F365’s best XI of the 2018 World Cup group stage

Daniel Storey

Goalkeeper: Hyun-woo Cho (South Korea)
This has been a difficult tournament for the world’s best goalkeepers. David de Gea remains unpopular in Spain after his dismal error against Portugal, while the defining moment of Manuel Neuer’s tournament was being left stranded in the opposition half. Beneath them, Alisson and Hugo Lloris have not really been tested.

Fernando Muslera of Uruguay was close to selection, but instead we’re going for Cho of South Korea. His performance against Germany was the standout display from any goalkeeper in the group stage and he also performed well during the first game against Sweden, beaten only by a penalty. That’ll do.


Right-back: Kieran Trippier (England)
Even before Gareth Southgate chose to accept second place in Group G as a means of engineering a supposedly easier route through the tournament, he has displayed plenty of courage at this World Cup. Kyle Walker is one of the best right-backs in the world but Southgate has converted him into a central defender to include Trippier. It seemed a risky move.

Southgate 1-0 Doubters. Walker might be stymied by playing in central defence, but Trippier has been a revelation. His set-piece taking has been immaculate, but so too have his overlapping runs beyond the right-sided central midfielder. Mauricio Pochettino must be pleased as punch.


Left-back: Youssouf Sabaly (Senegal)
Difficult one, this. The usual candidates have been quiet: Marcelo, Jordi Alba, Ricardo Rodriguez, Jonas Hector. So we’re going for Sabaly, the Bordeaux left-back who truly came of age in Russia.

The slightly lazy supposition was that Senegal were a copy of Egypt, a team built around the excellence of a Liverpool attacker. Clearly Aliou Cisse relies upon Sadio Mane’s excellent form, but not heavily. Sabaly is one of a number of players who also performed admirably. Just a shame about those yellow cards, eh.


Centre-back: Diego Godin (Uruguay)
The best central defender in the world over the last five years, whatever Barcelona and Real Madrid supporters may have you believe. Uruguay are yet to concede a goal in this tournament – Jose Gimenez has been excellent but Godin is the star. Atletico Madrid sure love developing a majestic central defender.

Godin’s greatest asset is his completeness. Get dirty? Oh sure, he can handle himself. Win headers? You bet he can. Positional play? Virtually impeccable. Loves a tackle? Don’t insult my intelligence. Threat at attacking set pieces? Of course. The only chink in his armour is his age. Uruguay and Atletico will find no better replacement.


Centre-back: Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Sweden’s progression through this tournament is a surprise even to journalists in their own country. The presumption was that knocking out Italy and Netherlands to reach Russia was the achievement, and finishing second behind Germany the distant hope. Finishing top of Group F was never in the script.

Granqvist has been key to this revelation, partly as ice-cool penalty taker but also as defensive colossus, ably assisted by Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof. It’s a long way from being left on the Wigan Athletic bench for a 2-0 away defeat at Sunderland in favour of Emmerson Boyce and 32-year-old Mario Melchiot.


Defensive midfield: N’Golo Kante (France)
What’s that, you haven’t really noticed Kante in this tournament? Well exactly. While Didier Deschamps and an entire population wrestle with how best to arrange a wonderful group of attacking players, Kante tells him not to worry about central midfield.

Yet to concede a goal from open play, France have enjoyed the safety net of Kante just as Chelsea do. In terms of patrolling, controlling midfielders in this tournament, only Hector Herrera of Mexico comes close.


Central midfield: Luka Modric (Croatia)
The player of the tournament so far. Modric turns 33 in September but is in the peak form of his career. He has won three consecutive Champions League titles and will consider himself as an outside shout for a World Cup triumph and Golden Ball to match.

Going into this tournament, there were question marks about Modric’s mere participation. The scandal that had brought down the most powerful person in Croatian football, Zdravko Mamic, had implicated him on potential charges of perjury. Not only could he be jailed, but the Croatia captain was mistrusted by his public.

Modric knew that his only route to popular redemption was to lead Croatia on. Nine points in the group stage is a magnificent start, and a quarter-final victory against Spain would probably finish the job.


Attacking midfield: Isco (Spain)
Surely one of the most underrated attacking players in the world, Julen Lopetegui might have left Spain’s World Cup camp early but he will be rubbing his hands at the thought of working with Isco next season. The feet are quick, the brain is sharp and the face is devilishly handsome, like Jamie Redknapp’s little brother.

If Spain have endured a slightly stop-start tournament so far – better than Portugal and drawing but then limping past Iran and drawing against Morocco – Isco is the honourable exception. No Spanish player has had more shots on target, no Spanish player has created more chances, no Spanish player has completed more dribbles and no Spanish player has been fouled more. If he continues to fire, Spain can still win this thing.


Attacking midfield: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
While the camera, most Brazil fans and at least three defenders are busy watching Neymar, hogging the limelight as any superstar should, in his shadows Coutinho is scheming. The brilliance of the best footballers lies not just in what they do, but how they allow others to thrive.

Coutinho has been superb in Russia, scoring a magnificent first goal against Switzerland and then following that up with the first goal against Costa Rica. With Gabriel Jesus busying central defenders and Neymar forcing a defensive midfield and full-back to double up on him, Coutinho has delighted in the half-spaces between the opposition defence and midfield. Continue like this, and Brazil have a very real chance of glory.


Striker: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Now I know that people will get annoyed about Harry Kane not being in this team, and I’m very sorry. But two of his goals were (brilliantly taken) penalties and another literally hit him. Add into the equation that England played Panama and Tunisia while Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against Spain (yes, with a penalty and goalkeeping mistake), and he edges it. Address your letters of complaint to ‘Mr. M. Stead’.

Ronaldo could be included for his last-minute free-kick alone, but his goals have been worth four points to Portugal. Not for the first time, his country would be bloody nowhere without him. Now to watch him against Godin, and purr.


Striker: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Fewer goals than Kane in the same group, but all of Lukaku’s were from open play. Before everyone writes in to tell me that penalties are goals too, it’s obviously slightly false given that Eden Hazard got to take Belgium’s.

Anyway, Lukaku has been masterful in Russia. He was starved of service during the first half against Panama but scored with a header and delightful dink when Belgium started playing, and then scored twice more against Tunisia before being substituted and promptly rested for the knockout stages. Get past Japan, and Lukaku’s big test comes against Brazil.

Daniel Storey


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