World Cup 2018

2018 World Cup report cards: Groups A-D graded

 • by Matt Gault
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The World Cup is over. We should be looking ahead to a new Premier League season but, instead, we find ourselves casting our minds back to the month-long footballing feast that gripped the world.

France won the tournament, Croatia won the hearts and minds of the public and England won over some doubters.

There were shocks, too. Germany fell at the first hurdle while Spain fell to Russia.

Overall, it was a remarkable tournament and Football Whispers have looked back on how every country fared.

Group A

Russia

The hosts opened the competition as the lowest-ranked team. Frankly, nothing was expected of them but a routine 5-0 win in the opener over Saudi Arabia certainly lifted the doom and gloom that enveloped the Luzhniki Stadium prior to kick-off.

From there, Russia dared to dream. They beat Egypt 3-1 and progressed to the last-16 as group runners-up following a 3-0 defeat to Uruguay. While many took the latter result as a more telling indicator of Russia’s abilities, they gallantly held Spain to a 1-1 draw before winning the war of nerves in the penalty shootout.
They pushed Croatia all the way in the quarter-final, eventually losing in on penalties. However, given the grim prognostications leading up to the tournament (some called this the worst Russian team in history), the hosts greatly exceeded expectations and did much more than make up the numbers. Grade: A

Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov’s moustache and touchline histrionics saw him become a beloved national figure but he showed no shortage of tactical nous too.

Star player: Denis Cheryshev, who scored four goals including a memorable thunderbolt against Spain.

Standout stat: Russia are a tall team – and it showed. They won more aerial duels per 90 than any other nation with 56.

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Saudi Arabia

Speaking of making up the numbers, not much was expected of Saudi Arabia either. Unlike Russia, though, Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side failed to punch above their weight. Given a good Russian thumping in their first game, the Saudis then lost to Uruguay as they headed for an early exit.

Their campaign was salvaged somewhat with a 2-1 win over Egypt in the third group game, with Salem Al-Dawsari’s 95th-minute goal enough to get the Saudis smiling as they exited Russia. Grade: C

Manager: Having failed to reach Russia with Chile, Pizzi got his ticket following Edgardo Bauza’s sudden departure from the Saudi Arabia job. With a limited squad, Pizzi did get try to get the more technically gifted players to express themselves, a plan which backfired spectacularly against Russia.

Star player: Perhaps a little difficult to pick a standout but Al-Dawsari was one player who caught the eye with his pace and trickery.

Standout stat: Saudi Arabia were one of the most effective teams at ball recoveries with 61 per 90.

Egypt

Héctor Cúper unsurprisingly left his role as Egypt head coach after a desperately disappointing World Cup campaign.

Then again, much of The Pharaohs’ hopes hinged on Mohamed Salah, who was evidently well short of match fitness.

Salah’s World Cup was a non-starter and Egypt finished bottom of Group A with zero points and just two goals scored. Grade: D

Manager: Cúper’s preparations were interrupted by Salah’s injury in the Champions League final but the Liverpool forward’s absence from the starting line-up in the opener against Uruguay brutally exposed this side’s shortcomings.

Star player: Several of Egypt’s players underperformed but a half-fit Salah scored both of their goals so we’re giving it to him.

Standout stat: Egypt only managed to create one big chance during their three games.

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Uruguay

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Uruguay once again lived up to their reputation as one of the grittier but ruthlessly efficient South American sides. It took them a while to get going, needing a late José Giménez header to beat Egypt before edging Saudi Arabia 1-0.

La Celeste moved up a gear to wrap up top spot in the group by beating Russia 3-0. That set up a meeting with Portugal in the last-16, one which will be remembered for Édinson Cavani‘s stunning brace.

It came at a price, however, as Cavani was ruled out of the quarter-final against France through injury, being made to watch as his country fell to eventual champions France.

Overall, it was another strong display from Uruguay. They didn’t concede a goal in the group stage and got the better of Portugal to reach the last eight. Grade: B

Manager: Now 71, Óscar Tabárez remains one of the shrewdest coaches around. Having guided Uruguay to the World Cup knockout rounds for the third time in a row, he remained tight-lipped over his future after losing to France. If he does leave, the impact he has had on football in his country has been immeasurable.

