After a week of interesting and unexpected results, reality returned here at the World Cup with a whole run of 1-0 wins for the big countries with goals scored by the big-name players. Portugal’s 1-0 win against Morocco with a strike from Ronaldo was accompanied by Spain’s 1-0 against Iran via Diego Costa. France had their single-goal victory v Peru through Kylian Mbappe and Uruguay edged their game against Saudi Arabia with who else but Luis Suarez netting. The game I was at on Friday was almost the same, after 92 minutes it was Brazil 1 Costa Rica 0 through Philippe Coutinho.
Neymar did however add a second in the 97th minute, but it seemed to suggest a return to the natural order, at least for a while. Some of the joy of the unexpected was lost. Neymar himself is an incredible story or should that be raft of stories that change from minute to minute, not all of them joyful. The narrative was about his injuries, his form, his hair, his simulation, his fabulous skills, his sulky demeanour, his petulant booking, his late goal and finally his tears in the centre circle. All that happened in just 90 minutes! What must life be like living in that sort of worldwide media whirlwind? One minute you love him for his entertainment value and the next you’re screaming at him to stop falling over at every imagined breath of wind.
One person who suffered in the Neymar fallout was our Willian. He was subbed at half-time after getting the ball just two or three times in that first 45 minutes in St Petersburg. He was playing on the right wing, but Brazil are totally fixated on playing the ball to wherever Neymar is, which of course was on the left wing this time. As a wide player throughout my career I was acutely aware of this problem. You can be on the best form of your life but if you do not get the ball, if it continually goes down the other wing or even directly to the striker all the time then there is absolutely nothing you can do if you have been told to hold your position.
Willian was blamed for being peripheral but I felt for him and the same was true for Coutinho to some extent until after the 90th minute. Both are brilliant players but both were starved of decent possession in the final third. The Selecao are probably the most talented attacking side in the competition, though Belgium and Spain might argue about that, but they are not utilising all of their resources as well as they could do. If they manage to relieve some of their reliance on Neymar, I suspect not only will they improve but so will Neymar, without all that pressure on his shoulders.
I have the fortunate task of going to see their next game back in Moscow against Serbia and it should be a cracker with so much riding on it. I just hope Willian gets a fair crack at it this time and a few passes in reasonable areas.
In the meantime I am still quite gutted for Willy Caballero. He paid heavily for one poor pass against Croatia, but maybe the Argentinians should look a bit further than their own 18-yard box for their real problems. How they have contrived to be so insipid thus far with the talent they have available is hard to fathom. While Willy will take some of the heat, it is also worth remembering he will almost certainly have been asked to pass the ball out short at every possible opportunity because of the lack of height and presence up front. A long lump by an Argentinian goalkeeper is simply giving the ball back to the opposition so he has been caught between a rock and a hard place. On this occasion that hurt him and his team.
This is all secondary stuff to the big interest in England, which is of course their national side. Gary Cahill will surely figure soon but it is Ruben Loftus-Cheek who is getting more of the headlines as Dele Alli battles injury and Ruben did so well in his short cameo during the first game against Tunisia. He is at that stage where the press loves him and are building him up, but we all know how fickle that is, especially when it is for England during a World Cup. If he could get a chance against Panama I think he could do well, but the Belgium game will be much tougher, especially with the talent in that midfield.
That is too far forward to be looking just now, especially for me as the games continue to arrive thick and fast. I am writing this on a flight from St Petersburg to Moscow before (hopefully) catching another on to Samara to watch Russia play their final group match. The flight has many familiar faces on it from football and TV, none more so than former Blues boss Glenn Hoddle. The chat is often about the games we have been to, the ones we will be travelling to next, who is playing well and who isn’t. In amongst all the football chat however, every single person from the British media has also said how much they are loving the country and how surprising it has been. Whether it is regarding the openness of the people, their friendliness, the good organisation (present flight apart which is delayed for two hours) or the feeling of security in general, it is not what anyone expected and as such every new city is arrived at with anticipation and not trepidation.
So it is Samara tonight, a place I was only vaguely aware of before my schedule dropped into my inbox. I knew it was where Tolstoy grew up but that was about the size of it. This is of course down to my ignorance and not the fault of the city or the country. This stay will produce new stories and doubtless some memories but I suspect the night here in a bar watching England with my three-lions-sporting BBC colleagues may be the highlight. I hope the Chelsea lads do well and I hope it is a good game and a decent performance which would really build some belief.
With the Switzerland v Serbia thriller still at the forefront of my mind along with the late, late shows from Brazil and Germany (I said last week Toni Rudiger must play!), I just want to see England and all the others throw the shackles off that had previously been discarded in the first few matches of this tournament. Considering the domination of attacking teams worldwide right now, I suspect this is a World Cup that will be won by a bold team, not one playing the percentages and dull attritional football. At this moment that style looks so last decade.