, Real Madrid.
Hosts with hassles
Eight years ago, South Africa made an undistinguished piece of history when they became the first hosts of a World Cup to fail to progress beyond the group stage. So at least Russia will have a precedent if they flop too.
Russia take on Saudi Arabia on their opening game in 10 weeks’ time and the evidence of their preparation friendlies is that they are far from ready, and a very long way from the ambitious target set by their Federation, of reaching a semi-final.
Russia conceded six goals in their two March matches, three each against Brazil and France to complete an alarming record over the past two years.
They have since 2016 played 13 times against other countries who will be at the tournament this summer. They won just once in those games, against South Korea.
None of the countries in which the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system has been extensively trialled, ahead of its use at Russia 2018, has exactly welcomed it with open arms.
There was another outbreak of video-assisted controversy on Tuesday night at Wembley Stadium, home of an English football which is particularly sceptical about VAR’s merits after gripes over excessive referrals, and long delays over decision-making by officials in the FA Cup matches it has operated at.
Italy gained a late penalty to draw their friendly with England, a penalty awarded when referee Deniz Aytekin asked for a second opinion on a possible foul by debutant James Tarkowski.
First, the television screen near the pitch used for the second look at the incident needed readjusting. Then, after the spot-kick had been awarded and converted, several England players protested and seemed to accuse Federico Chiesa, who was deemed to have been fouled, of diving.
VAR is designed to eliminate such doubts, and as England manager Gareth Southgate said, it is only supposed to be called on for clarifying ‘clear and obvious errors’ by on-the-pitch referees.
Southgate thought this case had not been one. Expect VAR to set off disputes as well as solve problems throughout June and July.
The same Chiesa had only made his senior Italian debut a few days earlier. His Italy may not be going to Russia, but, at 20, he has opportunities ahead and can always ask his father Enrico Chiesa what it is like to play at a World Cup.
Chiesa senior was a quarter-finalist at the 1998 tournament where one Patrick Kluivert reached a semi-final with the Netherlands. Justin Kluivert, Patrick’s son, also made his international debut this week, to give long-term hope for the Dutch, who also failed to qualify this time around.
Germany, defeated 1-0 in Berlin by Brazil on Tuesday, will be happy to welcome Manuel Neuer back from his lengthy lay-off with a broken bone in his foot, while nervously hoping the injury – not the first such break for the goalkeeper – is fully healed by the start of the World Cup.
Besides Neuer’s excellent distribution with his feet, he has a good habit of keeping clean sheets. And Germany need a few more. In their 15 matches over the past year, they have conceded goals in 11.
Two nations will be making their first appearance at football’s greatest show this summer. Both hope pronounced symptoms of brittleness can be erased by the time they make their big bows.
Panama suffered a chastening 6-0 loss to Switzerland just a few days after their rugged approach to a 1-0 defeat against Denmark – striker Blas Perez was sent off – raised some eyebrows.
Meanwhile Iceland seem to have lost some of the gumption they took to qualifying. They suffered two losses – 3-0 to Mexico and 3-1 to Peru – on their brief tour to the United States.