Star player: Matías Vecino impressed, Cavani scored three goals but Diego Godín was the rock at the back holding it all together. An exceptional tournament from the ‘Professor of Defending.’

Standout stat: Uruguay’s post-shot xG conceded was second-lowest with 1.9, showing how solid they are as a defensive unit.

Group B

Spain's Diego Costa and Sergio Ramos after exiting the World Cup

Spain

Plunged into crisis when Julen Lopetegui was sacked for taking the Real Madrid job two days before their tournament began, La Roja did pretty well considering.

Fernando Hierro stepped in to steer the ship and steer it he did, to the knockout rounds (which is more than can be said about Spain in 2014). Their tournament started with that enthralling 3-3 draw against Portugal before edging out Iran 1-0.

Spain won Group B but there were plenty of questions after their failure to beat Morocco. Less than a week later, they were heading home after losing to Russia on penalties. Spain dominated the game but lacked a cutting edge in the final third, leaving them with a daunting reboot job over the next few years under Luis Enrique. Grade: B-

Manager: Hierro didn’t stray much from Lopetegui’s system and although the former Real Madrid captain did a decent firefighting job to get past the group stage, it was no surprise to hear that he had stepped down following their elimination.

Star player: Diego Costa scored three goals but Isco was the shining light throughout, the playmaker looking the most likely to create chances and pick up the tempo.

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Standout stat: Although ultimately in vain, Spain retained their status as the passing kings, averaging 771 accurate passes per 90 as well as 1,025 touches. Their average duration of possession was 20.37 seconds while they passed the ball an average of 120 metres, both tournament highs.

Portugal

The reigning European champions had a largely forgettable time in Russia. Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spain was special but there was precious little beyond that. Fernando Santos’ side weren’t wholly convincing in the 1-0 win over Morocco and they were, perhaps, fortunate to draw 1-1 with Iran.

A 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the last-16 spelled heartache for Ronaldo, who may well have been appearing in his last World Cup. Grade: CCristiano Ronaldo was almost certainly playing in his final World Cup

Manager: Santos’ tactics didn’t get many pulses racing during Euro 2016 and it was more of the same in Russia with Portugal looking strangely bereft of ideas against Iran and Morocco.

Star player: Ronaldo scored four times, one a stunning free-kick against Spain. It’s difficult to look beyond Juventus‘ star signing.

Standout stat: Portugal averaged 21 crosses per game, the fourth most in the competition.

Iran

Team Melli were far from pretty but the wily Carlos Queiroz made them incredibly difficult to play against. Iran got off to a flyer when a last-gasp Moroccan own goal gave them an opening victory. Spain needed everything to beat them 1-0 next time out before they bravely held Portugal to a 1-1 draw.

That point wasn’t enough to see Iran through but they left in the knowledge they had given everything against two European giants.

Following their exit, Iran were rocked by the retirements of Reza Ghoochannejhad and Sardar Azmoun, with the latter still only 23. Queiroz also stepped down from his post. Grade: B-

Manager: Queiroz did well with a limited squad, instilling real heart and determination in his players. They were organised and physical and kept Spain and Portugal honest. Having been in charge for seven years, it will be interesting to see where the former Manchester United coach goes from here.

Star player: The goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand.

Standout stat: Iran averaged 14 headed clearances per game – the fifth-highest in the tournament.

Morocco

The Lions of Atlas managed only one point and two goals from their trio of games so, despite Hervé Renard being possibly the coolest man to ever coach at a World Cup, they were one of the poorest teams in Russia.

Losing to a last-gasp goal against Iran was a crushing blow and, although they fought well against an unimpressive Portugal side, another 1-0 defeat was enough to send them home. Grade: C-

Manager: Renard has spent much of his coaching career in Africa and, although he has had a few unsuccessful spells in France, it would be good to see the 49-year-old grace the European game once again.

Star player: At just 19, Achraf Hakimi, the Real Madrid left-back, has a big future ahead of him.

Standout stat: Morocco won possession in the middle third more than any other team per game (27).

Group C

France

After all was said and done, France were crowned champions following a dramatic 4-2 victory over Croatia in the final.

Many had suspected that Didier Deschamps pragmatism would shackle a young French side brimming with attacking talent but the coach certainly answered his doubters, becoming only the third man – behind Franz Beckenbauer and Mário Zagallo – to win the World Cup as both player and coach.

Overall, France were worthy winners. Buoyed by Kylian Mbappé’s breathtaking pace, they played some beautiful football and, having beaten Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium en route to the final, nobody can begrudge Les Bleus their second World Cup crown.

The question now becomes; how much can they dominate with such a talented squad? Can they emulate the France side of 1998 and 2000 by making it a world and European double? They certainly have the squad to achieve it. Grade: A+

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Manager: Deschamps has his critics but he’s a World Cup winner now.

Star player: Mbappé was scintillating at times and was thoroughly deserving of his Best Young Player award. Raphaël Varane was outstanding in defence while Paul Pogba regrouped after a difficult season at Manchester United to star for his country.

Standout stat: France’s goals to post-shot xG ratio was 1.49, which was second-best.

Denmark midfielders Christian Eriksen could not steer his side to World Cup glory

Denmark

The only team France didn’t manage to beat, Denmark did well to reach the last-16 on the basis that they are a largely unspectacular side with the exception of Christian Eriksen.

Ultimately, although Denmark would have been punching above their weight in the quarter-final, they came agonisingly close to toppling Croatia in the round of 16, losing to the eventual runners-up on penalties having taken the lead through Mathias Jørgensen in the opening minute.

Denmark’s best finish at the World Cup was reaching the last eight in 1998 and although they couldn’t replicate that, they left with their heads held high. Grade: B

Manager: Åge Hareide proved himself as a shrewd defensive organiser. His side didn’t play thrilling football but his tactics were enough to get the job done in the group stage.

Star player: He may not have been at his best but Eriksen still looked head and shoulders above his fellow countrymen. The Tottenham Hotspur playmaker scored a lovely goal against Australia and won possession (22) more times than any of his teammates.

Standout stat: Denmark were dominant in the air, winning 54.8 aerial duels per 90 – the second-highest average at the tournament.

Australia

It would have been a significant achievement for Bert van Marwijk to guide Australia through the group stage just six months after taking charge.

Ultimately, Socceroos fans lived in hope rather than expectation and, for all their endeavour and industry, finishing bottom was an accurate reflection of this team’s quality, having failed to score from open play.

Undone by a late goal against France, they would have been hoping for three points against Denmark but had to settle for a draw before all hope was extinguished by Peru in the final game, falling to a 2-0 defeat.

It was the third successive World Cup in which Australia failed to progress from the group stage. Grade: C

Manager: The Dutchman tried to place an emphasis on Aaron Mooy‘s abilities in midfield but perhaps regrets not opting for a more bold approach against Peru.

Star player: A tie between Mooy, who continued his fine form after a solid campaign with Huddersfield Town, and Mathew Leckie, who ran himself into the ground.

Standout stat: Australia’s xG conceded of 2.16 was the second highest at the tournament.

Peru

An inability to take their chances cost Peru dearly as a couple of 1-0 defeats to Denmark and France sent them home with a game to spare.

Although they salvaged their pride with a 2-0 win over Australia, Ricardo Gareca can be excused for feeling aggrieved that his side failed to finish one of a succession of goalscoring chances against France, against whom they had an impressive 56 per cent of the ball. Grade: C-

Manager: Gareca’s achievement in guiding Peru to their first World Cup in 36 years did not go unnoticed. He is currently the favourite to replace Jorge Sampaoli in the Argentina hot-seat.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero made the most significant contribution, scoring one and assisting the other of Peru’s two goals.

Standout stat: Peru won possession in the defensive third 31.33 times per 90 – the second-highest average of the 32 competing teams.

Group D

Croatia midfielder Luka Modrić celebrates scoring at the World Cup

Croatia

Although they ultimately came up short, finishing second in a World Cup is this young nation’s greatest achievement.

They topped a difficult group having taken maximum points, three of which came courtesy of comprehensively outplaying Argentina in a 3-0 win.

Croatia remained solid and effective throughout, however, beating Iceland to ensure top spot before negotiating two penalty shootouts, against Denmark and Russia, and a tense extra-time showdown with England to reach the final.

They give France a right crack, too. Croatia actually looked the stronger side prior to Mario Mandžukić’s own goal giving France the lead. They rightly received a heroes’ welcome upon returning to Zagreb.

After finishing third at the ’98 World Cup in France, Croatia failed to qualify for the European Championships two years later. With this group of players, it would be a disaster if they slipped up like that again. Grade: A+

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Manager: Zlatko Dalić was appointed Croatia’s head coach last October and had to win his first game to ensure a playoff spot. Having done so, he steered them to victory over Greece and got them believing they could go all the way in Russia. His stock has risen immeasurably over the last five weeks.

Star player: Luka Modrić, the Golden Ball winner. Plain and simple. A joy to watch.

Standout stat: Croatia ranked first in ball recoveries per 90, head clearances and third in possession won in the middle third.

Argentina

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Mostly a disaster, Argentina somehow scraped through the group stage before being dumped out by France, bringing the curtain down on a desperately disappointing campaign; one plagued by rumours of player coups and utter managerial ineptitude.

Argentina looked inept against Croatia, falling to a 3-0 defeat. Having been held to a 1-1 draw against Iceland in the opener, a late Marcos Rojo strike squeezed them into the last-16.

There, they met France and although the scoreline suggests a close match, the ease with which Mbappé tore through the Argentine defence spoke volumes for their shortcomings.

After losing to France, Sampaoli unsurprisingly parted ways with the Argentine FA.

Manager: Regarded as one of football’s foremost tacticians after impressive spells with Chile and Sevilla, Sampaoli’s reputation took a hit in Russia. His tactics, team selections and in-game management were all brought into sharp focus as Argentina barely held it together. He left Russia a broken man.

Star player: It didn’t go his way but Lionel Messi still looked like Argentina’s only hope. His goal against Nigeria was a beautiful thing but the 31-year-old Barcelona forward will probably be questioning his decision to reverse his retirement.

Standout stat: Argentina won possession in the attacking third 6.75 times per 90 – a tournament high.

Nigeria

Nigeria weren’t quite as dazzling as their kit but their excellent fans were given something to cheer about when Ahmed Musa’s double lifted them to a 2-0 win over Iceland.

That was, however, sandwiched in between a couple of defeats to Croatia and Argentina, although they pushed the latter all the way. Some would say Argentina’s flirtations with the self-destruction meant Nigeria were more worthy of a place in the last-16, but football doesn’t always go the way it should. Grade: B-

Nigeria failed to get out of World Cup Group D

Manager: Gernot Rohr harnessed the potential of a young, raw squad and got them playing some enterprising football. The veteran German tactician will be hoping to continue apace ahead of next year’s Africa Cup of Nations.

Star player: Musa scored twice but it’s difficult to look past the work of Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi in central midfield.

Standout stat: Etebo completed more passes (125), took more shots (7) and won possession (23) than any other player. Influential.

Iceland

Iceland were the heartwarming story at Euro 2016 but their thunderclap fell on deaf ears in Russia as they exited with just a single point from their three games.

Losing to Nigeria was bitterly disappointing but made worse by Gylfi Sigurðsson’s missed penalty and, although the Everton playmaker atoned by converting from 12 yards against Croatia, Iceland were undone by Ivan Perišić’s 90th-minute winner.

Having finished ahead of Croatia in qualifying, finishing bottom felt like an underachievement for this hard-working Iceland side. Grade: C-

Manager: Heimir Hallgrímsson instilled cohesion and organisation in his side but he was found wanting when it came to executing Plan B. He quit as manager on Tuesday.

Star player: Sigurðsson, their stand-out on paper and in actuality.

Standout stat: Iceland had the highest average number of air duels per possession with 0.33.

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